13 May Why Don’t My Positive Affirmations Work?
“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 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 latest, The Secret, have encouraged people with low self-esteem to make positive self-statements or affirmations. Research suggests it may do more harm than good to many people.
Canadian researcher, Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who have recently 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 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 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 that are so unbelievable that it 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?
That’s where we encounter even more controversy.
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’d 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 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 can we learn from all this? Two things–first, just engaging in positive affirmations by themselves, can do harm to people with low self-esteem, and provide only 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 and give more energy to them by thinking about them, but rather engage in positive behaviours.
Ray Williams is a Mentor at ViRTUS specializing in leadership development, mentoring and C-Suite coaching. Ray is committed to helping clients make transformational changes in life and work and is known as one of Canada’s top CEO Coaches.