The Power (and Pitfalls) of Positive Thinking
"I am a winner, I am talented, I am worthy of love," you repeat to the mirror. "BS!" comes the response from the mirror. "Loser, loser, loser!" Does this internal dialogue sound familiar? Exercising positive thinking isn’t always as straightforward or effective as advocates may suggest.
Is it possible for you to control your reality by controlling your thoughts? Lots of people think so, and using words of affirmation has been a staple of the recovery community for years. But does it actually work? Experts have some qualifications about the effectiveness of affirmations.
Affirmations Don’t Always Make You Feel Better
The truth about the power of positive thinking is complex. While one person may feel empowered by their use of regular affirmations, another might feel more discouraged than ever if their preexisting beliefs fight back.
For example, take an affirmation like "I love to move my body." Someone who loves to move her body but happens to be tired may be motivated to head to the gym by the mantra. But what about someone who just can’t buy it?
Research demonstrates that simply repeating positive mantras can backfire if the individual has low self-esteem and doesn’t believe the statement. She can end up feeling worse, not better. Experts suggest using interrogative self-talk and considering how an affirmation might be both true and untrue.
Words of Affirmation Plus Motivation
If you want to get new habits going, positive thinking can help, but it can’t do the heavy lifting. While many popular self-help books suggest that affirmations can take you from sedentary to active or from lazy to efficient, researchers disagree.
Motivation is the first important step toward habit changing, according to experts. If you are motivated, then affirmations supporting that motivation can help. Just repeating positive phrases won’t have any lasting effect if you are not ready to change.
Building a Bigger Self-Esteem Base
Affirmations that prompt you to reflect on your core values can help increase your self-esteem base. In turn, this improved self-esteem can help you face threatening situations, such as criticism, with greater calm.
In a brain-imaging study, researchers asked participants to list the areas of their lives (like family, work or art) they found most valuable. They had half of the participants focus on a happy thought about their top-rated value while they were in a brain scanner. The other half were told to focus on a lower-level value.
Participants in the first category exhibited greater activation in parts of the brain involved in reward than those in the control group. They were also shown to be more open to messages that appear to threaten their self-worth than previously, since the statements of self-affirmation reminded them of the broad foundation of their self-worth.
Positive thinking and self-affirmation, when done authentically in tandem with motivation, can serve as an additional tool in your toolbelt towards making positive changes in your life.