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Archive for 06/06/2011

Affirming

There is something comical about the frustrated using impossible means to an end – example- in Fawlty Towers remember Basil punishing his car by beating it with a tree branch. Does it make the car behave better? No, it makes Basil ridiculous and us laugh, the car is unmoved and unmoving.

 

Think of the person with very low self esteem earnestly saying some affirming phrase. What happens? The person feels ridiculous and their self esteem is further damaged. We cannot fool ourselves; saying something that we do not believe is not going to accomplish anything.

 

I think there is a way of having productive conversations with ourselves. Ask questions. Does this ring a bell? Something surprising occurs and you think ‘What was that?’ and immediately a few possibilities spring to mind. What, when, where, how, why, who, which, whether, how much, etc. those are some questions we should be asking ourselves if we want to improve a situation.

 

A somewhat cartoon-like way to see this is as a bunch workers in rooms. They can phone one another if necessary but they also have an intercom. X has a problem and can get no help from its usual phone contacts so it goes on the ‘blower’ and yells, “anyone know why I feel low today?” Others do not know who it is on the blower, but push their buttons and yell back. “Maybe we are getting a cold.” “Is it because we have not see a good friend for days.” “We are out of money.” Now we can do things to help the situation – crawl into bed, phone a friend, make a budget etc.

 

If instead X had gone on the blower and said, “Cheer up everyone!”, no one would have paid any attention. Or if they did, they might feel bullied and therefore uncooperative. Or they might feel even more low because they were not about to just cheer up.

 

Of course this is not meant to be taken seriously. It is not an accurate metaphor for how the brain works. It remains true that our internal voice is a help in solving problems. And it remains true that we cannot convince ourselves of what we do not believe by just saying it. We cannot diet by telling ourselves to eat less but we can diet by asking ourselves how we are going to arrange our lives so that we eat less.

 

Here is the abstract from a paper showing the danger of unconvincing affirmations:

Positive self-statements are widely believed to boost mood and self-esteem, yet their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. We examined the contrary prediction that positive self-statements can be ineffective or even harmful. A survey study confirmed that people often use positive self-statements and believe them to be effective. Two experiments showed that among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement (“I’m a lovable person”) or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement or who focused on how it was both true and not true. Among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement or focused on how it was true felt better than those who did not, but to a limited degree. Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who “need” them the most.

 

Citation: Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others Psychological Science, 20 (7), 860-866 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x

 

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