"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.