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Talk Yourself To Health

In 1976, two researchers by the names of Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin conducted an experiment to see what would happen if they changed levels of control among residents in a nursing home. Residents in one group were allowed to choose a houseplant, and were informed of several choices such as when to water their plant and how much to water their plant. They were asked when they would prefer to receive visitors, whether or not to watch the weekly movie, what to have for breakfast, and so on. Individuals in another group were told that a nurse would choose and care for a houseplant for each of them, and then instructed on what they could have for breakfast, when they could have visitors, and when to watch the weekly movie. After eighteen months, the researchers found that people in the first group, those who had exercised choice and control, scored higher on tests measuring activity and happiness compared to individuals in the second group. They also found that fewer people in the first group had died, compared to the second group. This is not the only study to suggest that the degree of personal responsibility we take for our actions can determine our health and degree of happiness.

The issue here is not whether the residents had choice and control or not, but rather whether they perceived to have choice and control. The first group had been manipulated to believe they held personal responsibility, and the second group had been manipulated to believe they did not. Funnily enough, we don’t need other people to manipulate us into believing we have no choice or control, and thus no personal responsibility – we often do it to ourselves.

Have you ever grown frustrated at the bathroom scale, only to throw up your hands and devour the remaining half of your partner’s chocolate-mocha ice cream birthday cake, telling yourself all the while that it doesn’t matter because you won’t lose weight anyway? What about deciding to watch television instead of exercising because you told yourself you’re doomed to ill health and nothing you do will make a difference? We engage in these types of self-defeating behaviours because we tell ourselves that bad outcomes are:

  • Permanent – bad things happen all the time, no exceptions.
  • Pervasive – bad things happen all across the board, in every area of life.
  • Personal – bad things happen to me, not to other people. It’s all about me.

Important to realize here is that this is what we tell ourselves to believe, not what is actually the case, and what we tell ourselves has a huge impact on how we feel and the course of action we choose to take.

How do people talk themselves into poor health? Consider the bathroom scale example. You’ve been trying to lose weight for the past month. The results of your last physical were frightening enough that you decided to do something about it, otherwise you’ll be in danger of developing serious health complications. You decide to hop on the bathroom scale to check your progress, but find that you weigh the same as you did two weeks ago. Consider the shock of the scale reading as the activating stressor (A). Negative self-talk often follows, consisting of beliefs (B) you hold about what you’ve just experienced. In this scenario, it might sound like: “All of the restrictions I’ve put on my diet were pointless! All that exercise for nothing! What’s the point in trying? I’ll never lose weight!” Consequences (C) of talking this way are both emotional and behavioural. Emotional consequences include feelings of anger, worthlessness, helplessness, despair, sadness, depression, and anxiety. Emotional consequences often influence behavioural consequences which include self-sabotaging behaviours such as, in this instance, eating a huge portion of cake.

So you can see that what we tell ourselves in response to a stressor can influence the way we feel and what we do. What can you do about this?

Once your beliefs surface, imagine that it’s your worst enemy (or someone you would never accept criticism from) giving you negative feedback. If it were someone you often disagree with that was telling you, “All of the restrictions you put yourself on were pointless! All that exercise for nothing! You’ll never lose weight!”, what would you do? You would disagree and dispute (D) them. You might say something like, “I tried to change my eating habits, but did not always follow through. Sometimes I’d have potato chips and soda. I exercised a lot, but didn’t consistently choose the best foods for me. I can lose weight, but I should give myself a break because two weeks is too short a time to see a big difference. I need to have more time, continue exercising, and eat healthy foods on a consistent basis before I will see significant results.”

Ensure your disputations have evidence (E) supporting them. Human beings pay more attention to factual statements rather than to fluffy self-affirmations. This includes messages we tell ourselves. Your disputations should not consist only of statements such as “I can do it! Think positive!” Acknowledge your setbacks, but examine why the setbacks occurred. Then, construct your disputations based on kindness toward yourself and realistic goals you would like to achieve, both in the short term and in the long term. For example, you may be used to telling yourself “I’m so bad because I don’t exercise!” What you might say instead is, “I haven’t been exercising regularly because it’s not fun for me and I don’t feel like I can fit it into my schedule. But I understand that all I really need to do is find thirty minutes out of the entire day to exercise, and that will be beneficial. Thirty minutes isn’t such a long time out of the whole day. I can make exercise fun by asking someone to join me, or finding a sport to play with other people. I’ll ask my friend Bill to go jogging with me every other day. I can also look around at different sports leagues in the area, to see what’s available. Every little bit I do to engage in physical activity will contribute to my goal of getting fit. I can think positively. I can do this.”

The disagreements and disputations will result in a change in your emotional state, from discouraged to encouraged, and you will be in better shape to make good decisions.

This ABCDE model can be applied to whichever health issue you are dealing with. We often self-talk ourselves into complacency or, worse, helplessness. Once you give up on your case, you guarantee a poor outcome because no one else can fight for you as hard as you can fight for yourself. The ABCDE model can help you to be kinder to yourself, and to problem-solve what other actions you can take to achieve your health goals. To review, the steps are:

  • Activating stressor (e.g. the shock of reading the scale)
  • Beliefs (negative self-talk)
  • Consequences (feel bad)
  • Dispute (encouraging self-talk)
  • Evidence (make sure your encouragement has evidence and goals set are manageable)

Remember to dispute the negative self-talk once you start feeling bad. Disputation will help you to avoid the behavioural consequences of your initial, automatic beliefs. In this way, you can gain more choice and control over your health issues, rather than allowing them to dominate you.


Seligman, M. Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.


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