“I am successful,” “I am a wonderful person,” “I will find love again,” and many other similar phrases that students, the broken-hearted and unfulfilled employees may repeat to themselves over and over again, hoping to change their lives. Self-help books through the ages, from Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, all the way to the The Secret and many self-help books and programs, have encouraged people with low self-esteem to make positive self-statements or affirmations. Many therapists, counsellors and coaches suggest their clients/patients use positive affirmations to help them with issues of self-esteem, negative thinking and pessimism. A debate now exists among researchers and psychologists regarding the efficacy of positive affirmations in relation to one’s performance and well being.
What are Positive Affirmations?
Self-affirmation theory is a psychological theory that focuses on how individuals adapt to information or experiences that are threatening to their self-concept. Claude Steele originally popularized self-affirmation theory in the late 1980s, and it remains a well-studied theory in social psychological research.
Self-affirmation theory contends that if individuals reflect on values that are personally relevant to them, they are less likely to experience distress and react defensively when confronted with information that contradicts or threatens their sense of self.
Some experimental investigations of self-affirmation theory suggest that self-affirmation can help individuals cope with threat or stress and that it might be beneficial for improving academic performance, health, and reducing defensiveness.
The Case for Positive Affirmations
It has been suggested by the scientist and behavioral care providers that self-affirmation reminds people of important aspects of the self, enabling them to view events from a reasonable, considered, and rational viewpoint (Sherman DK et al, 2011). By enhancing the psychological resources of self-integrity, self-affirmation reduces defensive responses to threatening information and events, leading to positive outcomes in various areas such as psychological and physical health, education, prejudice, discrimination , and social conflicts (Sherman DK et al, 2006).
Does self-affirmation have any impact on ill-health ? For one study (Taber JA et al, 2016), 326 cancer survivors reported that participants with higher optimism reported better health, greater happiness , hopefulness and lower likelihood of cognitive impairment and concluded that given the malleability of self-affirmation, the findings are important avenues. In another study, participants received either an insulting evaluation or a neutral evaluation from an ostensible peer. The researchers predicted that both neutral and insulting evaluations would increase cardiovascular activity, and that insulted participants would exhibit relatively greater increases. Furthermore, consistent with the self-affirmation theory, it was also predicted that thinking and writing about a core personal value after being evaluated would facilitate cardiovascular recovery.
At the behavioral level, self-affirmation improves problem-solving (Creswell DJ, 2013) performance on tasks related to executive functioning (Harris PH, 2016). Numerous studies highlight that thinking about self-preferences activates neural reward pathways. A group of researchers (Dutcher JM et al, 2016) hypothesized that self-affirmation would activate brain reward circuitry during functional MRI (fMRI) studies. Their findings suggest “that self-affirmation may be rewarding and may provide a first step toward identifying a neural mechanism by which self-affirmation may produce beneficial effects.”
The Case Against Positive Affirmations
Control your thoughts and you create your reality. A positive mindset begets positive end results. These popular tenets are espoused by the likes of Louise Hay, Napoleon Hill, Anthony Robbins and countless other self-help gurus. The problem is, they don’t actually work.
Consider the last time you really wanted something to happen… It could be a dream job, an ideal relationship or even a parking space in the city. Having learned from the best, you used positive affirmations in the ways suggested. You wrote your desired outcome on a card, kept it on your person at all times and repeated the phrase over and over in your head. The end results of your efforts were probably not the ones you were looking for.
Having failed, you might have berated yourself. You didn’t do the affirmations correctly, you were somehow undeserving, or even: “it was meant to be.”
The reason positive affirmations don’t work is that they target the conscious level of your mind, but not the unconscious. If what you are trying to affirm is incongruent with a deeply held negative belief, then all that results is an inner struggle.
Let’s say you believe that you are “ugly and worthless” – a commonly held belief by depressed people all over the world. This belief may feel deeply and irrevocably true, no matter what the actual reality might be. For example, at the peak of her career Jane Fonda was held to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, yet, as her autobiography reveals, she judged her physical appearance as inadequate and struggled with eating disorders for decades.
Cringing when being paid a compliment is because “I know it isn’t true.” Imagine how excruciating this exercise would feel: Look at yourself in the mirror and say out loud: “I am beautiful, inside and out. I love myself.” If you deeply believe and feel that you are ugly and worthless, it will set off an inner war. With each positive declaration, your unconscious will cry out, “it’s not true, it’s not true!”
