Does Telling Yourself You Are Awesome Help?

The other day a short video of a psychologist conducting some kind of training session appeared in my Linkedin news feed. He was telling the participants to to use affirmations to give themselves a boost whenever they were feeling down. To demonstrate how to do that he asked them to repeat after him sentences like I am a leader; I am fearless; I am in control.

Affirmations are recommended by motivational speakers, self help gurus and personal development trainers. They are supposed to help raise your confidence, overcome negative thoughts and improve your self-esteem, which, in turn, will increase your productivity and help you achieve great things.

There are two explanations for how that happens. The popular explanation has roots in New Thought ideas about power of thinking, a version of which has been popularized by Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret. You get what you think. If you focus on positive things, the universe will conspire to make positive things happen to you! (How universe does that is known only to God or a few sages like Deepak Chopra).

A less mystical (and more convincing) explanation, however, is that your thoughts, positive or negative, act like self fulfilling prophecies. You think you can’t do something, you won’t try. But if you believe you can do something, you will try and get that thing.

That makes sense, but there is a problem — a study has found that affirmations don’t necessarily lead to positive thoughts. In fact, they have the opposite effect on the people who really need a boost!

The researchers measured self esteem level of participants and then asked them to repeat the statement I am a lovable person. After they had repeated the statement for some time, the researchers measured their self esteem level again and here is what they found : people who had low self esteem before repeating this statement were feeling worse!

Now, what does that mean? Simply, affirmations have a damaging effect on people who they are supposed to benefit. True that people who had higher self esteem felt better after repeating this affirmation (only to a limited degree) but they were not the ones in need to improve their self esteem. The ones who were, suffered instead of benefiting from the affirmation.

This finding is very important as it calls into question the very idea sitting at the core of much of self help literature. Self-help/personal development authors and speakers constantly portray individual as sort of self sufficient who can heal and succeed without any outside help — sometimes with as little effort as repeating a few sentences. Turns out, it can’t.

A better idea, therefore, to overcome depression, is to do what humans did before the scourge of pop psychology hit them i.e., get help. From your parents, siblings, friends or a qualified psychiatrist.