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Tuesday 31 May 2011

The Down Side of Positive Affirmations

One of the problems with cognitive therapy is the set of preconceptions that people have about it. I often get partway through my brief explanation of the idea (which boils down to “We react to what we think is going on, not what’s really going on”) and then I’m stopped by the client, or dinner companion, or trainee. “You mean like the power of positive thinking.”

Actually, no. Positive thinking can get us into as much trouble as negative thinking. Both depart from reality, and reacting based on an incorrect fantasy about reality can lead to all kinds of problems. Indebtedness, lack of preparation, bankruptcy, academic failure, war (“We’ll invade their country and they’ll welcome us with open arms…”), you name it.

One of my least favourite forms of self-boosterism is the concept of the positive affirmation. This is the idea that we can boost our mood, self-esteem, and performance by reciting happy thoughts to ourselves.

If the happy thoughts happen to be true, I have no problem with them. But most of the affirmations I hear are happy lies:

I have all the resources I need to accomplish all of my goals.
I can achieve anything I set my mind to.
I’m perfect, just as I am.
Everyone loves me.

No, we don’t have what it takes to accomplish all of our goals, and we cannot and will not achieve everything we would like. We’d like to be Olympic sprinters, but we didn’t start before age 30, so it’s not going to happen. Period.

No, not everyone loves us. And if most of them do, on occasion, feel a faint flush of appreciation for us, it is as nothing compared to the constant devotion that our needy egos would demand of them.

Positive affirmations can actually help us to feel better – temporarily. But eventually, reality will hit us between the eyes and we’ll realize we were kidding ourselves.  Our original negative thoughts will seem to be confirmed, and will gain even more heft than they had before.

I’d prefer to jettison positive affirmations entirely, in favour of affirmations of reality.

“I would like to have gone to the Olympics, but instead I had a social life when I was a teenager.”  
“I have the resources to achieve many of my goals – if I make them priorities in my life.”  
“I am imperfect and always will be, but so will everyone else so I can relax.”  
“I’d love to be universally admired, but I’ve proven that I can survive having at least some people dislike me.”

Telling ourselves the truth is a great strategy. The truth acknowledges reality and its survivability. The truth includes positive factors that we often ignore, choosing instead to focus on our shortcomings. Our typical negative thoughts have a trump card: We have rehearsed them so long they have become instinctive. The truth has a trump card of its own: Reality will confirm it over time.

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