7 Forms of Self-Talk & Beliefs That Undermine Our Health & Fitness Goals by Dr. Wendy Froberg PysD

The definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” We are not referring here to clinical insanity, but a sort of self-sabotaging behavior reflected in repeated failure to reach our goals, despite our best intentions. Nowhere is this truer than when people engage year after year in resolutions to attain a healthier and more fit body, but their motivation soon falters and they resort to old, overlearned patterns and abandon their goals, often leading to feelings of failure, hopelessness, and shame. This cycle is perpetuated by negative self-talk, which reinforces these patterns and undermines our efforts for positive change.

Despite having historical data from our previous attempts to draw upon and from which we should have learned, we ignore the reality we have lived through and continue to repeat the same behavioral patterns, despite their failure to achieve the results we say that we want? In other words, “we know better but do it anyway”. This is nonsensical and illogical but there are human reasons for it.

Why? To answer this question and change our outcomes, it can help to know about certain psychological (human) phenomena:

Habits/automatic behavior: We need a certain level of automaticity to function. It’s a hard -wired form of efficiency. But: Think of driving down a rutted gravel road. These ruts result from years of vehicles (ours and others) driving the same pathway over and over. We may find ourselves on that road, hating those ruts that rattle our teeth and bump and bang us all over the place—but unless we consciously pay attention to the road, watch carefully for these ruts and actively steer out of them with intention and vigour, we end up back in those ruts. We call this the “path of least resistance.”

Knowing how those ruts got established in the first place this may help us correct them for the future. And we cannot simply stop a behavior that has become a habit—we must replace it with something else.

Magical Thinking: Children (who are still learning about the real world) engage in this–but so do most adults at some time in our lives, especially when our coping resources are overloaded or we are facing a complex, emotionally arousing situation. It essentially consists of a failure to distinguish between thoughts and behaviours. Children think they can make something happen if they wish or want it badly enough or think about it a lot. We confuse thoughts with deeds, wants with outcomes, wishes with efforts. This is in effect a denial of facts/reality. Talking about a diet or workout isn’t the same as doing it but our brain can be fooled.

We cannot change/control reality; can only change thoughts, behavior and (some aspects of) our environment.

-e.g., “Nibbling at a cake one tiny slice at a time over a whole day means no calories” (Fact)

-e.g., “I can have a cupboard of unhealthy snacks and never be tempted to eat them, no matter how feel or what happened today”. (Personal reality)

Deservedness: According to the “just-world hypothesis”, humans believe that, if they are a “good person” or “try hard” or “do the right thing”, they deserve/are entitled to success or can engage in behavior without consequences, because there is an inherent justice in the universe (which does not exist but can be a comforting thought). In this way, we disconnect behavior from outcomes.

This often comes into play when we are tired/overwhelmed/feeling deprived and encourages us to confuse what we need in the moment, often the quickest fix with the most habit strength, versus what supports our healthy goals (self-indulgence versus self-care)

Relapses: These are to be expected (and are part of the change process so don’t panic if they occur) when we are trying to change long-standing behavioral patterns, especially when many of these behaviors feel good and are often “hard-wired”, with complex brain and nervous system underpinning them.

It can be useful to view our behavior as a chain of connected circumstances, patterns, and choices where one decision can lead us further toward either a healthy/desired outcome or an unhealthy/undesired one. The earlier in our response chain that we can make a new, different choice, the more likely we are to stay away from the situations where we are more likely to fall into old, dysfunctional behaviors and prevent a relapse.

And if we do relapse, the sooner we can examine our dysfunctional/distorted thinking, correct it and move on, the less damage we will do to our resolutions. Coming into a situation with a plan instead of suddenly and unexpectedly being confronted with “temptation” helps. Know your environment. -e.g., not going into a bar in the first place versus sitting at bar and saying you’ll only drink ginger ale.

Self-Talk and Beliefs: What we say to ourselves about ourselves, and our circumstances can be functional or dysfunctional and underlies our behavioral choices. It is helpful to understand the common dysfunctional thinking patterns.

• How we think, which often occurs in the form of self-talk (what we say to ourselves) become set beliefs about ourselves and the world.

• These thoughts and beliefs directly affect our emotions, motivation, behavior and subsequently the results we get from our fitness program.

• Self-talk is automatic, sub-conscious and continuous. What we say to ourselves and the preconceived notions these self-statements reflect can become self-fulfilling.

• No one comes to the studio with the conscious intention of failing. However, if you do not believe you can accomplish your goal, you may sabotage yourself by finding ways to prove to yourself that you have already failed.


  • Lack of self worth: Thinking you are unworthy or underserving of the benefits of fitness:
    • “I’m not special, I’m average (or below)”
    • “I don’t deserve to get what I want.” “I’m not good enough, not strong enough to be successful.”
  • Burn out -A full (or overly full) schedule and resulting fatigue become reasons to not try or give up on seeking fitness:
    • “I’m so tired. I just can’t do it.”
    • “I have no energy. I’m too busy.”
    • “I’m too old, it’s too late for me. I’m too far gone.”
  • Limiting potential – Believing your ability is already set and cannot be changed; or might lead to undesirable results.
    • – “I don’t want to be too muscular.”
    • – “That’s not me. I’ve never been like that. I can’t do something like that.”
    • – “I’m not a competitive person.”
  • Lack of control –Believing that you have no control over what your body can achieve; or it is so much work, it will always be out of reach.
    • – “It’s my genetics, it’s the way that I’m built, that’s just who I am.”
    • – “I don’t have any control over it.”
    • – “If I want those kinds of results, I have to workout 7x per week and don’t have time.”
  • Avoiding self-responsibility – making excuses or externalizing reasons for behaviors that interfere with fitness goals:
    • – “I ate badly because I was stressed (bored, tired, lonely, angry etc.).”
    • – “I had too many sweets because someone brought it into work.”
    • – “I eat this way because my husband won’t make good meals.”
    • – “The chips and ice cream are for my husband and kids— not for me.”
  • Perfectionism – Deciding that, unless you can achieve perfection, it is of no use to try to change or improve. This can result in a never-ending list of things I “should” (or shouldn’t) do, have, want, or strive for, continually undermining your sense of accomplishment:
    • – “If I can’t do it perfectly, why bother?”
    • – “What’s the use if it’s only a partial success?”
    • – “I’ll never be good enough.”
  • Comparison – Always comparing yourself to others can lead to a sense of inferiority and inadequacy, and then giving up; or superiority that makes us afraid to lose our advantage, so we continue on the work/family “hamster wheel” that leads to neglecting our health and fitness:
    • – “I could never look like her so why bother trying?”
    • – “I’m the best now but someone is waiting to take my place if I relax, so I’d better work harder.”

When it comes to self-talk/beliefs, we need to learn to:

Observe it, track it, notice what triggers it, make it conscious; and modify it/replace with healthier beliefs.

Our goal is to help you replace self-defeating talk with self-supportive talk about possibilities. We would like to encourage you to develop a curious versus judgmental approach to your fitness efforts (“I could never lift 50 pounds” to “I wonder how much I can lift right now” and “let me try and see what happens”).

You cannot control outcomes, you can only control the behavior you engage in to try to reach your goals. So set behavioral goals versus a specific outcome (I will go to the gym for 90 minutes three times a week and do some cardio and some strength training in each time” or “I will keep my caloric intake to 1600 per day and not drink alcohol more than once a week” versus “I’m going to lose 20 pounds”)

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