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:


Overcoming Negative Self-Talk: How Dare I Speak To Myself Like That!

We all have an inner dialogue, a running commentary in our heads. A strong component is the internalized put-downs from others, collected over the years and replayed over and over again like an endless tape-loop. So, when we are faced with new challenges, this self-talk kicks in and brings us down. Sound familiar?

I realized that if anyone dared speak to me the way I speak to myself, I would not speak to them again! I knew then that it was time to do something about it.

If you’re in a similar position, the first step is to monitor the self-talk to assess the extent of the negativity. The next step is to logically dispute it and to look for exceptions. The third step is to correct it and replace it so that your inner critic becomes more of an inner coach.

Here’s a little video that will help you to start making changes:

Here are some other connected posts and videos:

Positive Worrying & Future Desired Outcomes

We usually assume that no good can come of worrying but it doesn’t stop us doing it. We run our mental ‘home movies’ of future events as if they had already turned out badly. We re-run old conversations and worry that we should have said this or wished we hadn’t said that. So can any good come of worrying?

Worrying is usually thought of as a bad thing because it focuses on the negative. However, it is possible to use the same set of skills with a positive focus. You may be surprised to hear me speaking of worrying as a skill, but it’s something we practise and we get good at it. That’s a skill.

Worrying actually involves two key psychological skills:

  • the ability to form vivid mental images,
  • the ability to create  inner  dialogue (self-talk).

Both are usually stuck on the ‘deflate’ setting. Once we switch the emphasis to ‘inspire’ we can create and rehearse positive mental pictures and words instead.  This is what I call, positive worrying. Using these skills helps us to support our goals, taking exams, on a date, taking a driving test, giving a presentation, and so on. If you’ve got a desired end result in mind, the you can use positive worrying to build yourself up instead of keeping yourself down.

Positive worrying involves creating a mental image of the end result, or the finished line, not how you got there. Focusing on the end result creates a sense that you’ve already succeeded and helps to build motivation. It’s a technique that top athletes use to support elite performance.

Here’s a short video explaining more about ‘positive worrying’ followed by links for an inner dialogue (self-talk) exercise and a basic relaxation technique. Use them all to help create a positive change in the way your view yourself, your skills and your goals.


Self-Talk: Water Wings & Concrete Galoshes.

Two-Minute Stress Buster.

Book: Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It.

Dancing on Hot Coals: What the **** has it got to do with confidence and self-esteem?

Walking on hot coals: Does this really build confidence?

Walking on hot coals: Does this really build confidence?

Popular notions of confidence-building tell us that ‘if we can walk on hot coals, we can do anything”. Indeed many people pay handsomely, in over-hyped personal development courses to do the ‘walk of fire’. The fact that the lack of toasted tootsies is more to do with principles of heat conduction than any personal transformation is neither here nor there. Apart from the deceit, the main problem is that people often tend to lack confidence in more mundane areas of their lives. I don’t know about you but there’s not much call for dancing on hot coals down my local high street. The same applies to any dare devil stunts that are supposed to effect an instant personal transformation: they have little currency in the real world, and can end up doing more harm than good.

Watching a well-known TV illusionist / hypnotist  coaching someone through daredevil stunts seemed to bring about a magical change. The shy man seemed to transform into a supremely confident individual, moving effortlessly in social situations that previously would have overwhelmed him. However, the end sequence was somewhat alarmingly. Assuming this was for real, it was set-up for the newly confident man to witness a bag-snatch. Instead of just standing by helplessly, he chased the bag-snatcher down an alley and started fighting over the bag. Now this seems amazing but was it just out-and-out recklessness?

The missing ingredient from the equation was self-esteem. The jiggery-pokery had not instilled confidence but recklessness without fear for personal safety. This indicates low self-worth. Essentially, the risk-taking gives a rush of adrenaline that masks feelings of worthlessness. This has been seen in sexual health campaigns that have focused on confidence at the expense of esteem. If you increase the confidence of people with low self esteem, they end up taking risks. Both confidence and esteem need to go hand-in-hand.

Self-esteem is an evaluation of our self-worth and we can start by monitoring this by listening to our own inner dialogue – the way we talk to ourselves. We tend to internalize the ‘put-downs’ of others and repeat them in an endless tape-loop. Building self-esteem is a relatively straightforward process but it takes more than ‘smoke and mirrors’: it takes time.

Any of us can benefit from a review of our ‘self-talk’ and re-scripting those habitual put-downs so that we open up our options rather than close them down. Here’s a little something to get the process started: