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SHARE "I am successful," "I am a wonderful person," "I will find love again," and many other similar phrases that students, the broken-hearted and unfulfilled may repeat to themselves over and over again, hoping to change their lives. Research suggests it may do more harm than good to many people. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who have recently published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, concluded "repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.
The low-esteem group felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not.
However, people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive affirmation--but only slightly. The psychologists then asked the participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves. They found, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts. The researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as "I accept myself completely" can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals in individuals with low self-esteem.
When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, the researchers argue, there is not mere resistance but a reinforcing of self-perception.
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People who view themselves as unlovable, for example, find that saying that are so unbelievable that it strengthens their own negative view rather than reversing it. These findings were supported by previous research published in in the Journal of Social Psychology, showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better.
Wood goes even further. In her Psychology Today blog, she says that most self-help books advocating positive affirmations may be based on good intentions or personal experience, but they are rarely based on even one iota of scientific evidence.
Does that mean positive affirmations are of absolutely no value? Not according to Dr. Wood and her co-researchers. They say that positive affirmations can help when they are part of a broader program of intervention.
That intervention can take place in a number of forms such as cognitive psychotherapy or working with a coach who has expertise in the behavioral sciences.
What kind of intervention is best to use to make positive affirmations most effective? Traditional cognitive psychotherapy may not be the best intervention according to Dr. Hayes has been setting the world of psychotherapy on its ear by advocating a totally different approach.
Whereas cognitive therapists speak of "cognitive errors" and "distorted interpretation," Hayes and his colleagues encourage mindfulness , the meditation -inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled by them--imagine the thoughts being a leaf or canoe floating down the stream.
These Third Wave Psychologists would argue that trying to correct negative thoughts can paradoxically actually intensify them. As NLP trained coaches would say, telling someone to "not think about a blue tree," actually focuses their mind on a blue tree. This approach may come as a surprise to many, because the traditional cognitive model permeates our culture and the media as reflected in the Dr.
The essence of the conflict between traditional cognitive psychologists and psychotherapists is to engage in a process of analyzing your way out your problems, or the Third Wave approach which says, accept that you have negative beliefs, thinking and problems and focus on what you want. Third Wave Psychologists and coaches acknowledge that we have pain, but rather than trying to push it away, they say trying to push it away or deny it just gives it more energy and strength.
The Third Wave Psychologists approaches are very consistent with much of the training and approach that many life coaches receive, inclusive of Neuro-Linguistic Programming NLP , and many spiritual approaches to behavioral changes reflected in ancient Buddhist teachings and the more modern version exemplified by Eckhart Tolle The Power of Now. The focus of those approaches reinforces the concepts of acceptance of negative emotions and thoughts, and rather than giving them energy and fighting with them, focus on mindfulness, and a commitment to an alignment of values and behavior.
So what can we learn from all this? Follow me on Twitter: