I’ve been skeptical about helpful quotes and positive affirmations for a long time. To me, they smack of the denial present in some forms of positive thinking: keep up a cheerful facade, and everything will be fine.
I’m not down with this type of philosophy. Anxious people with low self-esteem also need the freedom to acknowledge their struggles in a safe environment, free from judgmental stigma and the oppression of relentless optimism. Sometimes, we need to talk about how not fine everything is.
However, some people swear by the power of positive affirmations. An enormous self-help movement, from Louise Hay to Tony Robbins, has been built on the premise that positive statements about ourselves not only make us feel better, they can heal our lives/minds/bodies/souls/children/parents/goldfish. Oh, and our dogs, too.
So, do positive affirmations really help repair our sense of self-worth? Well, it depends.
Positive Affirmations Can Backfire With Low Self-Esteem
Positive affirmations are meant to counter negative self-talk, the horrible things we say to ourselves, like, “I’m ugly,” “I’m stupid,” or even, “I’m unlovable.” More garden-variety examples might be, “I’m not smart enough to pass this exam,” “My boss hates me, and I’m going to get fired,” or, “I’m bad at public speaking.”
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with countering negative statements about ourselves, psychological studies suggest that many people may be going about it the wrong way.
Negative self-talk is mostly subconscious, right below the level of our awareness. It often reflects our deepest, core beliefs about ourselves, and is a baseline sort of “internal truth.” This doesn’t mean it’s actually true, but it’s what we believe about ourselves on a deep level.
When we impose a positive affirmation (which comes entirely from our conscious mind) onto a deep-seated, unconscious belief, we are, in effect, lying to ourselves. We don’t actually believe the positive statement. We’re engaging in a kind warfare between the conscious and subconscious.
The only problem with going to war with yourself is, you always lose.
A 2012 study by Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo concluded that,
. . . 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.
Wood and her colleagues found that the study participants with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the statement “I am a lovable person.” Those with high self-esteem did feel better after repeating the phrase, but only slightly. Wood also found evidence that suggests countering deeply held negative beliefs with “untrue” positive statements may paradoxically reinforce the very beliefs one is trying to get rid of.
So if positive affirmations don’t really work for anxious people with low self-esteem, what does? The answer may be interrogative versus declarative self-talk.
Positive Questions Instead of Positive Affirmations
Declarative self-talk means making absolute statements about oneself, either positive (e.g., “I’m very good at public presentations”) or negative (e.g., “I never do anything right”). Interrogative self-talk is about asking questions rather than making definitive statements.
A study by Senay, Albarracín, and Noguchi in 2010 had four groups of participants solve a series of anagrams. Each group was asked beforehand to write either “I will” or “Will I” 20 times on a sheet of paper. Those who wrote “Will I” solved twice as many anagrams as those that wrote “I will.”
For example, “I’m no good at public speaking,” and “I will give a perfect presentation at work today” are both absolute, declarative self-statements. But, “Will I give a good presentation at work today?” opens up lots of possibilities for middle ground rather than absolute extremes. Possible answers could include things like, “I get really nervous in front of people, but my last presentation went well overall,” or, “I don’t like it, but once I get going, my fear of public speaking does go way down.”
Positive affirmations can set up a tug of war between the conscious and subconscious mind that may do more harm than good. But interrogative questions about the self allows for more leeway in our self-interpretation.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that building a healthy sense of self-esteem occurs within the multiple shades of grey between black and white thinking. Asking rather than telling ourselves allows a more realistic blend of the positive and negative aspects of our human reality.
And that I am down with.