The Dangers of Positive Thinking and Affirmations

The Dangers of Positive Thinking and Affirmations

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to discuss a new university study which exposes the dangers of positive thinking and affirmations, actually lowering self-esteem; I also reveal the solution.

First a quick update:

“Online dating booming”
While many businesses are hurting, collapsing and folding, online dating is booming and it is the third largest producer of revenue out of websites. Why? Is it not a paradox that at a time when it is hard to afford fancy dinners and gifts, more people are seeking out dates and partners? Are people just seeking out social support and companionship? Is online dating a way to overcome anxiety and grief? Have people’s priorities changed? Do more people seek out a partner when times are tough? And how has the recession positively benefitted men in the dating world? Read the transcript of the comprehensive interview I gave to Jessica Belasco, Reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle.

Now, let’s talk about the dangers of positive thinking and affirmations.

In the nineteen-eighties, the self-help movement saw its rise to popularity. One of its pillars was Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s book from 1952 “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Subsequently, a huge movement began emphasizing positive statements and positive affirmations as a powerful and transformational response to low self-esteem, depression and other mental and emotional ailments. A secondary movement, “The Law of Attraction” focused on the power of affirmations to create a new reality and to get whatever you desire in life – to manifest things.

Over the years, many people have contacted me to complain that they do positive affirmations on a daily basis and their results have not changed and they still feel depressed or suffering from low self-esteem.

On September 24, 2008, I issued a Success Newsletter, “Why affirmations don’t work.” In it, I quoted and referenced excerpts from my book “Get what you want”:

“Affirmations don’t work because there isn’t sufficient repetition and they are in constant battle with deeper long-standing beliefs.”

Those beliefs are emotionally charged. Remember, we learned our beliefs as children one of two ways: constant repetition (usually words from our parents) or an intensely emotional experience. Further, low self esteem is a highly emotionally charged belief and as I explain to my clients and in the Newsletter on affirmations, whenever you contradict any belief, it will meet with strong resistance, no matter how logical or correct you might be. Remember, too, the conscious mind is logical and the subconscious mind is emotional and, we are controlled by our emotional mind which explains why we engage in behaviors that we logically know are bad for us.

The question remains, though, how can any positive words spoken prove to be dangerous or ironically, negative? Does resistance alone, to the positive statement, make us worse?

The answer is “Yes”, if you already have low self-esteem but “No” if you have healthy self-esteem.

Let me explain via the findings of a new study.

Doctors Joanne Wood and John Lee from the University of Waterloo in Canada along with Doctor Elaine Perunovic from the University of New Brunswick conducted a study with 68 men and women.

Two experiments revealed that participants with low self-esteem, who repeated a positive affirmation: “I’m a lovable person” or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not do the affirmation at all. The low self-esteem group also felt worse doing the affirmation “I’m a lovable person” than the low self-esteem group who simply focused on how that affirmation is both true and not true.

Participants with high self-esteem who repeated the affirmation “I’m a lovable person”, felt better (with their self-esteem raised) than those who did not do the affirmation.  And the participants with high self-esteem who focused on how true the statement is “I’m a lovable person” also felt better than those who did not focus on the truth of that statement.

The conclusion is that any time you try to go against the way you feel and what you believe about yourself, you will have resistance and you core beliefs will fight to be right, to be vindicated. And, the better you feel about yourself, the easier it is to affirm your way to feeling even better; success breeds success.

Does that mean that if you are depressed or suffering from low self-esteem that you are doomed or beyond help?

No, not at all – as I will explain in a moment.

First, here are some comments from readers which support firsthand negative experiences using positive affirmations when feeling down, depressed or suffering from low self-esteem:

“My life has been strongly affected by a particularly involved type of depression, and my attempts at utilizing ‘affirmations’ lead to bouts of staring in the mirror and muttering slogans of self-loathing.”

“When depressed or otherwise in low self-esteem mode, making positive statements can also lead to thinking one is a failure because one can’t even “do” positive thinking right!”

