Speaking to yourself in this way is called “distanced self-talk” and is scientifically proven to help people achieve their health goals.
It was a Friday evening in early 2019, and I’d just got home from dinner with friends. I flopped on to my bed, freed my food baby from the shackles of my jeans, and sighed.
I was trying to lose weight. So why had I eaten myself into a state of discomfort? Why did I fill up on tortilla chips and hummus when I knew there was so much more food to come? Why did I have the third piece of bread?
Why couldn’t I just get it together?
After years of overeating, it was a familiar refrain in my internal monologue. But then that voice in my head said something else: You can’t mess this up.
Instead of spiraling, I remembered that the only way you fail is by quitting. Instead, I would learn from the experience, and get back on track.
Reframe ‘failures’ as learning opportunities
For so many people, the barrier to sustainable weight loss is that they think they have to have a “perfect” diet all the time, but no one can do that. So when I inevitably stuffed my face with chocolate one night, instead of beating myself up for “ruining everything,” I told myself that I didn’t.
It was something to learn from. And as long as I got straight back on track, I would still reach my goals and it really wouldn’t make that much difference.
After all, no one gets a six-pack after one salad and no one becomes obese after one box of chocolates. As the months went on during my weight loss journey two years ago, I saw first-hand that this is true: I was working on my overeating tendencies, and while I still succumbed from time to time, it didn’t actually prevent me from achieving my goals.
On days where I went way over the calories I was aiming for, I stopped to think about why I did that. Maybe there was something I could work on. Maybe I’d just think, “OK, I didn’t really need all that food or that fourth glass of wine. But I enjoyed it, and that’s fine.”
Consistency always trumps perfection, and I learned that aiming for 80% consistency with my diet and nutrition was the way to go.
You can’t fail if you don’t quit
Changing your mindset is so important for weight loss success, and any good health coach knows this.
I first heard the “you can’t mess this up” mantra from personal trainer and fat loss coach Jordan Syatt.
Syatt explained to Insider that the reason the mantra is so powerful is that most people never achieve their fitness goals — be that weight loss, muscle gain, or simply feeling better in their body — because they think they need to be perfect to get there.
And when they aren’t “perfect,” they think they’ve ruined their progress and might as well not bother trying, which isn’t true.
“You can’t fail, because the only way you screw up is if you quit,” Syatt said. “As long as you understand that you’re never more than one bite away from getting back on track, then you can’t lose, you can’t fail. And the more you remember this, the more likely you are to achieve your goals.”
‘Distanced self-talk’ helps people reach their goals
According to psychologist and author of “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It” Dr. Ethan Kross, my mantra is particularly effective because it uses “you” rather than “I.”
Kross told Insider that it’s a lot easier for us to give advice to others than to follow our own advice. So by using second and third-person pronouns (like “you” or “she”), we’re able to be more objective and create some mental distance from our own experiences.
“People are better able to follow through with their goals when they talk to themselves using what we call ‘distanced self-talk,’” Kross said.
This was proven in relation to healthy eating in a recent study conducted by Kross and his team.
I’ll tell myself I can’t mess this up forever
Yes, my body has changed a lot over the years, but what you don’t see in a “before and after” photo is the mental work that’s really gone on.
And that’s part of the problem with fad diets or “quick fixes” — they don’t help people develop healthier mindsets, so any physical change that may materialize won’t last.
I rarely overeat to a point of pain now, but it does still happen occasionally, because I’m only human and food is delicious. And on those occasions, I remind myself that it doesn’t make me a bad person. It hasn’t undone all the progress I’ve made over the years. I just get back on track and keep going.
You can’t mess this up.