"On the Nutters Club last Sunday you said that 'positive affirmations don't work'. Why don't they? I thought they were a way to try and make yourself feel better?" Long time listener
Randomly pick up any book in the self-help section of a bookstore and you've probably got about a 50/50 chance of choosing one that tells you how to use positive affirmations.
But what does it mean to "use positive affirmations"?
The cliché is standing in front of the mirror every morning and saying ten times: "I'm a good person". More generally it is intentionally telling yourself positive things about yourself, with the aim of feeling better and eventually believing them.
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As an idea it's appealing; perhaps that's why it's been so popular. Just convince yourself to think something positive, and things change! It may be appealing, but it is wrong. In fact, in some cases it may be dangerous.
If you already have pretty good self-esteem and mental health, affirmations don't make much difference. They may give you a temporary feel good boost, but they certainly don't do any harm.
However, if you suffer from depression, anxiety, have low self-esteem or hold negative ideas about yourself they can make you feel worse, and deepen depression.
Positive affirmations fail in two important ways:
1. If you have negative ideas about yourself, then telling yourself the opposite causes internal conflict that actually makes you feel worse. Many studies have shown that when people with low self-esteem repeat positive statements to themselves, they feel more depressed.
2. If positive affirmations don't match reality, they can set people up to fail. To repeatedly try to tell yourself that you will succeed at everything you try, that you are talented, that you will get that dream job, doesn't help if you have - in reality - little chance of success.
So, what helps? Reality and compassion.
• Rather than trying to convince yourself of the opposite of what you believe - "I AM A GOOD PERSON!!!" - go instead for a neutral or an objective, realistic view
• Focus on specific talents: "I'm a good friend"; "I'm doing well at school"; "I'm a quick learner" rather than global, non-specific ideas
• Aim for boosting self-compassion, rather than self-esteem
• Self compassion is treating yourself like you would a cared about friend or family member, rather than being negative or self critical
• Focus on being kind to yourself, telling yourself it will be OK, that you are worthy of support and love: Be your own cheerleader
• Try to detach yourself from the negative thinking, so that the thinking isn't you but just a thought. Mindfulness meditation really helps with this as well as self compassion more generally
• So don't make yourself miserable with positivity. Get real, get kind and meditate!
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