“Making blanket affirmations, especially ones that go against your core beliefs, makes no sense and can indeed have a negative effect on self-esteem. Saying “I am lovable” when you feel like the world hates you is a slap in the face.”

What then, is the answer to shifting your perceptions when you suffer from low self-esteem or when you simply have moments of feeling “I am a loser…I am a waste of space…I am hopeless…I am ugly, etc”?

The findings of the study illustrates the point that you make your friend or even partner worse, when you deny what they feel and believe. And you do the same to yourself when you deny what you feel and believe about yourself.

The answer is to “begin with where you are and what you feel” and gradually shift via cognitive work without raising subconscious and emotional resistance. Rather than denying the feeling or belief, use it as leverage. For example,

“I am a loser”

“So you feel like a loser. What lead you to feel that way?

In what ways could you be a winner?”

The emphasis here is to use the word, “feel” which helps the person to see that being a loser is not permanent – it’s a feeling. Second, identify how the person came to feel like a loser and third; shift their attention to what they can do to feel like a winner i.e. take action that will help them to feel better and help them to see they can now take control and not be a victim.

Remember, too, you can use positive affirmations and statements when you are feeling good as it reinforces those feelings and beliefs but don’t make radical, extreme statements that you instantly feel as unbelievable; begin with small steps and build.

Using hypnosis audio programs can also help to shift your feelings and beliefs because it works on a subconscious level, uses imagery and symbolism to shift your thinking and perception and, it helps to release negative emotions. Check out the hypnosis audio programs that you can use to make positive change in your life here.

If you would like to comment on this newsletter, click here. If you have received this newsletter as a forward and would like to receive all of my newsletters please enter your email address on the home page.

I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & Clinical Hypnotherapist

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3 replies
  1. Avatar
    John says:

    Very interesting article and reply by Alli. I certainly think positive thinking is the way to go but I do tend to be a solutions finder rather than a problem finder. Some of that trait is nature and some training and learning.

    However I do think the statement “When depressed or otherwise in low self-esteem mode, making positive statements can also lead to thinking one is a failure because one can’t even “do” positive thinking right!” is a key point. If you want change and fail with “Positive Thinking” I am sure you are going feel at dead end and if you are in low self-esteem mode that could devastating.
    Self-learning positive thinking is a good tool for people with “normal” range self-talk. People with self-talk in the range where it is debilitating may need guided positive thinking with cognitive therapy. It is a failure of many self help books and Gurus to understand or ignore the difference.
    Stay Well Stay Happy

  2. Avatar
    Josten says:

    Affirmations don’t work because there isn’t sufficient repetition and they are in constant battle with deeper long-standing beliefs.”

    ^ that quote is a definite reason for many people not believing in positive thinking. great post

  3. Avatar
    Alli says:

    I think this is an excellent article because it’s realistic!!!! I agree that you really have to feel good about yourself first. Personally, I found this to be a process of years…. In my own humble experience, learning new skills and reading a lot has made me feel more confident about myself. That is, I feel like I have developed competence, values, qualities and hobbies that make me unique and that can define meee. The more confident about myself I get, the more I feel like I can BELIEVE affirmations that I read and say. I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s a process of development that needs to happen. One must gain more skills and knowledge and work on developing their own system of beliefs and values. They got to consciously know what they are and what they are not and appreciate that individuality. I think it ALWAYS goes back to people INVESTING IN THEMSELVES. When you invest in yourself, you see a result and that result spurs you on to do more and to be better which becomes a positive cascade….
    But I do know that this subject is more complex than that, because people need to love themselves, and really, how do you get people to love themselves enough to invest in themselves? I mean, I’ve tried helping a depressed friend or two see their good attributes and it didn’t help. Actually, the relationships suffered and I had to stop being their friend because they were not only sabotaging themselves but me too!!! I do think that a person must have that starting ember to turn into a flame of self love and positivity. And, you can only keep an ember burning and raise its heat if there’s a fire there to begin with. Some people just don’t have that fire, and to that I say, don’t try to help them because they’ll just try to sink you with them! Lessons learned!

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