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The powerlessness of positive thinking

Self-affirming statements actually make some people feel worse


 

Canadian scientists have some bad news for those in the self-help business: positive thinking can actually make people with low self-esteem feel worse about themselves. Joanne V. Wood, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo who co-authored the soon-to-be-published article with John W. Lee (University of Western Ontario) and W.Q. Elaine Perunovic (University of New Brunswick), spoke with Maclean’s about why self-affirming mantras such as “I am a lovable person” may actually do more damage than good.

Q: Tell me a bit about your studies?
A: We identified people who were low in self-esteem and high in self-esteem. We invited them into the lab and assigned them randomly to one of two conditions. In both conditions, they were asked to write down their thoughts and feelings. In one condition, in addition to that writing task, they were asked to repeat “I am a lovable person.” We found that those with high self-esteem were slightly better off in the positive self-statement condition than in the other condition. They were a little bit happier. We found the opposite effect for the other group. People with low self-esteem who repeated the positive self-statement were actually lower in mood and worse in their feelings about themselves than in the condition where they didn’t repeat the positive self-statement.

Q: Did you do things beyond that?
A: In another study, we instructed people to then focus on the statement “I am a lovable person.” In one condition they were told they could write down ways that it was true of them and not true of them. In the other, they were told to focus only on ways that were true of them. Again, it had the opposite effect for people with low self-esteem than you might expect. If they were low in self-esteem and were required to focus only on how they were a lovable person, they were worse off.

Q: Why did people with low self-esteem feel worse after repeating the statement?
A: We think they thought about the positive self-statement and then thought contradictory thoughts. So they might have had thoughts about ways in which they weren’t lovable, [which] overwhelmed the positive thoughts.

Q: What about in the case of people with high self-esteem who felt better after saying the statement?
A: I think they enjoyed thinking positive thoughts and it gave them a little boost. It wasn’t that big, but it’s interesting that the positive self-statements seemed to work for people who don’t need them.

Q: How does your finding fit in with the way we put so much emphasis on positive thinking?
A: It suggests that for many people it doesn’t work. I’ve heard from people saying ‘I’ve been reading self-help books for 10 years and repeating positive statements has not helped me.’ They’ve said, ‘I’m so sick of my friends and family telling me to focus on the positive because it doesn’t work for me.’ Some have gone so far as to say that the emphasis we have in our society on thinking positively puts pressure on people and it’s unrealistic.

Q: Are there other options for people who feel that positive thinking doesn’t work for them?
A: Unfortunately, we don’t really know much about how to improve self-esteem. People tend to feel better about themselves when they’re in a positive mood. There is one self-help book I’d recommend by Sonja Lyubomirsky [a psychologist at the University of California] called The How of Happiness, because it’s based on research. Most self-help books are not based on any research whatsoever.

Q: What are they based on?
A: They’re based on personal experience, or something that seems to make intuitive sense. It makes sense that if you say positive things you’re going to feel better. That’s the importance of research, really showing whether or not these sorts of things help. [Lyubomirsky’s] book focuses on documented ways in which people can increase their happiness.

Q: Besides the book, are there other suggestions for people who feel positive thinking isn’t an effective tool for them?
A: There’s very little research showing what will help people’s self-esteem, but one study I know of found that people who have been in a loving, supportive relationship have improved their self-esteem. So I think if you can find a loving, supportive partner that’s probably the best possibility for your self-esteem.

Q: Does it have to be a romantic partner, or do family and friends work too?
A: The research I’m talking about only involved romantic partners. I would think it would have to be someone really close to you.

Q: If positive thinking doesn’t work for so many people, why is there so much emphasis on it? Self-help books are rolling off the presses.
A: I know, I know! For most people it does have this intuitive appeal. They think it should work. And it seems like a pretty easy way to improve self-esteem. There’s a mix of good intentions by the people writing them, a lack of knowledge about the importance of research, and an eagerness to make money.


 

The powerlessness of positive thinking

  1. All self-esteem is based on truth, so "I am a lovable person" will only work if you are a lovable person. Likewise, if you're more a Genghis Khan type, your self-esteem should rise if you keep affirming "I smash my enemies like tornadoes smash the woods." The truth will set you free.

