When positive thinking is not so helpful

LittleEngineBeing more optimistic than negative in our thinking can impact how happy we feel, how we value ourselves and our level of achievement. But is it always realistic and in our best interest?

Growing up, many of us were treated to stories like the book The Little Engine That Could – a celebration of a train engine who is willing to try, and succeeds in overcoming a seemingly impossible task by repeating the mantra “I think I can, I think I can.”

In her Psychology Today blog post Should we re-think positive thinking?, Joanne Wood, PhD warns, “Giving ourselves pep talks may backfire.”

Here are more excerpts :

Everyone knows that to be successful and happy, we should say favorable things to ourselves… “positive self-statements,” such as “I can do it!,” “I’m good at this,” and “I’m a lovable person.”

Émile Coué, an early 20th century French psychologist and pharmacist, recommended repeating the phrase, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”

But are positive self-statements actually beneficial? In an experiment that will be published in Psychological Science, Elaine Perunovic, John Lee, and I tested this idea. We recruited people to participate in our study based on their scores on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, which has 10 questionnaire items such as, “I feel that I have a number of good qualities.”

People who scored in the lowest third of the distribution of Rosenberg scores (low self-esteem) and in the highest third of the distribution (high self-esteem) were invited to come to our laboratory, where we randomly assigned them to one of two conditions.

We asked participants to either repeat to themselves the statement, “I’m a lovable person,” (positive self-statement condition) for four minutes, or to write down their thoughts and feelings (control condition) for four minutes.

Our results indicated that people who were low in self-esteem felt worse about themselves after repeating the positive self-statement. Their moods and their “state self-esteem”–their feelings about themselves at that moment–were more negative than those of lows in the control condition.

In contrast, people with high self-esteem did feel better after repeating the positive self-statement, but to only a limited degree.

We have obtained similar results in other studies. It appears that positive self-statements, despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most.

Professor Wood is co-author of the chapter Should people with low self-esteem strive for high self-esteem? in the book Self-esteem issues and answers, by Michael Kernis.


Additional perspectives are offered in the article Why “Positive Thinking” Actually Fails… and What to Do Instead, By Sedona Training Associates staff and Hale Dwoskin :

Imagine that your subconscious mind is a barrel. This barrel has a golden lining representing our unlimited potential. This golden lining is covered by a bunch of rotten apples that represent our limiting emotions: apathy, grief, fear, lust, anger, and pride.

Even if you covered the golden lining over with good apples (happy thoughts and happy feelings), what would eventually happen to the apples? They would ROT.

I recommend emptying the barrel so you can discover the golden lining that is already present and available in your life at this very moment. You can’t see it because your apples, bad and good, have buried you under.

Remove them by letting go of your limiting thoughts, feelings and beliefs and your thinking, feeling and life experience will be a thousand times more positive.

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Originally posted 2009-12-29 21:22:00.


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