An experiment to improve positive self-talk

Meyken Houppermans, PhD. CrossFit Level 3 Trainer.
Founder and Head Coach
” I should be able to do this, I am such a loser that I can’t!” Negative self talk hardly ever leads to something good. It can be harmful for emotional, mental and physical health and performance. If you are a frequent negative self- talker this article is for you: A experiment, to improve your self-talk and with that your performance and health.

In our previous article we wrote about the importance of positive words in CrossFit.

Negative self-talk, performance and health

There is numerous scientific evidence showing the harmful effect of negative self-talk on emotional, mental and physical health. In athletes for example, negative self- talk is associated with the fear of failure (Fear of failing in CrossFit) and with perceived pressure of having to perform. [1] On a physiological level, negative self- talk alters breathing frequency response, hormonal response patterns, cardiorespiratory function, and perceived exertion (how exhausted you are during exercise). In other words, negative self-talk affects physical performance and increases stress responses, that in the long run can contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases.[2]

Coping mechanisms such as negative self-talk are often unconscious ways or habits of dealing with situations, problems and emotions. Several factors influence our coping mechanisms, such as what we have seen others do during childhood; and personality traits such as neuroticism associated with tendencies of negativity and fear. Negative self-talk can also be an implicit social rule, for example in a Calvinistic or competitive social setting in which one does not celebrate success and mainly focusses on what went wrong and should be better. Negative self-talk can also be a negative form of asking for attention or support from others.

The benefits of positive self-talk

There is also numerous scientific evidence showing the beneficial impact of positive self- talk on emotional, mental and physical health. For one, positive self-talk enhances recovery from illness. In athletes, research has shown that positive self- talk is an effective training technique that facilitates performance and motivation.[3]  Positive self-talk enhances endurance performance and reduces rate of perceived exertion. [4] Cognitive strategies such as positive self- talk are also reliability associated with increased strength performance, ranging from 61 to 65 percent.[5] All the reasons to experiment with strengthening your positive self- talk.

The experiment

The experiment consists of four questions. Grab a pen and piece of paper, and let’s start!

Question 1: How would you describe yourself in two words?

I am ……. For example: I am a healthy person; a good mom; or a successful manager.

Question 2: What does being a… mean?

For example: Being a healthy person means working out every day. Being a good mom means being patient with the kids. Being a successful manager means meeting company targets every month.

Conceptualized version of you

How we describe ourselves is the conceptualized version of ourselves. It is the picture or the story of who we are or who we want to be. The healthy person, the good mom or the successful manager. This story involves certain rules, explicit or implicit, we make up to live by. For example, we are the healthy person if we work out every day; we are the good mom if we are always patient with the kids; we are the successful manager if we meet company targets every month.

Feel good myth

In general, we feel good if we meet up to our set of rules and to our story. If we meet up to what we think is good, to our own golden standard of how we should be or behave. This is the feel good myth.

But what happens if we cannot do that anymore? What if the healthy person gets injured and cannot work-out every day? What if the good mom gets so stressed due to a divorce, she loses her temper in front of her kids? What if the successful manager loses his job due to a pandemic?

Falling from one story into the other

As soon as we cannot meet up to the conceptualized version of ourselves, our self-esteem and feelings of happiness and control are threatened. That threat can happen for several reasons, some within and some outside our control. An injury, a divorce, a pandemic.  When this happens, we start to develop strategies to deal with and compensate for the potential loss of our story. This compensation can go in several directions.

One direction is immediate or direct avoidance. This means we will try to work harder to meet up with our story no matter what, or we try to ignore what is going on. (The healthy person starts working out more and harder despite the injury). Direct avoidance can also mean we overthink stuff or give ourselves a punishing pep- talk: the negative self-talk!  

Another direction is indirect avoidance. Such as having all or nothing- thoughts: “I am such a loser, I am never going to the gym anymore and might as well eat crap all day.” Negative self- talk again! Indirect avoidance can also be lethargy or complaining a lot.

A well-known compensation- strategy is to tell ourselves the opposite of what is going on. We create a new story with a new set of rules. For example, the successful manager who lost his job now describes himself as ‘the management critic’ who is fundamentally against everything related to his former story as a company manager. Living by this new story would mean never accepting a new management job ever again.

The key point is all these strategies to compensate for the treat of our story bring nothing but more misery. Because if we attach too much to our conceptualized version, we are at higher risk of not feeling good about ourselves and of coping with problems in an unhealthy unsuccessful way with negative self- talk reinforcing this process.