  2. the benefits of positive thinking are supposed to be over long term. Two aspects of it are being confused here, the initial effect and long term ones are different and understandably so. Positive thinking long term, in terms of self help is not focused on thinking "I am a good person" , repeat; it's about ending overwhelming negative thoughts that have entered subconsciously. It's not about focusing on the positive entirely, it's about focusing on not being negative.
    This article seems to be countering positive affirmation as a self help mechanism. Positive thinking, as prescribed by campaigns such as the complaint free world campaign is not simply positive affirmation.

    • Where is it written that negative thoughts are bad per se? It seems to me that our society's relentless focus on the positive (with the implication that if you are not positive you are bad) is to blame for the crushing of people's self-esteem, for negative thoughts thereby produce guilt, the enemy of self-esteem.

      • It's more about where a person is on the spectrum. Some negative thoughts, not so bad, maybe even healthy. Lots of negative thoughts, might be something to watch out for, but still not critical.

        But for some folks, well they seem (and might admit) to being essentially constantly overwhelmed by negative thoughts; that, I think, is an extremely 'tough row to hoe', as the saying goes.

        • Hear hear, and whatever works for such people should be tried, if they're willing, for their own sake.

  3. This article and the underlying research sounds very simplistic and focussed. There obviously needs to be more research done in this area, or people like Rhonda Byrne (The Secret) and the likes will continue exploiting the average desperate person and make millions. Then the poor readers will only get more depressed and the pharmaceutical industry gets richer.

  4. It shouldn't be solely focused on the self. This is the biggest problem, when our lives take precedence over the others. This ignores the fact that we need others for our survival, so if you base your thoughts on. the positive though you're not living it, you will be living in conflict

  5. be the weakest insecure addicted person absolved of any inkling of esteem , vocabulary and social manners and double this with a poverty lifestyle with no home coupled with all the bad habits one can muster and sneer at everyone you meet so you are alone and never look after your personal hygiene and smell like a pile of excrement with broken brown teeth and breath to match the killing fields with rotting human flesh of a crazy war….how long do you think a person can exist without the help of books or people shouting positive this and that…this would be interesting…or not

  6. Why does any of this surprise us? We live in a culture where we do what we're told. Hence we ask others how we should feel, and then second-guess ourselves as to our own feelings.

    • BINGO!!! Well said! I've been a free thinker all my life and nine times out of ten, my decisions work well for me when I think through them carefully without outside influences. If I goof up, it's usually minor and correctible. The key for me has been creative in my problem-solving and patting myself on the back if I succeed, and learning from the mistakes I might make.

      I also have many hobbies that I do in my down time, and it gives me a huge boost when I finish a project. I get to look at the finished product (or hear it–I also write music).

      I've always felt that if a person who feels a little lost or dissatisfied might want to consider finding something creative that they'd be good at, whether painting, drawing, music, whatever. I had some very serious personal challenges growing up and not much access to counselling help, and being creative, in my own experience and finding creative solutions are what kept me going. Too many people restrict themselves from their own creative potential, I think, and that is kinda sad. If one type of project doesn't work out, it helps to just chalk it up to experimentation rather than flop, them move on to something else that could work out better than expected.

      Creativity enhances individuality, and individuality promotes free thought, at least from my experience. I know it made me a better person and I like what I see in the mirror; at the same time, the challenges from my past enable me to empathize with others.

      I believe that freedom comes from within, primarily. You have to be WILLING to be free, but the goal is worth the effort, believe me.

  7. I think I'd rather pull my nostril hairs out through my sphincter then partake in one of these studies.
    "…asked to write down their thoughts and feelings…" "…asked to repeat 'I am a lovable person' "

    Good grief.

  8. I think I'd rather pull my nostril hairs out through my sphincter than partake in one of these studies.
    "…asked to write down their thoughts and feelings…" "…asked to repeat 'I am a lovable person' "

    Good grief. Why not just castrate themselves and have done with it?

    • Ewww, that's quite a picture you paint there (lol)…but you're right. Ever had the misfortune of going through one of those 'employment readiness' courses? I took a real financial kick in the keester back in 2000 and got subjected to one of those for six long months. 90% of that course was all about that. I got yelled at a lot because I kept cracking jokes through it all…can't say which was funnier–pulling those jokes or the reactions I got.

