The exhortations within these books to affirm “I am a lovable person” or “I am cheerful, dynamic and popular” are designed to lift a person out of a morass of depression and help them find their feet.
However, the study warns that these statements can actually produce the opposite effect.
Joanne V. Wood and John W. Lee, psychologists from the University of Waterloo, and W.Q. Elaine Perunovic from the University of New Brunswick found that individuals with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating positive self-statements.
The researchers asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person”. The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves.
As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group that did not repeat the self-statement.
The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement – but only slightly.
In a follow-up study, the psychologists allowed the participants to list negative self-thoughts along with positive self-thoughts.
They found that, paradoxically, low self-esteem participants’ moods fared better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts, said a Waterloo release.
The psychologists suggested that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements such as “I accept myself completely” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem.