When the going gets tough, thousands of people try to boost their failing self-esteem by repeating positive statements to themselves. Encouraged by magazine columnists, self-help books and talk-show hosts, people prepare for challenges by chanting positive mantras like “I am a strong, powerful person,” and, “Nothing can stop me from achieving my dreams.” This approach has been championed at least as far back as Norman Vincent Peale’s infamous book The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952.
But a new study suggests that despite its popularity, this particular brand of self-help may backfire badly. Ironically, it seems to be people with low self-esteem, who are most likely to rely on such statements, who are most likely to feel worse because of them. Joanne Wood from the University of Waterloo found that people with low self-esteem who repeated “I’m a lovable person” to themselves felt worse than people who did neither.
The effect may be counter-intuitive, but the theory behind it is very straightforward. Everyone has a range of ideas they are prepared to accept. Messages that lie within this boundary are more persuasive than those that fall outside it – those meet the greatest resistance and can even lead to people holding onto their original position more strongly.
If a person with low self-esteem says something that’s positive about themselves but is well beyond what they’ll actually believe, their immediate reaction is to dismiss the claim and draw even further into their own self-loathing convictions. The positive statements could even act as reminders of failure, highlighting whatever gulf someone sees between reality and the standard they set for themselves. In short, someone could repeat “I’m a lovable person” but they’d really be thinking “I’m actually not” or “I’m not as lovable as I should be.” Statements that contradict a person’s self-image, no matter how rallying in intention, are likely to boomerang.