Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Taking Positive Thinking Too Far: Affirmations

Have you ever tried to build yourself up with a self-affirmation? That cornerstone of positive thinking whereby you attempt to convince yourself that you’re likeable, confident and intelligent by incessantly repeating to yourself, ‘I am likeable, confident and intelligent.’ (Or of course, any other positive character trait you desperately wished you possessed.)

Did it work, or did it per chance paradoxically leave you feeling flatter than before – feeling less likeable, confident and intelligent?

In the anti-positivity self-help book ‘The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking’ author Oliver Burkeman quotes some interesting research that suggests precisely that paradoxical effect.

He points to an experiment in which a Canadian psychologist monitored the emotional states of a group of individuals suffering from low levels of self-esteem, all of whom had been told to repeatedly affirm to themselves, ‘I am a loveable person’.

How did they feel about themselves at the end of the experiment? Apparently, significantly unhappier than before…and not at all lovable.

In fact, I learned this paradoxical effect first-hand long ago. Suffering from extreme insecurity I’d resorted to telling myself like a needle stuck in a groove, ‘I am a self-assured and confident person’.  And doing so left me so brimming full of self-assurance and confidence that it culminated in an inability to get out a single sentence without stammering and hyper ventilating on the outside, and my heart pounding in my ears on the inside.

Just like all self-assured, confident people act, right?

Combine that with the pressure to act in line with my imagined ideal behaviour and the self-critical frustration that engulfed me when I inevitably failed, and you can probably imagine the hammering my self-esteem took. In fact, if you’ve ever tried to pep yourself up like this you probably don’t need to imagine at all…like for me, the soul destroying experience will have left an indelible imprint on your mind.

The Root of the Problem

Fortunately, with a bit of self-analysis I figured out the problem: – By repeating an affirmation that I knew deep down was simply untrue, I was holding at the forefront of my mind the very inadequacy I was trying to escape. I was in other words, simply reminding myself over and over again of my perceived flaws.

Burkeman explains this psychological own-goal phenomenon through a concept known as ‘self-comparison’. This theory suggests, pretty much as my personal experience illustrates, that we compare any information we receive about ourselves against our own entrenched self-image; and any information that conflicts with that self-image we automatically reject at a subconscious level.

So if you feel pretty unlovable, but nevertheless try to convince yourself that, ‘I’m loveable’, your subconscious will automatically respond with the affirmation, ‘No you’re not…you’re unlovable’; which naturally defeats the whole point of the exercise.

Fuelling the Fixation…

But the problem is further compounded thanks to another hardwired quirk of the human brain: we naturally filter out any information that doesn’t fit with whatever we’re fixating on.

So for example, if deep down you feel ‘insecure’, and you inadvertently focus your attention on that insecurity through a counterproductive affirmation such as, ‘I am secure’, your brain will then go on a ceaseless search for further supporting evidence to back up that deeply held negative belief.

Whatever the event, your self-sabotaging internal dialogue will go something like this…

‘I got so nervous when I was talking on the phone just now…that’s evidence that I am insecure’; ‘I felt really self-conscious walking into the pub on my own…that’s more evidence that I’m insecure’; ‘I stuttered when I asked the barmaid for a pint…God how insecure can one person be?!’

And here’s the real killer…because at the same time you’re fixating on your insecurities, you’ll instinctively ignore any positive evidence to the contrary.

Even if the barmaid overtly twirls her hair around her fingers, flutters her eyes and blushes at your request for a pint, your ‘insecurity’ fixation will filter out any possibility that she finds you alluringly confident, and instead will lead you to assume that it was your insecurity was making her nervous.

‘God I’m so insecure even the barmaid can see it…The evidence of my insecurity is overwhelming!’

Thud…

If you’re still not convinced that a single perceived negative personality trait can shape either your entire view of yourself or someone else’s view of you (whilst simultaneously ignoring all other relevant information), consider the implications of a now infamous study often nicknamed the ‘Thud’ experiment, conducted by a psychiatrists called Dr David Rosenhan way back in 1973.

In this entirely true but nevertheless incredible study, Rosenhan, along with seven other perfectly healthy volunteers, turned up simultaneously at eight different psychiatric institutions throughout the U.S. – all complaining that they were hearing a voice inside their heads that said the word, “Thud”.

That was it; apart from that one anomaly of mind they all behaved and responded in their usual, perfectly sane ways.

What happened? All eight, none of whom had ever suffered from any mental health issues, were institutionalised – seven as schizophrenics and one as a manic depressive.

And most alarmingly, these mentally normal researchers could do nothing to convince their ‘captors’ that they were indeed sane. Only when they were prepared to agree with the diagnosis and pretended to get better did they secure their freedom.

Now, I have taken this rather incredible study out of context, because its aim was to determine whether American psychiatrists really had the capacity to objectively distinguish between someone who was sane and someone who was insane.

But it also very profoundly proves the point I’m making: – if you fixate on a specific characteristic or personality trait, that personality trait starts to define you as a person; and any evidence that doesn’t fit in with that definition will simply be dismissed.

As you see, even psychiatrists charged with making objective diagnoses of mental illness can fall into that trap.

As you’ll also appreciate, ‘labels’ that either you or other people attach to your personality can have a profound effect.

The Solution…

So trying to convince yourself of something that’s blatantly not true will in all likelihood end up with you scoring a catastrophic own goal; something we’ve pretty much established through both personal anecdote and hard science.

But does that mean there’s no effective way to talk yourself ‘up’ without inadvertently talking yourself ‘down’ in the process?

