Contributor: Krista Smith, Author and Lead Facilitator at Gulf Breeze Recovery
It’s an age of self-enlightenment, but also one of self-doubt. With countless self-improvement books for sale, seminars and retreats, it’s obvious that people everywhere suffer from negative, limiting beliefs and self-doubt that hinders them from enjoying the life they feel they should have.
A quick Google search pulls up thousands of articles on “how to change your thinking” that include tips such as positive affirmations, counting your blessings, and resolve to be happy every morning. These well-meaning snippets certainly sound like good advice, and following it doesn’t seem like it would cause any harm to the one who performs them. I have personally pinned quite a few adorable feel-good quotes on Pinterest, things I call “throw pillow advice” because they are almost always optimistic, perky and easy to remember. But do they actually work, especially when we need them the most? Do you actually have to recite “I am a good person and I deserve it!” every day in the mirror to believe that? Does surrounding yourself with happy mantras actually change the way you think or feel?
There have been a number of studies done on the power of self-affirmations, and the results are a bit contradictory. Dr. David Sherman and Dr. Geoffrey Cohen of UC Santa Barbara and Stanford, respectively, propose that self-affirmations help protect the self-integrity and sense of “self-worth” of the individual and remind them of who they are, which many researchers feel enhances a “psychological immune system” that can protect against mental or emotional threats, whether real or perceived.
The question arises of whether or not this will work if the person doesn’t actually believe the affirmations they are telling themselves.
Belief in Affirmations
Dr. Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo published a study in the Journal of Psychological Science that concluded that affirmations would actually “backfire for the very people who need them the most.” Individuals with low self-esteem, for instance, noted that they felt worse after repeating what they felt was unrealistically or overly positive phrases about themselves. It appeared to the researchers that when they didn’t agree with the statements they were making it actually triggered and even strengthened negative thinking rather than positive and was therefore counterproductive. 
So what do we do when we don’t enjoy our thoughts about ourselves, our job, and our life situations? What might help when positive affirmations won’t? One suggestion is to not try to “change” your thinking, because more often than not, trying to change your thinking is just giving more energy and attention to the thinking you don’t enjoy.
Have you ever tried to get a song out of your head? The more you attempt to stop humming or singing it under your breath the longer it seems to stick around! The easiest way to lose an “ear worm” is to simply shift your attention elsewhere, and as your attention gets caught up in the next thing, the song simply fades away.
The same is true with negative self-talk or self-doubt. The more you focus on the self-doubt, the more frustrated you become with yourself, your life, your circumstances. Accept that everyone has moments of self-doubt and then mentally “tune out” by shifting your attention elsewhere. It could be as simple as picking up a book you want to read, or turning on the radio and dancing, but the less you pay attention to the thoughts you don’t enjoy, the less your internal radio will be receptive to them over time. You wouldn’t leave the television on a channel you disliked or weren’t interested in and you wouldn’t spend any time trying to change what you were hearing from that station, you’d simply shift to something more enjoyable, something engaging, and not give the previous channel even a backwards glance.
Think Happy Thoughts
It’s estimated that we each think upwards of 50,000 thoughts per day, so giving too much attention to the thoughts that we don’t enjoy or feel good about is like continually tuning in to the television station that we don’t like and suffering through it as if we have no other choice.
The next time doubt comes knocking, tell yourself that it’s normal, that you are striving for “progress not perfection”, and then close that door and move on.
Community Discussion: Share your thoughts here!
What ways have you found to redirect your thoughts to positive thoughts about yourself?
About the Author:
Krista Smith is an author and lead facilitator at Gulf Breeze Recovery in Gulf Breeze, Florida. Krista helped develop and refine the Total Health Recovery program in use there and is currently working on her master’s in Psychology.
About the Recovery Center:
The classes at Gulf Breeze Recovery teach their guests to not be afraid of thoughts they don’t enjoy, even cravings for substances they had previously been addicted to, as cravings are another form of thoughts that can pass if not given attention. Many guests report that this principle helped them not only overcome their addiction and cravings after leaving treatment, but helped greatly improve their relationships, work life and allowed them to no longer be held back by their own self-doubt or limiting beliefs that they couldn’t achieve their goals.
- Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). “The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory.” In M. P. (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 183-242). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others Psychological Science, 20 (7), 860-866 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions and co-occurring disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals. We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 20, 2015. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com