Why Positive Affirmations Don't Work For Everyone + What To Do Instead

Written by Anneli Rufus

Changing the way we talk about ourselves requires changing the way we think about ourselves. That's a good goal, but it can't happen overnight. Nor will the same methods succeed for all of us.

For instance, consider the world's most popular, most ardently promoted esteem-raising strategy: positive affirmations. They fill dozens of best-selling books, which comprise a hefty chunk of the self-esteem industry.

These are self-comforting, self-praising statements such as I am wonderful or Every decision I make is the right one or I bring brightness to the world.

People with low self-esteem are urged to repeat positive affirmations silently — or, better yet, aloud. Voicing and hearing such statements frequently enough supposedly makes those who voice and hear them believe them.

That's true for some folks. For others, not so much.

In one very revealing study conducted by researchers from Canada's University of New Brunswick and University of Waterloo, two groups of people — one group whose members all had low self-esteem and another group whose members all had high self-esteem — were instructed to repeat the affirmation, "I am a lovable person."

As part of the exercise, all members of both groups were asked to describe how they felt about themselves both before and after repeating the affirmation. The people with high self-esteem felt better about themselves after repeating the affirmation. The people with low self-esteem felt significantly worse about themselves after repeating the affirmation. Another group of people with low self-esteem, also engaged in this study, was not instructed to repeat the affirmation. This last group remained emotionally unchanged — feeling no worse about themselves at the end of the experiment than they had felt when it began.

Of all the people engaged in the experiment, only those with low self-esteem who had said, "I am a lovable person," felt worse after saying the affirmation.

"Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people," the researchers who conducted the study concluded. But the same practice, these researchers added, can "backfire for the very people who need them the most."

Affirmations are a classic example of the would-be remedy fashioned for afflicted people by those who are not themselves afflicted. The idea that self-haters will love themselves if (and because) they say they do — just as repetition helps children memorize the multiplication tables — is laughably, even offensively, simplistic.

It gets even worse than that. Repeating statements that feel false gives people who hate themselves more reason to hate themselves: Before voicing this affirmation, we were ugly losers. After voicing it, we are dishonest, lying, ugly losers.

Never with anything remotely resembling a straight face could I voice these affirmations offered by motivational super-speaker Louise Hay.

I am beautiful and everybody loves me.

I am a joyful breeze entering a room.

I love every cell of my body.

I propose that all of us aim for healthy midrange self-esteem, a gentle state of self-acceptance that liberates us from the self-absorption and narcissism, respectively negative and positive, that can taint both sky-high and rock-bottom self-esteem.

For the affirmation-resistant and the affirmation-immune, one way to approach that state, rather than revolting ourselves with lofty grandiosity, is to create subtler forms of encouraging self-talk: Rather than I love every cell of my body, how about Some of my cells are A-OK?

It's a start.

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