I read a fascinating blog post yesterday, titled “Why Don’t I Feel Better: The Truth About Positive Affirmations and Self Help Books?” by Ray Williams, which can be found here: http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fpposted/archive/2009/08/03/why-don-t-i-feel-better-the-truth-about-positive-affirmations-and-self-help-books.aspx
In the blog, Mr. Williams reports on a study conducted by Canadian researcher, Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick “who have recently published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, [and] concluded that ‘repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.’”
This may come as a surprise to many of us in the coaching profession who strongly support the “power of positive thinking” as a tool for helping our clients change their lives.
The research conducted by Dr. Wood posits that people with particularly low self-esteem may respond poorly (feel worse) when they are instructed to repeat “positive affirmations” to themselves. This is mainly because those individuals with such low self-esteem simply cannot believe themselves “lovable”, “successful”. “capable” etc. Repeating these affirmations only makes them feel less lovable, successful or capable, not more so. It’s as if each affirmation, though intended to reinforce positive feelings, is just a reminder to these folks that they still have a long way to go before they feel good. (I know I have felt that way sometimes!)
However, Mr. Williams points out, “positive affirmations can help when they are part of a broader program of intervention. That intervention can take place in a number of forms such as cognitive psychotherapy or working with a coach who has expertise in the behavioral sciences.”
In other words, simply repeating positive phrases to yourself without the support and encouragement of a coach or therapist may not effect any significant change in your life. Rather, a more holistic approach — one that doesn’t deny negative thoughts, but rather accepts them — may prove to be more helpful.
Mr. Williams mentions theorists whom he terms “Third Wave Psychologists” who “encourage mindfulness, the meditation-inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled by them” and “argue that trying to correct negative thoughts can paradoxically actually intensify them.”
These psychologists “acknowledge that negative thoughts recur throughout our life and instead of challenging or fighting with them, we should concentrate on identifying and committing to our values in life…we have pain, but rather than trying to push it away, they say trying to push it away or deny it just gives it more energy and strength.”
While there is nothing wrong with focusing our attention on positive intentions to manifest the outcomes we desire, we must also be ready to encounter those negative thoughts and behaviors that tend to hold us back. When we do, the key element to overcoming them is not to deny them, or degrade ourselves for having them, but rather to accept that we have thoughts and behaviors that we often term “negative” but that just “are”. We can let those feelings come and go, stay unattached to them and re-focus our energies on what we truly want in life. Doing so may lead us further down the path to serenity.