There are four ways to manage cravings: with distraction, self-talk, relaxation and mindfulness. Self-talk, in my clinical experience, is the most frequently utilized but least effective craving-control method.
3 Problems with Craving Control Based on Self-Talk
Craving is emotional reasoning. Self-talk, however, is a method of logical reasoning. Self-talk is a collision of emotion and logic. You've seen this happen inter-personally (between people): when person is all emotion and the other is all reason, it's not a pretty clash. The same problem carries over into the intra-personal application of self-talk (when you talk to yourself): the clash of logic and emotion only dials up the inner tension.
In its reliance on logic and reason, self-talk, as a craving control strategy, is of limited utility: craving is an emotional state that takes the otherwise rational brain and reduces it to irrational simplicity. Rational self-talk is hard when your mind's wisdom has been reduced to a nutritional tantrum of "I want!"
The second problem with self-talk is that it ... divides and fragments us. Indeed, by definition, self-talk is a method of self-persuasion. You are selling to yourself. As such, self-talk inevitably splits us a salesperson and a customer, into an angel on one shoulder and devil on the other. Divided, no one stands the sales pitch too long.
Finally, self-talk tends to be chaotic and unorganized. So, exactly when it counts, such as when you are having an intense craving (to over-eat, to over-drink, to over-express yourself), you end up having to think on your feet. So, here you are -- psychologically on fire -- having to play the chess of strategic, long-term thinking ... Such a make-it-or-break-it moment is a time for decisive action not a moment to improvise.
In sum, self-talk as a craving control/impulse-control strategy, with its endless, back-and-forth sparring between reason and emotion is like a tiring tug-of-war. In my work, I recommend that you drop the rope (of this self-talk tug-of-war) and try out other craving control strategies such as relaxation or mindfulness or a combination of these two. But now and then, when clients have a history of using self-talk and seem to favor it, I help them optimize it.
2 Strategies for Optimizing Self-Talk Craving-Control
This is based on the work I've done with chronic substance use folks while working in a correctional system good seven-eight years ago (Somov, Change/Recovery Equation, 2003). As part of lapse/relapse prevention training, I and my staff would offer intense craving control training, offering all four craving control modalities (self-talk, distraction, relaxation, and mindfulness).
When it came to self-talk, I recommended two broad strategies for optimizing it:
1) take the "improvization" out of it, and
2) distill self-talk down to a personalized "party line" and over-learn it.
So, we'd work with inmates helping them, first, articulate their self-talk, then, edit it down to a personally sentimental punchline; then, we'd give the inmate-clients a chance to record a lapse/relapse prevention memo tape with a craving-control module which, among other things, featured this turbo-charged self-talk.
The guys (it was all guys) would keep the tape and take it with them when released. While still on the treatment pod (cell-block), they'd be free to check out a hand-held tape recorder to record, to re-record and to listen to their own tapes in order to program their minds for recovery upon release from the jail.
Here's how you can optimize self-talk craving control (note: the suggestions below are written with overeating problems in mind, feel free to edit the wording to apply it to whatever impulse/craving problem you or your clients may have).
CREATE SELF-TALK SCRIPT: Take the "improve" out of self-talk. Leverage the usefulness of self-talk by formalizing it into a script. Brainstorm various self-affirmations, self-motivational statements, catch phrases, health-oriented slogans and wellness party lines. Combine the most poignant ideas into a self-talk script. Write them down and practice saying this self-talk script until you memorize it. Next time you have a craving, try to talk yourself out of eating by repeating to yourself your entire self-talk script mantra-style. Take the guesswork out of your craving control self-talk!
RECORD AND PLAY-BACK: Record your self-talk script and get into a habit of playing it back both preventatively when you anticipate cravings to arise and in response to cravings. Experiment with shorter and longer versions of the self-talk script. Take charge of programming your mind. If struggling with post-work binge-eating or nighttime overeating, for example, listen to the script on the drive home to get into a healthy state of mind as you walk through the door.
Question Remains: Who's this Self that's Talking to Oneself?
You have thoughts, right? Question is: who's thinking them? Using thoughts to change how you feel and/or act is a cognitive strategy that relies on thoughts, not on the Thinker of these thoughts.
This is, as I see it, a fundamental limitation of the cognitive camp. There is more to us than just our thoughts. You've had all kinds of thoughts pass through your mind in the course of your life -- some felt good, some felt bad. Question is: who is feeling these thoughts? Feelings themselves? Yeah, right!
Who you are is a profound philosophical question and any answer to this question is just a finger pointing to the moon and no finger pointing to the moon is the moon itself. Any self-definition is a description of self but a description isn't that/who it describes.
Mindfulness -- as a craving control strategy -- begins where self-talk leaves off. Whereas self-talk is a cognitive strategy, mindfulness is a meta-cognitive strategy, i.e. it is above or aside from cognition. You've heard people say: "Step back from your thoughts." That's an invitation into a state of meta-cognition, an invitation into a state in which you experience yourself as separate from your thoughts, a state in which there is nothing to do about a craving thought but to merely witness it pass. This is what makes mindfulness (or meta-cognition), in my clinical opinion, superior to self-talk, distraction, and even relaxation.
All of four craving control strategies (self-talk, distraction, relaxation, mindfulness/metacognition) are just different roads to craving-control Rome. Make no mistake: if used, they will all get you to a place of self-control. But some of these paths are shorter than others, some are better paved.
As far as craving-control highways go, mindfulness is an autobahn. It is a way of controlling cravings by not controlling them. It's a way of dropping the rope of this to-use-or-not-to-use, to-overeat-or-not-to-overeat tug-of-war; it's a way of stepping out of this reason-on-logic duke-it-out match. In short, mindfulness is a short-cut to craving-control Rome. That said, if, however, you are planning to take the self-talk route, at least, pack well!
"Who is Eating?" (meditation inspired by Rg Veda)
Somov, P. G. (2008). "A Psychodrama Group for Substance Use Relapse Prevention Training." The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38, 151-161.
Somov, P.G. (2007). "Meaning of Life Group: Group Application of Logotherapy for Substance Use Treatment." Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 32 (4), 316 - 345.
Somov, P. & Somova, M. (2003). Recovery Equation: Motivational Enhancement, Choice Awareness, Use Prevention: an Innovative Clinical Curriculum for Substance Use Treatment. Imprint Books