Oh No They Can’t! Oh Yes They Can! Self-Help Mantras With Evidence-Based Psychology Can Help!

Self-help affirmations are a common techniques designed to improve a person’s sense of worth but many self-help books offer the technique in uniformed and uncritical way. Unfortunately our inner critic is not so forgiving. So, if you endless repeat ‘I am a gifted, lovable, dynamic, outgoing person’ over and over again your inner critic may just respond each time ‘No you’re not! NO you are not!! NO YOU ARE NOT! NO YOU ARE @&%*ING WELL NOT!’ So, it’s no surprise that new research has found that low-self esteem felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves. However, ‘let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater’. As welcome as this research is, affirmations can still be helpful if you use them in line with evidence-based psychological insights. Let’s look at why and how.

As I explain in Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It, the problem is that many self-help gurus do not have even a fundamental understanding of attitude change, although many have recognised that the over-blown affirmations do not work. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a negative person and tried to offer suggestions you will know why. Invariably your attempts will be met with ‘yes but, yes but, yes but’. As we know ‘yes but means no!’. It’s like aiming ‘well intentioned missiles’ at the Starship Enterprise when the deflector shields are up. You ain’t gonna get through!

The secret is to recognise that attitude change is often a slow and subtler process. If we combine the psychology of attitudes with some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and insights from Positive Psychology then we do have a recipe for change. All of these already drawn on a body of research whereas the ‘repeat things you don’t believe’ approach, does not!

The secret is to use small incremental steps that are difficult to disagree with. Focus on continual improvement. So for instance, compare these two statements:

  1. I am a lovable person
  2. I am becoming a more lovable person

Statement 2 is still not perfect but it is not so easily discounted as statement 1. Furthermore, statement 1 is most likely cancelled out by the existing statement running over and over in a person’s head, which says ‘I am an unlovable person’. This has already set up a perceptual filter that looks for evidence to support this statement and filter out anything to the contrary. This how negative attitudes and stereotypes are maintained. Statement 2 can easily be tagged on as a ‘but’:

  • I am an unlovable person BUT I am becoming a more lovable person

So if you are running negative statements, what you need to do first is spot them and use a method to cancel them. Just saying ‘Cancel’ makes the process more conscious. You can then substitute a ‘becoming’ statement.

Another technique is to add an ‘up until now clause’ which opens up the possibility of change. For instance:

  • I’m crap at maths

This becomes:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths

Now add the ‘but’:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths but I’m improving

After you’ve used this for a while, your inner critic is  much more likely to be receptive to the affirmation:

  • As I work at it, my maths is improving

Whereas, ‘I’m fantastic at maths’ is likely to be met with the immediate response: ‘No you’re not, you’re as thick as pig sh*t’!’ Clearly, your inner critic recognises the lie and tells you so and you end up feeling worse. To make progress you need to write affirmations that are unlikely to be rejected.

It’s only really possible to scratch the surface in this post, but hopefully I’ve demonstrated that it’s not self-help affirmations that are at fault, it’s how they are written. Knowledge of evidence-based psychology of attitude change (and therapeutic techniques) can help us to structure statements, that slowly peel back the defences.

One of the main motivations for writing ‘Don’t Wait. . . Swim Out‘ was to dispel self-help myths and put some evidence-based insights back into equation. Here’s a short video that explains more about my approach to affirmations and turning that inner critic into an inner coach:

Links:

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2 thoughts on “Oh No They Can’t! Oh Yes They Can! Self-Help Mantras With Evidence-Based Psychology Can Help!

  1. As a solution-focused psychologist -well done. You makes some very important distinctions – I shall be referring my students to your website

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