This conflict uses up a great deal of energy and creates massive tension in the body. The end result is that the negative belief becomes stronger as it fights for survival and what you really desire fails to manifest.
The subconscious mind cannot differentiate between negative and positive, or between what is real and imagined. For example, if we want to be successful, we cannot say things like “I don’t want to be a failure.” The subconscious mind will act upon the word “failure,” ignoring the word “don’t,” and actualizing the undesired result. We must choose what we share with our subconscious mind carefully, and that is why positive affirmations are so critical. The subconscious mind is most open to helpful and beneficial suggestions while we are in the “alpha” brainwave state—our most relaxed state of mind. The alpha wave frequency is often achieved in a meditative state or just before falling sleep, creating an optimal time to receive positive affirmations. Music designed to create the alpha wave state or technology known as brainwave entrainment can also help if you are not an avid meditator.
Another potential hitch in the positive-thinking movement is that a sanguine attitude may be unhealthy when taken to an extreme, because it can become unhinged from reality. In a 2000 article University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson, a founder of the positive psychology movement, distinguished realistic optimism, which hopes for the best while remaining attuned to potential threats, from unrealistic optimism, which ignores such threats.
A 2007 study by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener and Michigan State University psychologist Richard Lucas reinforces Peterson’s concerns. Using analyses from several large international samples, they found that although extremely happy people are the most successful in close interpersonal relationships and volunteer work, moderately happy people are more successful than extremely happy people financially and educationally and are also more politically active. Admittedly, Oishi and his colleagues measured happiness rather than optimism per se, although the two tend to be fairly closely associated. Still, their findings raise the possibility that although a realistically positive attitude toward the world often helps us to achieve certain life goals, a Pollyannaish attitude may have its costs—perhaps because it fosters complacency.
Canadian researcher Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who have published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, concluded “repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”
The researchers asked people with and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.” They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves. The low-esteem group felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not. However, people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive affirmation–but only slightly. The psychologists then asked the participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves. They found, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.
The researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals in individuals with low self-esteem. When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, the researchers argue, there is not mere resistance but a reinforcing of self-perception. People who view themselves as unlovable, for example, find that saying to themselves they are lovable it can be unbelievable which in turn strengthens their own negative view rather than reversing it.
These findings were supported by previous research published in 1994 in the Journal of Social Psychology, showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better.
Dr. Wood goes even further. In her Psychology Today blog, she says that most self-help books advocating positive affirmations may be based on good intentions or personal experience, but they are rarely based on even one iota of scientific evidence. She cites psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness as an exception.
Does that mean positive affirmations are of absolutely no value? Not according to Dr. Wood and her co-researchers. They say that positive affirmations can help when they are part of a broader program of intervention. That intervention can take place in a number of forms such as cognitive psychotherapy or working with a coach who has expertise in the behavioral sciences. What kind of intervention is best to use to make positive affirmations most effective?
Traditional cognitive psychotherapy may not be the best intervention according to Dr. Steven Hayes, a renowned psychotherapist, and author of Getting Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Hayes has been setting the world of psychotherapy on its ear by advocating a totally different approach.
In an article in Time magazine, John Cloud describes Hayes’ work. Hayes and researchers Marsha Linehan and Robert Kohlenberg at the University of Washington, and Zindel Segal at the University of Toronto, what we could call “Third Wave Psychologists” are focusing less on how to manipulate the content of our thoughts (a focus on cognitive psychotherapy) and more on how to change their context–to modify the way we see thoughts and feelings so they can’t control our behavior. Whereas cognitive therapists speak of “cognitive errors” and “distorted interpretation,” Hayes and his colleagues encourage mindfulness, the meditation-inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled by them–imagine the thoughts being a leaf or canoe floating down the stream.
These Third Wave Psychologists would argue that trying to correct negative thoughts can paradoxically actually intensify them. As NLP trained coaches would say, telling someone to “not think about a blue tree,” actually focuses their mind on a blue tree. The Third Wave Psychologists methodology is called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which says that we should acknowledge that negative thoughts recur throughout our life and instead of challenging or fighting with them, we should concentrate on identifying and committing to our values in life. Hayes would argue that once we are willing to feel our negative emotions, we’ll find it easier to commit ourselves to what we want in life.
This approach may come as a surprise to many, because the traditional cognitive model permeates our culture and the media as reflected in the Dr. Phil show. The essence of the conflict between traditional cognitive psychologists and psychotherapists is to engage in a process of analyzing your way out your problems, or the Third Wave approach which says, accept that you have negative beliefs, thinking and problems and focus on what you want. Third Wave Psychologists and coaches acknowledge that we have pain, but rather than trying to push it away, they say trying to push it away or deny it just gives it more energy and strength.
