What’s the myth:
Repeating positive affirmations to yourself daily (“I’m worthy/ I deserve all that is good/ I’m strong/ I love and accept myself,” etc.) will enhance how you feel about yourself, will make you see yourself more favourably and will put you a King-of-the-Hill state of mind.
Why it doesn’t work:
There is a lot of research out there on why simply chanting positive mantas doesn’t quite deliver. Here is the most prominent evidence I’ve come across:
*The most buzzworthy work on the topic was published by Prof. Joanne Wood—a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Her tests demonstrated that repeating positive statements (“I’m a lovable person”) made people with low self-esteem feel worse about themselves.
There are few explanations to this from the psychology savants, but they all allude to the same idea—people tend to side with feedback or statements that confirm their pre-existing beliefs, including of themselves, and reject the ones that are different. It’s called a Self-verification Theory.
Therefore, if you don’t think highly of yourself, no one, including you, can’t convince you otherwise.
*Using “self-enhancers” can make you self-delusional. There is nothing wrong with carrying around a bit of a positive aura, as I previously wrote in one of my pieces. In fact, it’s been shown to have a favorable link to self-esteem elevation. But too much of the goodies can turn people hostile, lacking social skills, anxious and moody, according to a decades-long study. They usually become too sensitive to criticism and try to hide their flaws from themselves.
Positive self-esteem is good, the researchers concluded, but only when it’s based on reality. You have to acknowledge your shortcomings, don’t pretend they don’t exist.
*Trying incessantly to convince yourself of the wonderful, lovable and deserving person that you are can not only backfire, but also have adverse long-term mental health costs. Distortions of reality can lead to narcissism, which is a personality disorder.
Studies have confirmed that overly positive self-enhancements can lead to a myriad of issues, such as sliding self-esteem and well-being, and won’t translate into improved performance, which one can expect from someone who has firm beliefs in themselves.
In his book— “The Optimistic Child”—Prof. Martin Seligman (considered the “father of positive psychology”) argues that praising children with the purpose of making them just “feel good” about themselves can lead to depression as children can perceive insincerity and unauthentic acclaim.
“In order for your child to experience mastery, it is necessary for him to fail, to feel bad, and try again repeatedly until success occurs. None of these steps can be circumvented. Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good.”
Simply put—kudos can be counter-productive.
What to do instead:
An avalanche of recent research suggests that trying to live in a perpetual California-state-of-mind is not going to help you feel the warmth and calm you seek. At least not for long.
Attempting to tuck your foibles under the shiny armour you want to project to the world is also not a way to build self-belief. Because in the end it all comes down to this—how well can you sell to yourself your “I’m-great-and-worthy” story?
And if deep down you don’t quite accept your self-preachings, you are on a wild-goose chase.
But not all is lost to Never-land.
Here is some help:
*A piece in the Scientific American a while ago provides evidence that, indeed, positive thinking can be a negative thing. There is a difference, the article warns, between a “realistic optimism” state, where you hope for the best but are still prepared to accept an unhappy ending, and an “unrealistic optimism” –which is plainly self-delusions.
The problem with positive thinking is that if it doesn’t give you the results you want, you may end up blaming yourself for not doing it properly and ultimately—failing yourself.
So, sometimes, looking at the glass half-empty may be the more sustainable way of being.
*Self-acceptance is another hyped concept of recent years, but it does a better job at enhancing your self-esteem than positive affirmations. In one of my previous posts, I wrote about the right way to self-accept.
Rather than trying to convince yourself of things you don’t quite believe in (the positive affirmations), accept that you are not perfect. But you shouldn’t go that far as to beat yourself up about how stupid and useless you are—such dialog from the other side of the spectrum is also no good.
Try to acknowledge that darkness does exist—that’s all. Bad things happen and will continue to happen; you may not always have your happily-ever-after; or be liked by everyone. It’s called life.
*According to Prof. Seligman, the best way to feel better about yourself is to change your explanatory style—that is, how you explain to yourself the events that happen to you. If you characterise adversity as temporary, specific to an event (rather than occurring all the time) and external (not over-blaming yourself for failures), you can be quite successful in believably selling this story to yourself.
In the end, positive affirmations are a seductive idea—repeat 100 times a day you are great and voila—you suddenly are. Nothing short of pure magic!
But as studies evidence, overly positive affirmations are not the gift that keeps on giving. They don’t really advance the dreamy notion that you can develop self-esteem and acceptance by merely chanting yourself into oblivion.
A more elegant and less taxing solution is to simply face the music—that you are work-in-progress, but you will find a way to get “there”—wherever “there” is for you.
Now you just need to draft a plan and follow through.
It’s less a magical route but it actually works.