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Self-Affirmations Alone Don't Work

Try these steps to counter toxic positivity and wishful thinking.

Key points

  • Self-affirmations and wishful thinking are often counter-productive.
  • Story editing can counter debilitating narratives about ourselves.
  • Learned optimism, like hope, is grounded in cognitive evidence and wonder.
  • Psychologist Martin Seligman's ABCDE framework of learned optimism provides a basis for story editing.

We often hear about the power of positive thinking: Simply envision yourself acing the job interview, and the position is yours, or imagine driving the car of your dreams, and soon enough, it will materialize before you.

But, as you have probably experienced firsthand, human flourishing is rarely a wish away.

With a more nuanced understanding of how to moderate negative emotions, you can develop a skillset of learned optimism.

Source: Pexels by Tanya Gupta

Self-Affirmations Alone Don't Work

In Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, cognitive psychologist Timothy Wilson notes how positive self-affirmations alone can actually make people feel worse about themselves and their abilities to achieve their goals. Similarly, studies have found that couples who claimed optimism about their future were more likely to experience marital strife. University graduates who fantasized about their success transferring into the real world earned less, received fewer job offers, and sent fewer job applications out in the first place.

Why might this be?

To illustrate, take, for example, this tale of two college freshmen.

Self-Sabotage and Story Editing

Based on their high school success and 4.0 GPAs, two freshmen enter college optimistic and assured of their abilities. Yet, after their first semester, both are lagging academically, and emotionally are a mess.

The first student thinks he’s the problem. He must be depressed. Stupid. Not trying hard enough. Maybe it has to do with when he was five years old and his parents divorced and he was left to fend for himself but never really adapted to that new situation well. Plus, his father never told him he was smart. He has a story.

The second student is given information. She’s shown statistics of how successful high school students typically suffer in their first year or two in college. It’s not just her. She gets testimonials from older students that college life can get better. She’s given strategies for studying differently. She’s shown how to change her environment so she can flourish.

The first student has a story but no plan to change his circumstances. The second student has a new tool: story editing. Story editing is one of Timothy Wilson's breakthroughs. Since the 1970s, Wilson’s research consistently shows how we make decisions based on unconscious, irrational impulses—our often unfounded anxieties and fears—that we consciously rationalize with elaborate explanations for our behavior.

How does our brain make this leap?

Behind the Scenes: Storytelling and the Brain

Our brains are very good at envisioning imagined scenarios. So good, in fact, that we have trouble distinguishing between something that really happened and something that we just imagined. This is because imagining an object, situation, or action in vivid detail lights up the same neural pathways that the same object, situation, or action would trigger in real life.

Our ability to simulate reality so effectively means that we can actually learn from imagined events and alter our behavior accordingly. On the other hand, it means that our fantasies and wishful thinking can deliver us the same sense of reward as actually fulfilling our goals in real life.

If we feel as if we’ve already won, we could lose the motivation, the sharpness, and the grit it takes to pursue our goals. What’s more, if we feel buoyed up by our ego-boosting fantasies, the inevitable obstacles we face on the way to our goals will be that much more disheartening.

In this demoralized state, it’s easy to lapse into negative self-talk. We tell ourselves, “I failed because I’m a bad person,” or, “I’m not good enough.” Our brains internalize this narrative, and that becomes our story.

In my body of work, we call these cognitive patterns "downer patterns." We normalize them because such patterns are profoundly common.

Recently, I spoke to a room full of college students. I told them a story about how New York Times best-selling novelist Neil Gaiman often feels like an imposter. When I asked them to raise their hands if they've ever felt like an imposter (not smart enough, talented enough, rich enough), they all, including the professors in attendance, raised their hands.

The problem is when we let these patterns dominate our sense of what's real and true.

If, on the other hand, we can recognize that our shortcomings could be a result of our actions (not our inherent worth), we can learn from those actions and become the authors of our own stories.

So how do we strike a balance and rewrite the script? How do we walk the fine line between hope and despair, even in the face of crisis and change?

In my work with and studies of thousands of fulfilled innovators across fields and cultures, the ones who flourish almost all seek an alternative perspective to those patterns.

They seek out wonder, so to speak—an opportunity to disrupt these default patterns so they can see what is real and true more objectively, what is beautiful and possible.

Martin Seligman, a leading authority in the field of positive psychology, would suggest that we practice "learned optimism."

Positive Psychology is Not Just Happy Faces

There is an important distinction between wishful thinking and what Seligman termed “learned optimism.” While the former can easily lapse into escapist fantasies, the latter is the conscious practice of viewing the world from a positive perspective. It means understanding “failures” or misfortunes—and the negative emotions associated with them—as temporary setbacks and opportunities for growth.

Learned optimism is directly tied to hope. Hope is an expansive reaction spurred by unexpected experiences of wonder that occur amidst extreme difficulties and crises. Specifically, hope as a facet of wonder can arise from a surprising moment or sign that lets you see a glimmer of possibility in an otherwise uncertain or dark future.

The trap of optimism is that, more often than not, we ignore the nuances and consume only what we want to hear. But learned optimism, like hope, is much more than a “glass half full” outlook on life. It is about acknowledging our struggles and reframing them in a way that empowers us to reclaim our agency and direct the course of our life.

To help us navigate this positive reframing process, Seligman designed the ABCDE model, which focuses on identifying the stories underlying our behaviors and challenging the limiting beliefs that perpetuate our negative storytelling. So, as you prepare for another year of uncertainty, I invite you to try and practice learned optimism with this five-step approach.

  1. Adversity: The situation that calls for a response. Think about a recent challenge that you faced. Say, for example, that you were struck with a bold idea for a creative project and you’re eager to forge ahead, but you’re not making any progress.
  2. Belief: How we interpret the event. What thoughts run through your head as you reflect back on this challenge? Maybe you’re thinking, "I’ll never make my dream come true," or, "It was a stupid idea anyway."
  3. Consequence: The way that we behave, respond, or feel. What was the result of the beliefs you described in step two? Did your beliefs help you make progress on your creative endeavor? Or did they inhibit you further? Most likely, you’ll realize that the negative self-talk actually made it harder to work toward your goal.
  4. Disputation: The effort we expend to argue or dispute the belief. Look back to the limiting beliefs you described in step two and find evidence to disprove them. Think about past goals you set and attained or past ideas that bore fruit after some fine-tuning.
  5. Energization: The outcome that emerges from trying to challenge our beliefs. Do you feel more energized or motivated now that you’ve proven your negative self-talk to be unfounded?

Hopefully, you will feel less hopeless than you did before and more motivated to tackle the next challenge you face with more self-compassion.

My goal is that through these practices, you can flip the script when you find yourself telling those self-sabotaging stories. More importantly, I hope that learned optimism can help you find a deeper purpose in your work and lead a better life.

As Seligman said, “With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.”

References

Wilson, T.D., & Juarez, L.P. (2015). Intuition is not evidence: Prescriptions for behavioral interventions from social psychology. Behavioral Science & Policy 1(1), 13-20. doi:10.1353/bsp.2015.0006.

Neff LA, Geers AL. Optimistic expectations in early marriage: a resource or vulnerability for adaptive relationship functioning? J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 Jul;105(1):38-60. doi: 10.1037/a0032600. Epub 2013 May 27. PMID: 23713697.

Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1198–1212. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.83.5.1198

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