The peril of positive thinking - why positive messages hurt people with low self-esteem

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWhen 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.


Wood first asked 249 students to fill in a short questionnaire designed to analyse their self-esteem and to say how often they said positive things about themselves, on a scale from 1(never) to 8 (almost daily). Half gave a rating of 6 or higher, with no gender differences. Recruits who already had high self-esteem spoke well of themselves most often, particularly to cope with exams, prepare for presentations, cope with problems, or even as part of their everyday routine. On average, they felt that such statements were helpful. Even those with low self-esteem agreed, although they were also more likely to claim that these optimistic missives sometimes made them feel worse.

To find out why, Wood asked 68 students to write down anything they felt or thought in a four-minute period. The recruits included equal numbers of students with high or low self-esteem and half of each group were told to say to themselves, "I am a lovable person", every 15 seconds, to the sound of a doorbell.

Afterwards, they completed a battery of questionnaires. Two of these were designed to assess their mood, including questions such as "What is the probability that a 30-year-old will be involved in a happy, loving romance?" and "Would you like to go to a party?" Another set of questions rated their current self-esteem by asking them to say which of two adjectives they felt closest to - valuable or useless, nice or awful, good or bad, and so on.

As you might expect, the students with higher self-esteem had higher, happier scores on the three questionnaires than those with low self-esteem. The positive statements, far from bringing the low group to the high one's level actually widened the psychological gulf between them. People with high self-esteem feel better after affirming their lovability, while those with low self-esteem feel worse.When Wood looked at what they had jotted, she saw that those with high self-worth were much more likely to confirm their lovability than to contradict it. But those who lacked self-esteem were just as likely to write that they were unlovable or lovable, even if the words they were speaking suggested a positive slant.

But dredging up these negative thoughts isn't the only peril of positive thinking. Another group of 116 students were asked consider the statement "I am a lovable person" and either to focus only on ways in which it's true, or to consider ways in which it is and isn't true. After the task, people with high self-esteem benefited from focusing only on the positive side of the statement, but those with low self-esteem felt worse about themselves if they dwelled only on positives than if they were asked to take a more balanced approach.

Again, Wood has a simple explanation for these seemingly counter-intuitive findings. She suggests that if people with low self-esteem are asked to think only positive thoughts, and find it difficult to block out negative ones, that merely certifies their belief that they aren't measuring up to standards. This deduction could be even worse than the negative thoughts themselves. And it would be most likely to afflict people who already have low self-esteem, and already have plenty of distracting negative thoughts knocking about!

This is why people actually fared better if they were allowed to consider the ways in the optimistic assertion they were making wasn't true. With that allowance, any negative thoughts they had would have been expected and wouldn't have violated any external benchmark.

Other psychologists have found similar results. In 1991, Norbert Schwarz found that people who were asked to remember 12 examples of being assertive rated themselves as being less assertive than those who just had to remember 6 examples. It seems that because people had trouble in bringing a dozen examples to mind, they reasoned that they must not be very assertive after all!

This study has big ramifications for followers of self-help programmes, a pervasive part of Western culture. Repeating positive things about yourself only seems to work for people who already feel good about themselves, and only to a small and trivial extent.  For people who need it the most, positive thinking certainly has a lot of power, but it can be of a detrimental kind.

Is positive thinking worthless then? Wood doesn't think so, but it's certainly no psychological panacea. She suggests that it could work in situations where people make very specific statement that are impossible to argue with or consider in too much detail, or when nothing major is at stake. For example, people may be better off saying "I choose good gifts for people" rather than "I'm a generous person". But as she says, "outlandish, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as 'I accept myself completely,' are often encouraged by self-help books. Our results suggest that such self-statements may harm the very people they are designed for: people low in self-esteem."

Reference: Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x

More on self-esteem and happiness: 


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This is hilarious. As someone whose life has been strongly affected by a particularly involved type of depression, I have experienced exactly what you've written of here. In particular, my attempts at utilizing 'affirmations' let to bouts of staring in the mirror and and muttering slogans of self-loathing.

You know what's really been useful? Cognitive therapy -- which more or less consists of regarding ones attitude toward oneself from a classic critical perspective, analyzing statements like, "I am the most worthless scum on the planet," for errors in logic.

Interestingly, once I'd acquired the habit of critical thought I found that I'd become a materialist. Go figure.

When depressed or otherwisee in low self-esteem mode, making positive statements can also lead to thinking one is a failure because one can't even "do" positive thinking right!

I agree with this to a point. Making blanket affirmations, especially ones that go against your core beliefs, makes no sense and can indeed have a negative effect on self-esteem.

But crafting affirmations that are personal to you and that fall within the boundaries of what you do believe can be helpful and move you in a more positive direction.

Saying "I am lovable" when you feel like the world hates you is a slap in the face. But saying something like "so and so thinks I'm all right" may be believable and, if repeated often can then be expanded to "this group thinks I'm all right," and then "these people like me" and so on until the idea of "lovable" seems like a plausible concept.

Cognitive thinking is also a great way to examine self talk and see if what you're saying makes sense in the grand scheme of life. On reflection, blanket statements just don't pan out. While you may feel that "everyone hates me" upon examination through a logical lens, you'll have to admit that isn't totally true.

The goal of all of this is to gain a shift in perspective from where you are to where you want to be. It is an incremental thing but over time it can be done successfully.



Which is what the final paragraph says...

Wow, I never actually thought about that... Being someone with an extremely strong ego, this technique has worked so well for me that I didn't think about the effect it would have on people with low self-esteem.

I'll have to refrain from suggesting it to people that won't benefit as I have

What I think the study shows, as you've described it, is that affirmations done as a Pavlovian response outside the context of a therapy program freely chosen by people motivated to find solutions to their problems are useless or harmful to people with low self-esteem. I believe that motivation is an important prerequisite to the success of affirmations. Does the study neglect this possibility?

I wonder if the converse is true. That is, if you have poor self-esteem, and you state a blanket negative statement that you *don't* fully believe, if that can actually improve your mood.
Or maybe I'm the only one who says to people "nobody likes me/everybody hates me/guess I'll go eat worms" in an incredibly morose tone to elicit a laugh.

In any event, the notion that *specific* and plausible praise is more fool-proof than *generic* praise seems obvious(at least in retrospect, and at least if you've already heard that praising children for specific behaviors tends to work better than praising them for how very-incredibly-special little people they are).

As a person with very low self-esteem who has been encouraged to think positively and love myself throughout my life, I can only thank Joanne Wood for publishing this study. Packaged one-size-fits-all programs promoting the personal pep talk only serve to make those people already in touch with their mediocre side more acutely aware of their non-value within society.

Makes perfect sense. I remember growing up the whole "self-esteem" thing always felt ridiculous. If someone's consciously deciding to say good things about you, then that makes it rather meaningless! "You're a good person", "you're a great kid", etc., etc. It always felt condescending. And the "everyone gets a prize" thing always felt like deliberately pointing out those who didn't really win. I'd rather simply go empty-handed then get a trophy that said "You lost"

Similarly, receiving undeserved (or at least you think they're undeserved) compliments can have a negative effect as well. If someone says something positive about me that I think is BS, I feel that they're diminishing my problem.

I'm a person who has been told for years that I have low self-esteem, that I'm depressed, but I have always found the whole concept of positive thinking bogus. I'm not sure I have low self-esteem so much as that I don't feel I fit in in the societies and situations in which I've been. Inflated positive affirmation statements never made me feel worse; I just thought they were stupid, shallow, and reductive, and they made me feel even more alienated from the kind of society that would recommend such things. You can't change reality, even your personal inner reality, by repeating things that aren't true, whether you have low self-esteem or not.

Is this really surprising? The "power of positive thinking" idea only works when you actually believe the thing you're saying! So, I totally agree with Deang, above.

I'm a high self-esteemer (a.k.a. an arrogant prick, to some), and when I'm feeling low, I tell myself to conduct myself with the dignity that befits me. The key is to figure out the trick that works for you to make yourself feel better.

This study fits with my experience also. When I was experiencing a period of extreme depression (during which, Sean, I was "the most miserable scum on the planet"), I tried to explain my feelings to others. Their response was to invariably argue that I wasn't a "failure," which put me in the odd position of having to defend my point. Even when depressed, I knew it was weird that people were backing me into that corner.
I have read other studies that pessimistic people are actually able to evaluate situations more realistically, while optimistic people are more self-deluding. Such delusion might be more constructive, but I still can't do it. And I find most programs of self-affirmation to be extremely shallow. If we're all beautiful, brilliant, and talented, those words don't actually mean anything!

By CatBallou (not verified) on 27 May 2009 #permalink

I found this fascinating. I have been through both therapy and several books on how to utilize positive energy or thinking to improve my lot in life. What I have found reading this article, is that there is truth in it on both counts. The counts being that this can lead to greater depression and that personally designed, by yourself for yourself, affirmations that you can actually swallow, likely have a much greater possibility of succeeding. A bit of information that is not only interesting, but very useful to me personally. Also for the one who suggested that rather than spouting blanket affirmations that are clearly bogus, but rather to declare self degradations that are clearly bogus, might actually improve the mood of a person with low self esteem? I think you may well be on to something there, if for no other reason than that the idea is humorous and laughter usually makes people feel better, especially the ability to laugh at oneself, even if the humor is a little black.
Thanks for posting this.

By cassafrass (not verified) on 27 May 2009 #permalink

Maybe the people with low self-esteem have been into the Total Perspective Vortex, and are now immune to sunshine being blown up their asses, even by themselves?

Hey, Catballou, I had a very similar experience when I was forced into counseling. When I was put in a position of having to justify and explain my emotional state I was able to come up with all kinds of solid, rational, indisputably valid reasons for feeling depressed.

As a result my condition worsened -- and my counselor went through a fairly ugly emotional crisis herself. I went down and dragged her with me.

