Repeating positive statements about oneself -- like "I'm a lovable person" -- may backfire for people most in need of a self-esteem boost, new research published in the journal Psychological Science shows.
Dr Joanne V. Wood of the University of Waterloo in Ontario and her colleagues found that people with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive self-statements.
Unfortunately, Wood said, there's no handy alternative to self-affirmation to help people who are feeling down about themselves.
"It's surprising how little we know about how to improve people's self-esteem," the researcher said.
Wood and her colleagues set out to test the widespread belief that people who think or say nice things about themselves will start believing them. They conducted three studies with college students.
How the study was done
In the first, they asked 47 male and 202 female undergraduates about how they used positive self-statements. Most said they did so fairly often, and people with higher self-esteem did so more frequently -- and found these statements more helpful.
The worse a student's self-esteem, the more likely he or she was to say using positive statements made them feel worse sometimes rather than better.
Next, the researchers had 68 psychology students write down their thoughts and feelings for four minutes. During that time, half were told to repeat "I am a lovable person" to themselves when they heard a bell sound, which rang every 15 seconds.
The study participants then completed two tests that measured mood indirectly, and one that gauged how they felt about themselves at that particular moment.
What the study found
People with high self-esteem were in cheerier moods than those in the low self-esteem group. After repeating the "lovable person" statement, people with low self-esteem felt worse, while those with high self-esteem felt better, so the exercise actually increased the difference in mood between the high and low self-esteem individuals.
Finally, Wood and her team tested their hypothesis that thinking positive thoughts might make some people feel worse because it underscored the disconnect between these thoughts and their real feelings.
They had 116 undergraduates either focus on the ways the statement "I am a lovable person" was true, and occasions in which it was true, or think about ways it "may be true of you and/or ways in which [it] may not be true."
Just as the researchers had hypothesised, individuals with low self-esteem who were directed to think only about the positive felt worse after the exercise than those who were given the option of thinking about ways the statement wasn't true.
Thinking positive had negative consequences
Overall, the researchers found, thinking positive thoughts had negative consequences for people with low self-esteem, while these thoughts helped people who already had high esteem feel a bit better about themselves.
The findings fly in the face of many self-help books out there, which encourage positive thinking at all costs, Wood noted. "Most self help books aren't based on any research whatsoever," she added. "People don't realise that."
The one strategy people with self-esteem issues could try is to work on improving their mood, Wood said, pointing out that people who are in good moods feel better about themselves, and vice versa.
And perhaps, she added, just recognising that positive self-statements are no self-esteem panacea may be helpful too. "I've heard from people all over the world who've said thank you for reporting this," Wood said. "I think that message is resonating with people." – (Reuters Health, July 2009)
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