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Positive Thinking

Canadian Researchers Show that Self Help Doesn't Help (Sometimes)

posted 01:50 PM EST, Sat July 04, 2009
Self Help Doesn't Help © Photo: Notsogoodphotography

We all know of the power of positive thinking, but new research demonstrates that for some people, positive thinking can lead to feeling worse. Chanting positive mantras may be a self help technique that hurts, instead of helps.

Can positive thinking be bad for you?

Self help therapies tend to boil down complicated theoretical knowledge into easily practiced and comprehensible "feel-good" exercises.  Chanting positive affirmations has been a practiced self help technique for decades, an easy way for people to feel better about themselves, requiring only a few minutes of time each day.

These techniques make intuitive sense and have a compelling simplicity, but do they actually work?

Well, not always and not as they're supposed to, say Canadian researchers who had people chant positive and affirming statements about themselves, and found that the practice, which was supposed to raise self esteem, made some people feel worse. Problematically, the people that ended up feeling worse after the exercise were the people with the low self esteem to begin with; the very people likely to be looking for a self help solution!

Psychologist Joanne Wood led a research team out of the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick and she recruited study subjects that had both low and high self esteem.

She measured each subject's mood and then had each subject repeat a mantra of affirming statements, such as, "I am a loveable person"; and then once again measured mood – post chanting.

She found that people that began with high self esteem felt very marginally better after the exercise, but that people who began with low self esteem, actually felt worse at the end of it.

Wood explains the results by speculating that the mind is not so easily fooled and that while a person with low self esteem recites positive affirmations, a voice inside disagrees - says Woods, "So, if they're saying 'I'm a lovable person,' they might be thinking, 'Well, I'm not always lovable' or 'I'm not lovable in this way,' and these contradictory thoughts may overwhelm the positive thoughts."

Woods retested the subjects with low self esteem, this time measuring mood pre and post a chanting of negative affirmations; and found that a negative mantra actually made people with low self esteem feel better!

The researchers speculate that repeating statements that are not perceived to be accurate can simply remind a person "how they don't measure up" to external standards.

Dr. Woods does not dismiss all of popular self help literature as negative, but does recommend that people avoid any self help technique that relies on the repeating of positive mantras.

British Psychologist Simon Delsthorpe, in commenting on the research, recommended that people with low self esteem get counseling to build real life confidence (and then improve areas of life, such as career, relationships, appearance etc.) rather than simply misleading yourself that "things are better than they are."

The full research data can be reviewed in "Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others" published in Psychological Science.

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