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Dr Sophie Henshaw is a work stress strategist, author and doctor of psychology with a particular interest in dysfunctional workplace relationships. For the latest articles, please refer to her latest blog site: www.freespiritedme.com

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Why Positive Affirmations Don’t Work

Posted by on in Essential Anti-Bullying Tips
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Louise Hay

Thoughts are powerful; they create your reality. Control your thoughts and you create your reality. A positive mindset begets positive end results. These popular tenets are espoused by the likes of Louise Hay, Napoleon Hill, Anthony Robbins and countless other self-help gurus.

The problem is, they don’t actually work. Consider the last time you really wanted something to happen. It could be a dream job, an ideal relationship or even a parking space in the city.

Having learned from the best, you used positive affirmations in the ways suggested. You wrote your desired outcome on a card, kept it on your person at all times and repeated the phrase over and over in your head. The end results of your efforts were probably not the ones you were looking for.

Having failed, you might have berated yourself. You didn’t do the affirmations correctly, you were somehow undeserving, or even: “it was meant to be”.

The reason positive affirmations don’t work is that they target the conscious level of your mind, but not the unconscious. If what you are trying to affirm is incongruent with a deeply held negative belief, then all that results is an inner struggle.

Let’s say you believe that you are “ugly and worthless” – a commonly held belief by depressed people all over the world. This belief may feel deeply and irrevocably true, no matter what the actual reality might be.

For example, at the peak of her career Jane Fonda was held to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, yet, as her autobiography reveals, she judged her physical appearance as inadequate and struggled with eating disorders for decades.

Cringing when being paid a compliment is because “I know it isn’t true”. Imagine how excruciating this exercise would feel: Look at yourself in the mirror and say out loud: “I am beautiful, inside and out. I love myself”.

If you deeply believe and feel that you are ugly and worthless, it will set off an inner war. With each positive declaration, your unconscious will cry out, “it’s not true, it’s not true!”

This conflict uses up a great deal of energy and creates massive tension in the body. The end result is that the negative belief becomes stronger as it fights for survival and what you really desire fails to manifest.

So if affirmations don’t work, what does? The good news is that there is a simple method you can use, apply immediately and have instant and excellent results.

A recent groundbreaking study holds the key. It sheds light on the effectiveness of declarative versus interrogative self-talk (Senay, Albarracín & Noguchi, 2010).

Declarative self-talk is about making self-statements, either positive (e.g. affirmations) or negative (e.g. core beliefs). In contrast, interrogative self-talk is about asking questions.

In the study, four groups of participants were asked to solve anagrams. Before completing the task, the researchers told them that they were interested in handwriting practices and asked them to write 20 times on a sheet of paper either: “I will”, “Will I”, “I” or “Will”. The group that wrote “Will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as any of the other groups.

From this and other similar studies the researchers conducted, we learn that asking ourselves is far more powerful than telling ourselves something when we wish to create successful end results.

Questions are powerful because they probe for answers. They remind us of the resources we do have and they activate our curiosity. All that is required is a simple tweak!

Let’s say you are about to give a presentation and you’re feeling nervous about it. You may find yourself declaring: “I suck at presentations, they never go well for me”.

Alternatively you may give yourself a positive pep talk: “I am delivering a great presentation that inspires my audience”. Both are declarative statements that apply a kind of external pressure to the self and shut down the possibility of accessing the inner resources and creativity needed for success.

However, tweak the above statements so they become questions: “Do I suck at presentations? Have they ever gone well for me?” Or: “Will I deliver a great presentation that inspires my audience?”

Potential answers may be:

  • “I get shy and nervous and people switch off when I talk. However, in my last presentation, I made a point that people found interesting and I really had their attention. How could I expand on that?”
  • “The last presentation that I did went well. What did I do that worked and how could I do more of that?”

This powerful strategy works better than affirmations because it acknowledges your negative thoughts and feelings and reduces the need to fight them. You start to become an ally to your unconscious mind, which in turn will elicit its cooperation. And the unconscious mind is fantastic at coming up with creative stuff!

Follow this process to effectively apply the interrogative self-talk strategy:

1. Draw your awareness to any declared self-statements, whether positive or negative

2. Tweak these statements into questions; e.g.: “I am” into “Am I?”

3. Mull over possible answers to these questions and come up with additional questions. “What if..?” produces a particularly fruitful line of enquiry

Eliciting your curiosity and creativity using this method will put an end to that draining inner struggle, which in turn will reduce the tension in your body and help you relax. It won’t cost you anything and it will position you to reap excellent end results!

 

Reference

Senay, I., Albarracín, D. & Noguchi, K. (2010).  Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense.  Psychological Science, vol. 21 no. 4, 499-504.

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Dr Sophie has experienced bullying both personally and professionally.  As a new psychologist starting out in a government organisation that had “a zero tolerance to bullying”, she was the target of a serial bully who was never held to account.  Professionally, Dr Sophie has treated many clients suffering severe and chronic symptoms of depression and traumatic stress as a result of being bullied. She has also conducted numerous interventions in workplaces with organisational cultures vulnerable to bullying.


Dr Sophie graduated from Murdoch University in Perth, WA in 2000.  She initially worked in a variety of settings including maximum-security prisons, private hospitals and with GPs before going onto full-time private practice in 2005. 

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