Willpower and Negative Self-Talk

In The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, health psychologist and lecturer Kelly McGonigal looks at the effects of negative self-talk, anxiety and guilt on our willpower. Stress from these, it turns out, sets us up to crave relief in exactly the activities our bad feelings originate. As McGonigal writes, “Wanting to feel better is a healthy survival mechanism, as built into our human nature as the instinct to flee danger. But where we turn for relief matters. The promise of reward … does not always mean that we will feel good. More often, the things we turn to for relief end up turning on us.”

Know anyone who, in times of stress, turns to eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the web, or playing video games? These are the exactly the kinds of come-back-to-bite-you sources of relief McGonigal means.

Negative self-talk, McGonigal tells us, is an essential cog in the mental machinery that leads us to repeat activities and habits we’d much rather leave behind. A particularly nefarious twist on this self-defeating cycle comes with the belief many of us hold that we need our critical self talk to keep ourselves motivated. If you’re someone who believes you’re less likely to get anything done if you’re not hard on yourself, McGonigal has a surprise for you:

If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power.

McGonigal tells us that one way to break this self-defeating cycle is to pay special attention to how you handle a willpower failure. “Crucially, it’s not the first giving-in that guarantees the bigger relapse. It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control, and loss of hope that follow the first relapse. Once you’re stuck in the cycle, it can seem like there is no way out except to keep going.” Developing skills and strategies to overcome the guilt and self recrimination that comes with negative self-talk offers an effective exit ramp from this negative cycle to paths; an exit ramp to more preferable self-talk habits – and results.