The experiment, take 2

Let’s start over. Experiment take 2.

Question 1 rephrased: How would you describe yourself in two words?

I describe myself as being a……. For example: “I describe myself as being a healthy person; a good mom; a successful manager”.

From absolute truth to just a thought

The difference between the initial Question 1 and Question 1 rephrased, is that we figuratively take a step back. I am… sounds like the absolute and only truth. I describe myself as ….. is a description or a thought.

The way we talk about ourselves influences how we feel about ourselves. Thought, feelings and emotions, behavior, health and performance are all related and interact. Negative thoughts lead to negative self-talk, which leads to negative feelings and to related behavior, which leads to impaired performance and health. Positive thoughts and positive self-talk leads to positive feelings and related behavior, which leads to improved performance and health.

If we are able to take a step back from our fixed story and set of rules, and do not consider them the absolute and only truth, but consider them as just a thought we created in our head, then our emotions and feelings will be less intense and they will affect us less in cases where we cannot live up to our story.

Key is to consider thoughts as nothing more or less than just thoughts. Thoughts are sometimes annoying or really dominant, and sometimes pleasant. By shifting from “this is the absolute truth” to “this is just a thought”, these thoughts will have far less impact on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

Furthermore, taking a step back creates space for other more positive ways to consider ourselves, for not one but several stories about ourselves. Because we can be a healthy person, and also a loyal employee, a loving partner, a film fanatic etcetera. Creating multiple flexible stories about ourselves and considering these stories just thoughts instead of the absolute truth, helps to prevent getting stuck in the rigidity of one single story with one single set of rules.

Question 2: In what other ways would you describe yourself using positive words?

I would describe myself a being a lovely….. and a nice …….and a kind……… etcetera

Observe, notice, accept

We are much more than just one story or one set of rules. If we strongly attach to one story, we are at higher risk of feeling bad about ourselves especially when life gets in the way of our story. Funny thing is, that is life! Life has its unexpected ups and downs. Yet, instead of accepting this, we often tend to punish ourselves with negative self-talk: I should have worked- out, but I couldn’t because of a company meeting. Now I feel bad and guilty.

Being more aware of how you think about yourself, about the worlds you use to describe yourself, about the thoughts you have about yourself, is the first and most important step to start redefining yourself and your stories. Observe and notice your thoughts and words every once in a while, by doing this experiment. You can be every story you like. Choose the positive ones!

Create your own health!©


[1] DeMuynck GJ, Soenens B, Delrue J, Comoutos N, Vansteenkiste M. Strengthening the assessment of self-talk in sports through a multi-method approach. Scand J MedSci Sports. 2020 Mar;30(3):602-614. doi: 10.1111/sms.13609. Epub 2020 Jan 2.PMID: 31811733.

[2] BassetFA, Kelly LP, Hohl R, Kaushal N. Type of self-talk matters: Its effects on perceived exertion, cardiorespiratory, and cortisol responses during an iso-metabolic endurance exercise. Psychophysiology. 2022 Mar;59(3):e13980. doi:10.1111/psyp.13980. Epub 2021 Nov 27. PMID: 34837395..

[3] BassetFA, Kelly LP, Hohl R, Kaushal N. Type of self-talk matters: Its effects on perceived exertion, cardiorespiratory, and cortisol responses during an iso-metabolic endurance exercise. Psychophysiology. 2022 Mar;59(3):e13980. doi:10.1111/psyp.13980. Epub 2021 Nov 27. PMID: 34837395.; De Muynck GJ,Soenens B, Delrue J, Comoutos N, Vansteenkiste M. Strengthening the assessment of self-talk in sports through a multi-method approach. Scand J Med Sci Sports.2020 Mar;30(3):602-614. doi: 10.1111/sms.13609. Epub 2020 Jan 2. PMID: 31811733.

[4] Blanchfield AW, Hardy J, De Morree HM, Staiano W, Marcora SM. Talking yourself out ofexhaustion: the effects of self-talk on endurance performance. Med Sci SportsExerc. 2014;46(5):998-1007. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000184. PMID: 24121242.

[5] Tod D,Edwards C, McGuigan M, Lovell G. A Systematic Review of the Effect of Cognitive Strategies on Strength Performance. Sports Med. 2015 Nov;45(11):1589-602. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0356-1. PMID: 26378003.