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Repeating Positive Affirmations Backfires For Many of Us

Eric and Emma, the couple up the hill from me in Sausalito have been married 54 years, they proudly told me. They walked, hand-in-hand past my home each morning, usually laughing, smiling and pointing out things to each other along the way.

Originally from Ireland, they listened to BBC at dawn so they usually had a tidbit of news to share with me if they happened to pass my home when I was finishing my lame attempt at morning exercises in the back yard.

When Emma died suddenly last year, he stopped walking, stayed in their home and ignored my knock on their door. Later, when he started walking again, he told me his son, a public speaker on leadership, suggested that he start saying positive self-affirmations every morning “to lift his mood.” He retorted, “My mood doesn’t need lifting! It’s right where it’s supposed to be.”

So his well-intentioned son then mailed him a card pack with cheery faces on one side and, on the other, a series of upbeat daily affirmations. The card pack was entitled “Yes, I Can!” to which he responded (to me, but not his son, I gather) “No I won’t!”

That inspired Eric to act, but not in the way his son intended. He wrote his own series of Realistic Affirmations. The sentiments reflected his way of responding to grief, his stubborn resistance to being told to feel better and his core attitude about life. Some were funny. Yet his basic resilience started to shine through as he finished writing his sayings by the end of the year. “Not every cloud has a silver lining so start liking the clouds.”

I thought of Eric today when I read that Norman Vincent Peale may have been wrong, at least for many people when he advocated saying positive self-affirmations to lift your mood. That oft-repeated notion that feeding ourselves upbeat messages can make us feel better isn’t necessarily true according to Joanne Wood’s research. In fact, these wildly popular self-esteem boosters put some people “in peril.” (This finding may disturb fervent The Law of Attraction followers.)

If, for example, you say to yourself, “I’m a loveable person” yet you don’t really feel that you are you will feel worse than people who:

o Did not repeat the affirmation, or

o Focused on how the affirmation was both true and not true.

That’s a startling revelation for many of us Americans who have been bombarded with self-help messages based on the belief that positive affirmations are entirely beneficial. It’s also a relief to know that one wasn’t simply self-defeating when one was feeling low, said positive affirmations and then felt worse.

In the study, those with high self-esteem who …

o repeated the positive affirmations, or

o focused on how they were true

…felt better than those who did not – but only to “a limited degree.”

I’d like to see more study on this because it means that there is little benefit for anyone in saying positive self-statements. Plus this practice backfires for the very people who most need them. As Ed Yong concluded, “Statements that contradict a person’s self-image, no matter how rallying in intention, are likely to boomerang. “

This new study doesn’t take away from the power of a related practice. That’s preparing to perform well, in a sport, speech or other activity by vividly visualizing the performance in advance.

Eric, by the way, has begun writing his memoir, describing some of the adventures he shared with Emma, the people they met and the joy of living with her “through thick and thin.”

As Byron Katie would say, he is “loving what is.”

It has lifted his mood I am happy to report.

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