Third Wave Psychologists and coaches focus on acceptance and commitment which comes with a variety of strategies to help people including such things as writing your epitaph (what’s going to be your legacy), clarifying your values and committing your behavior to them.
It’s interesting that The Third Wave Psychologists approach comes along at a time when more and more people are looking for answer outside of the traditional medical model (which psychiatry and traditional psychotherapy represent). Just look at a 2002 study in Prevention and Treatment, which found that 80% people tested who took the six most popular antidepressants of the 1990’s got the same results when they took a sugar-pill placebo.
The Third Wave Psychologists approaches are very consistent with much of the training and approach that many life coaches receive, inclusive of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and many spiritual approaches to behavioral changes reflected in ancient Buddhist teachings and the more modern version exemplified by Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now). The focus of those approaches reinforces the concepts of acceptance of negative emotions and thoughts, and rather than giving them energy and fighting with them, focus on mindfulness, and a commitment to an alignment of values and behavior.
So What Should You Do?
So what can we learn from all this? First, just engaging in positive affirmations by themselves can do harm to people with low self-esteem, and sometimes give little benefit for those with high-esteem, if those affirmations are not part of a comprehensive program of self-growth, preferably with a knowledgeable professional. And second, the traditional cognitive psychotherapeutic approach of trying to change people’s negative thinking through logical processes may actually be counterproductive, compared to an approach that has people accept their thoughts, not resist them. Engaging in positive behaviors rather than just making affirmations will have a much greater impact and better results.
In an article, Dr. Sophie Henshaw references a study by Drs. Senay, Albarracín, and Noguchi, published in the journal Psychological Science, “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense,” she outlines the research study in which four groups of participants were asked to solve anagrams. Before completing the task, the researchers told them that they were interested in handwriting practices and asked them to write 20 times on a sheet of paper either: “I will,” “Will I,” “I” or “Will.” The group that wrote “Will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as any of the other groups.
From this and similar studies the researchers conducted, they found that asking ourselves is far more powerful than telling ourselves something when we wish to create successful end results.
Sophie goes on to say that that questions can lead to action in ways statements may not. If you’re finding that making statements isn’t working because you don’t believe them, or they’re too easy to ignore, try turning your statements into questions and see if that does a better job for you.
So if affirmations don’t work, what does? The good news is that there is a simple method you can use, apply immediately and have instant and excellent results.
Declarative self-talk is about making self-statements, either positive (e.g., affirmations) or negative (e.g., core beliefs). In contrast, interrogative self-talk is about asking questions.
From this and similar studies the researchers conducted, they found that asking ourselves is far more powerful than telling ourselves something when we wish to create successful end results. Questions are powerful because they probe for answers. They remind us of the resources we do have and they activate our curiosity. All that is required is a simple tweak.
Let’s say you are about to give a presentation and you’re feeling nervous about it. You may find yourself declaring: “I’m terrible at presentations; they never go well for me.” Alternatively you may give yourself a positive pep talk: “I am delivering a great presentation that inspires my audience.”
Both are declarative statements that apply a kind of external pressure to the self and shut down the possibility of accessing the inner resources and creativity needed for success.
However, tweak the above statements so they become questions: “Am I terrible at presentations? Have they ever gone well for me?” Or: “Will I deliver a great presentation that inspires my audience?” Potential answers may be: “I get shy and nervous and people switch off when I talk. However, in my last presentation, I made a point that people found interesting and I really had their attention. How could I expand on that?”
“The last presentation that I did went well. What did I do that worked and how could I do more of that?”
This powerful strategy works better than affirmations because it acknowledges your negative thoughts and feelings and reduces the need to fight them. You start to become an ally to your unconscious mind, which in turn will elicit its cooperation. And the unconscious mind is fantastic at coming up with creative stuff.
Follow this process to effectively apply the interrogative self-talk strategy:
- Draw your awareness to any declared self-statements, whether positive or negative.
- Tweak these statements into questions; e.g.: “I am” into “Am I?”
- Mull over possible answers to these questions and come up with additional questions. “What if..?” produces a particularly fruitful line of enquiry.
Eliciting your curiosity and creativity using this method will put an end to that draining inner struggle, which in turn will reduce the tension in your body and help you relax. It won’t cost you anything and it will position you to reap excellent end results.
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