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The Dark Side of Self-Help

By Katie Goldsmith | September 16, 2009 | 8 comments

"I am a beautiful person." "I am capable of anything." Self-help books and motivational speakers are often quick to recommend these kinds of personal mantras to make us feel better about ourselves. But it seems that for many of us, this technique may actually do more harm than good: According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, these statements may only help people who already have high self-esteem, and may make things worse for people with low self-esteem.

In the study, led by psychologist Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo in Canada, people took a survey to measure their self-esteem. Then Wood and her colleagues randomly assigned these people to one of two conditions, with equal numbers of people with high self-esteem and low self-esteem in each group. In one condition, participants wrote down any thoughts or feelings they had over four minutes. In the other condition, participants not only wrote down their thoughts and feelings but had to repeat to themselves "I am a lovable person" every time they heard a sound like a doorbell. This cue occurred 16 times. After the writing task, participants again completed surveys measuring their mood and self-esteem.

The results showed that the people with low self-esteem who had to tell themselves how lovable they were felt worse after the writing task than they did before the writing task; they also felt worse than people with low self-esteem in the other condition. The people with high self-esteem who repeated the statement felt slightly better after the task than before it and also felt better than their counterparts who did not repeat the statement.

The researchers speculate that people with low self-esteem might have been harmed by the "lovable" statement because those kinds of personal affirmations may remind them that they aren't measuring up to standards they have for themselves.

With that assumption in mind, the researchers did a follow-up study in which participants once again had to repeat "I am a lovable person." In one condition, participants were told to focus on ways and times that the statement is true for them. But in the other condition, participants were told to focus on ways the statement is true for them and ways that it is not true for them. They found that people with low self-esteem had better moods when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were told to focus exclusively on the positive.

The researchers suggest that not all kinds of personal affirmations are necessarily bad for people with low self-esteem. For instance, they write, "statements involving specific attributes (e.g., 'I select good gifts for people') may be less likely than global (e.g., 'I am a generous person') or extremely positive self-statements to arouse disconfirming thoughts."

Still, they caution that people should think twice before embracing the "outlandish, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as 'I accept myself completely,' [that] are often encouraged by self-help books. Our results suggest that such self-statements may harm the very people they are designed for: people low in self-esteem."

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About The Author

Katie Goldsmith is a Greater Good editorial assistant.

  

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great article and interesting – - –

and that is probably why it is usually recommended in the more profound guides to use affirmations one can truly believe in, to not cause a split. that goes in all spheres. for example if one cannot believe in “i am slim and in perfect shape” while looking in the mirror, it is better to use “i am getting slimmer and slimmer everyday, better and better into great shape. the more i practice the more it’s becoming easier and of more fun for me”. or something like that.

gilbar | 11:12 am, September 16, 2009 | Link

 

From reviewing the article it sound like the experiment was conducted in a relatively brief moment in time.  I wonder what the findings would be if people had to repeat the affirmations over a two-week or two-month period?  Could the “newness” of the affirmation be impacting the results?

Coach Scott Graham | 11:32 am, October 7, 2009 | Link

 

Interesting post. Thanks.

Lauren | 1:12 pm, October 8, 2009 | Link

 

Although not referenced in the article, this could be more evidence that explains the failure of many self-esteem programs.  Self-efficacy better gets to the underlying belief.

Steve Safigan | 9:46 am, October 12, 2009 | Link

 

I wonder if the results would have been different if the participants with low self-esteem had more education and control in the study. Providing the participants with education about the types of affirmations they could use, or letting them create messages that are more closely aligned with where they see themselves. They could be instructed to slowly improve the messages over time so it doesn’t seem so extreme or incongruent.

Angi Dahl | 10:55 am, October 12, 2009 | Link

 

Language is powerful, that we know. It can build us up or tear us down. Isn’t it fascinating how: 1) our human psyche ingests information and 2) then refracts off all the internal filters* life instills in us, which then 3) mirrors against the deep-seated beliefs & perceptions we cling to and 4) then it reflects upon our own dis-comfort with the truth of the information and ultimately 5) we react (which has no doubt altered our internal emotional balance).
I’d like to see the study repeated with a preparatory statement given to the low self-esteem group. Something like: “act, or pretend you believe everything you hear”
I wonder – if the brain would process the information differently?
I wonder – if the clinician were speaking about something they actually see in the person if that would process positively – instead of a blanket statement, find something unique & specific to reiterate.
Fun to ponder! Thanks to you for posting this article & Thanks to the researchers for opening this window – it does make me wonder about approaching the use of positive affirmations.

Barbara | 6:20 am, October 16, 2009 | Link

 

This interesting conclusion goes along with what Sonja Lyubomirsky said at the seminar Why to Be Good, How to Be Happy.  An experiment with depressed individuals writing gratitude lists every day could make them more depressed.  When you feel depressed you have a harder time of finding things to be grateful for and that is depressing!
——-

Felice Urban | 8:53 pm, November 29, 2009 | Link

 

Well, it’s an interesting study and a good article, but research is always just that. It’s a good finding, but an important thing is the whole “outlandish” part. If you’re trying to take yourself from a 0, terrible feeling to a 10 then you’re probably not buying in at all.

Of course, if you said something believable and conceivable then surely you could get most people to feel better. The real key IMO is that you need to be able to buy in to the belief that things can be better for you.

Robin Alley | 1:37 am, May 15, 2010 | Link

 
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