Well, I haven’t read enough of ‘The Antidote’ to offer you any meaningful insights from the author I’m afraid; but through my own experiences I have found a highly useful alternative; one that doesn’t throw the affirmation baby out with the bathwater: -

Affirmations of Personal Strengths…

What would happen if you shifted your focus entirely away from your inadequacies and instead made a commitment to simply identify and affirm your strengths?

In other words, instead of fixating on what you don’t have (and then trying to cover up those inadequacies with unconvincing affirmations that just exacerbate the problem) you did the opposite: – you just made a conscious effort to take stock of, and frequently remind yourself of your genuine attributes.

The truth is that we all have positive characteristics to celebrate; the simple problem is that through our default mode of thinking we bury them under a mountain of perceived inadequacies; so much so in fact that we can easily forget we have any positive traits at all.

But the good news is that when you take the time to re-identify with your positive characteristics and the things you’re good at, the obsession with your inadequacies starts to diminish; as does their power over you.

Realising the above I gave up any struggle of trying to be confident and self-assured a long time ago.

Instead, I began to focus on reality. I kept on reminding myself how resilient I had proven to be in the face of adversity, the ceaseless determination I always showed to move my life forward and how unfalteringly convinced I was that my life had a purpose. None of this was lip service; I was re-identifying genuine traits that I knew were true and that I could back up with hard evidence from past experience.

How much more confident and self-assured do you think I gradually became with this shift in focus from inadequacy to attribute? Obviously, a great deal more so. Not the sort of exaggerated outward expression of confidence that so many people with confidence issues seem to aspire to, but simply a growing conviction in myself and my abilities – one that made me increasingly predisposed to taking action as opposed to shying away.

What’s more though, as I became increasingly more positive in my outlook, so too did the number of positive traits I realised I possessed.

Just as you can find an inexhaustible supply of evidence to back up any negative self-belief if you’re self-destructive enough to fixate on it, the same holds true when you focus on your strengths. You’ll find example after example of those strengths in practice simply because you’re holding them in conscious thought; and the more you focus on your positives in general, the more of them you’ll find. Resilient, determined and purposeful…hey, I’m pretty smart, creative, analytical, articulate, empathetic and a bit witty sometimes too :-)

The simple, well documented psychological fact is that we find whatever we’re looking for…and ignore the rest; it’s a quirk of the mind that can lead to sorrow or salvation. Fixate primarily on your strengths and the latter will be true; you’ll enter an upward spiral of positivity that will continually bolster your mood, your self-belief and your self-image.

And the more positively you feel both emotionally and about yourself, the better life will be.

No More Negativity?

This might all sound as if I’m advocating a blanket ban on acknowledging your negative traits. In fact, that would be a gross distortion of the message.

I am most definitely suggesting that you should shift your focus at a fundamental level from your negative traits (including whom you wish you were) to the positives of who you are in reality.

Doing so however, does not necessitate a stubborn refusal to recognise your weaknesses; nor would ignoring such weaknesses be healthy.  Like strengths, we all have our Achilles heels; an unawareness or refusal to recognise them would leave you prone to the type of boorish arrogance that leaves people vulnerable to extremes of misjudgement, narrow mindedness and incapable of personal growth.

Focusing primarily on your strengths however, does help you to put your weaknesses into context. To that end, your weaknesses will no longer exclusively define you as a person or be the insurmountable hurdles they once were. Neither will they dominate your experiences by negatively influencing how you handle events or the results you achieve.

To focus on your strengths is not to turn your back on reality or live with the blindly optimistic (and absurd) notion that you ‘can be or achieve anything you want in life’. It is simply to say, ‘I will harness and use my strengths to the best of my ability and to my advantage, to make all that I can of my life.’

As the author of ‘The Antidote’ rightly points out, there really is nothing more self-destructive that fake positive thinking; it’s an emotionally exhausting practice that paradoxically highlights your inadequacies and multiples their deleterious effects. Positive thinking has to be grounded in reality if it is to have any positive effect; and the more grounded in reality those positive thoughts are, the greater will be their effect.

Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” To fixate on your weaknesses is to live your life as the failed tree-climbing fish which could have achieved so much more fulfilment in life if it hadn’t remained oblivious of its innate talents.

To that end, make it an everyday practice to affirm your true strengths; because it is from those genuine affirmations that you’ll discover how to swim.

So Remember…

  • Don’t affirm what’s not true: – affirming attributes you wished you possessed but know deep down you don’t will paradoxically compound those inadequacies.
  • Shift your focus entirely away from your inadequacies; reflect instead upon your genuine strengths and keep them firmly in mind.
  • Always remember how your mind works: – It will seek to corroborate whatever belief it’s focused on. Just as everyone seems to drive whatever car you’re thinking of buying, so too will you find example after example of whatever personality trait(s) you’re fixating on. Think you’re stupid (or whatever) and you’ll find ample evidence to back up that assertion. Isn’t it better to shift you’re focus towards your genuine strengths; to search for evidence of those?
  • Don’t pretend your weaknesses don’t exist; that’s just as self-deceptive (and as self-destructive) as affirming absent strengths.
  • Do focus on your strengths sufficiently to keep your weaknesses in context, so that it is your strengths and not your weaknesses that define your life and who you are.
  • Simply put, if you’re a fish, focus on your innate talent for swimming not your lack of ability to climb trees.

Comments

  1. Great article. I’ve always been suspicious of affirmations, but this article has changed my mind. Your approach makes SENSE.

  2. Thank you Ursula, I'm glad it touched a chord and I really hope it helps. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Best Wishes, Gareth