      It almost felt like they were trying to change my language from English to Sheep-ish, but it was required…never again! I flunked the course, natch–but I sure got to work on my verbal delivery…*snicker snicker*

  9. The problem with re-inforcing an ego is that you end up re-inforcing the ego. If people spent half as much effort in helping others as they do about thinking about themselves they would be very and i mean very surpised buy the outcome.

    • Hence one of the reasons for the post I just made, Wayne. Re-inforcing the ego is just that, and largely superficial–I believe that what truly makes a person is not necessarily what they appear to be, but what that person can DO and what they can learn from their past achievements and mistakes. Once that is accomplished, sharing the knowledge can be a blast. I'm a senior employee/lead hand at my workplace and enjoy a rich relationship with my co-workers because I find it a natural thing to advocate for them when it's needed. I kid you not, I have to plead with them to leave me something to do when I take over from their shifts, and I've never had to 'ride herd' on any of them, ever. Other senior employees had complained about the same people, but I've never had a problem because I treat them with respect and will listen to them when they have concerns.

      It also helps to have a warped sense of humour…and I love humour. I often post fresh jokes in the office while nobody's looking, and I have a lot of fun doing it. It takes up so little of my time, but the payoff is unmeasureable.

      Now, if they'd only clue in at the House Of Commons…*sigh*

  10. Self-affirming statements do work, but they have to be accompanied by corresponding (non-conflicting) physical actions.
    Like say you are nervous and insecure about taking the lead at a staff meeting. You say to yourself: "I'll be fine, I'm confident, I have worthwile things to say, I'll be appreciated for what I can contribute". If, then, you also "Smile", "Stand Tall", "Wear a face expression of confidence and receptiveness"…then presto boingo the affirming statements work.

    "It is easier to act yourself into a way of thinking, than to think yourself into a way of acting."

  11. People should realise that positive thinking is it's self a negative in the "equation". What most people do not realise is that when someone tells someone to just think positively, they are immediately met with opposition on the quantum molecular level of thought processing in which we are in a constant battle with positive / negative reconstruction of information. The best way to help someone to recover from low self esteem is to allow them to negate their own thoughts by using logic and common sense.
    http://www.ucolat.com The Zeroth Law of Emotional Dynamics

  12. no wonder, its the same thing as with drugs, drugs can make u feel worse if u felt not very good before taking them and drugs can make u happier if u was already happy before u take them, i think its the law of nature, nature punish everyone who feel bad and nature nurishes everyone who are already happy with their lifes. it seems not fair, but its like that and we cant do nothing about it.

  13. I think the only people benefiting from the power of positive thinking are the snake oil salesmen promoting their self-help programs.

  14. so because a psychologist says something means its true lol. positive thinking does work. What do you think psychologist's do? Why do they have the job they have? To make themselves rich. The job outline of a psychologist is to help solve suffering peoples problems lol. How do they do that? it's called medicine. They are in cohoots with the pharmacudical company's. They get a percentage of every prescription they write. I can't believe people don't know this yet. I mean what do they figure they do their job for? free? so because people who do positive thinking have the things other's who do not do the thinking they are gonna put it all down. That is really low,,,,

  15. The world would be much better off relying less on research, which, at the University level, is usually conducted over very short periods of time; i.e. one term or 8 – 12 weeks. When dealing with issues that have been constructed over a lifetime, it is foolish to extrapolate the findings of an afternoon (in this case) to one's future mental health. University researchers are driven by publication (even quoted in MacLeans magazine will get an entry into the CV), not necessarily the truth. The thread of this conversation is interesting, if somewhat scattered, in that it reveals the many beliefs, and mis-beliefs of a population. I believe that low self-esteem can be improved dramatically, but only through positive changes in thought and action, and engaging in helping others. One only has to work with the disadvantaged to understand how incredibly good, and valuable, one is intrinsically. Cheers

  16. I would like to know what actually causes low self esteem.? Does the person compare themselves too much against other people? I believe we are all worthy and good people. When growing up at times I was told get lost I was good for nothing. I was born dumb and on top of that I learned nothing. But guess what I never ever believed that. For when I was told that that was just the other parents opinion.
    It was not my opinion of what I thought of myself. Growing up I was always a giving person. It just made me grow all the more better. So I would think that thinking positive does help alot

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