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Positive Thinking

Positive Affirmations, Power or Peril?

Psychologist Joanne Wood’s study Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others got a brief write up over at intentblog.
I first heard of this study via Oliver Burkman’s article, The Power of Negative Thinking. Burkeman casts doubt on the merits of positive affirmations by quoting the study, “such statements make people with low self-esteem feel worse”. Maggie at intentblog also seems uncertain of the value of positive affirmations: “There’s scientific reason to be skeptical about the value of self-affirmation.”
Burkeman’s single sentence quote fails to provide sufficient detail to indicate what conclusions should be drawn from Wood’s study regarding positive affirmations. Maggie’s post supplies more detail about the study, indicating that summary dismissal of affirmations is not warranted.

Let’s set aside for a moment the shortcomings of such a study— short term results are not always predictive of long term results. Dictated self-affirmations are somewhat oxymoronic; affirmations can be suggested or even recommended, but ultimate selection of statements are best left up to the individual. Particularly in matters of the mind, belief effects outcomes. Were participants queried about their personal opinions on the effectiveness of self-affirmations? Reciting affirmations with no background in to the how/why of them insufficiently instructs the recitee: what does one do with the inevitable contrary thought?
Even with those limitations of the study, it still noticed a short term benefit for some participants. But not everyone.
Some participants became more self-critical after the exercise. The study qualified these participants as having “low self-esteem”, but that term in and of itself is problematic. We all have an internal reactive dialog. Some call it the critical voice, others call it the parental voice. Whatever name you give it, some of us let it go in one proverbial ear and out the other. Others pay attention to it, dwell on it, and allow it to set their opinions of themselves. And therein lies the problem. People may state/explain/excuse/justify the fact that they give power to that voice: “I have low self-esteem”. Such statements are ultimately irrelevant and only serve to excuse continuing the comfortable-yet-self-destructive mental habit of heeding that voice. How do you think a mind so habituated will respond to a PhD labelling them as having low self-esteem? Surely, such a label will again reinforce the persistence of the undesirable mental habit.
Wisely, the authors of this study— rather than deem self-affirmations too problematic— recommended a strategy to diminish the internal reactive dialog: change the affirmation to something that seems true and positive. Maggie:

Instead of affirming “I am a generous person” they advise to look for positive characteristics that seem true for that respective individual like “I am good at selecting gifts which create joy.”

Seems is the operative term, as “true” is subjective in this case. “I am generous” is either true or not to you solely based on your internal barometer of self-worth.
While this strategy is sound, I recommend adding another strategy that may be better, though it requires some effort: supplement the affirmation with a supporting action. If you are having a hard time believing that you are generous, take on doing something generous. Generous as in something that is above and beyond how you currently are, something that would move the needle on your internal barometer of self-worth. “Yes, I was generous this weekend. I bought some cans of soup and brought them to my neighbor, for no other reason than to be generous, and it felt great!” It is amazing how taking even a small action in the direction of your affirmation can rewire synapses. Whereas before that affirmation may have dialed up the volume on your reactionary voice, now that reactionary voice is much smaller, and more easily brushed away.
Positive self-affirmations look easy on the outside, but are actually more involved than a casual observer might guess. When properly used they can have significant benefits.