There were a couple of things that helped open me up to the possibility of a periodically-decent life.

The first one was getting a girlfriend for and developing some artistic skills. Those things made me realize that it was possible to have positive experiences, that I had some areas of ability worthy of pride, and that it was also possible to go through extended periods of time without feeling depressed. What a revelation!

The other -- and I know this is going to sound awful -- was recreational drug use. This led me to realize that my depression was chemical rather than existential. That the rationalizations of my depression came after the fact and only acted to support and extend depressive episodes. That the appropriate response to depression was not to justify it verbally but rather to say, "This is a chemical experience and I just need to wait until it's over."

I mentioned cognitive therapy; that was the key to being able to get a handle on the verbal habits that reinforced the depression.

And the phenomena you're talking about is depressive realism. I believe there's a lot of truth to it -- there are a lot of happy people there who are entirely intellectually disconnected from the more unpleasant facts of life, and when they're confronted with them guess what. They experience depression.

But if you can come to an acceptance of reality from a place of depressive realism, it's a lot harder for harsh truths to knock you around. There's a lot of cheap optimism and pessimism floating around out there. The trick is to believe in an inherent value to life that is not contradicted by any of its elements. It's not an easy position to achieve but it's well worth the struggle.

A very interesting study, and one that I would like to print out and smack my mother upside the head with the next time she says "You need to think more positively"...

Silver Fox raises an excellent point - if you're in a position where persuading yourself to get out of bed is a monumental achievement, then "failing" at positive thinking is just going to make things worse!

I feel like this article explains a whole lot of crap in my life... wow... i'm always looking for people to tell me that i am good, and love me and like me becuase its hard to love yourself if you have low self esteem... and all the positive self talk in the whole damn world doesn't help when you are dealing with the depression. And when I feel unloved by one person even i feel like no one at all loves me or values me. How can I value myself when i feel like that. and after going thru a marriage where my ex always devalued me and everything i did if he did not approve of it. being abusive, verbally, mentally, emotionally, and physically... and even tho i have come a long way past this experience, it haunts me and i feel lower then dirt. no positive self talk makes me feel better, only makes me feel worse, cuz i figure if i don't actually believe what i am saying or thinking how can it possibly be true? whats this about cognitive thinking? i haven't heard of it yet for depression help...

By depressed (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

One of the earlier writers, to paraphrase, slipped in a remark that what really works is Cognitive Therapy. I want to put a plug in for that. Cognitive Therapy, among other things, is very effective in dealing with depression and anxiety. It should NOT, however, be confused with using positive affirmations, etc. It is far different. To over-simplify, part of effective Cognitive Therapy is learning how to think about oneself, and the world around us, in a more realistic and accurate manner. People who are chronically depressed and/or anxious (to name only 2) are known to have particular kinds of thinking errors, ways of thinking about themselves and the world that are not accurate and are hurtful and harmful. People can learn to change the manner in which they perceive, and what follows is some level of improvement or positive change.

Dr. Wood's research is very interesting, and has brought about many interesting comments. But, as a practicing licnesed psychologist, I want to stress what she's investigating is not the same as Cognitive Therapy.

Thanks for listening.

Someone once suggested negative thinking: if you tell yourself you'll never succeed (or whatever), your healthy rebelliousness would come back with positive thoughts that felt truer. It worked for him, apparently. It does sound healthier than telling yourself positive things that you don't believe.

What is sad is it took someone setting out to prove something empirically that made sense to anyone who ever endured the think positive happy people who constantly bashed the less-inclined over the head with it.

At least those of us who consider ourselves more "realist" than "optimist" (and the glass isn't half-empty, it contains four ounces) now have an empirical study to point at when people tell us we just need to tell ourselves how loveable we really, really are.

A life note - when I was finally surrounded by a group of people who genuinely loved me, my negative self-talk evaporated over the course of several years and I began to appreciate the same things about myself that they did. I'm not sure if it is something I 'grew into,' or a result of their constant demonstrated appreciation, but it is possible to be someone who is convinced they are unloveable and grow into someone who knows they are loved...

...and I swear none of my self-assurances did me a darn bit of good until it was proven in the eyes of those around me.

I think that just like Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" made us realize that dreams could be meaningful on a personal level, I think self help books that present positive thinking are also providing a tool. The tool is refined over time and for each person, and many different tools will be necessary to understand any single person, but that each tool is very important. Now I don't search Freud's list of symbols to interpret my dreams, I believe that the symbols in my dreams only have meaning in my context. And I also use my own positive statements.

I think that the positive statements we choose have to have meaning for us. Using someone else's positive statement is like using someone else's interpretation of your dream. I think first you have to have a specific use for your statement and then find the statement that will work for you in that situation. Or maybe it isn't a statement, maybe it's a stress ball.

If you find that your inner monologue is mean, pessimistic, and no fun, it can really help to through some positive phrases in.

Interesting study.

Positive thinking must be internalized to be effective. This can be achieved by placing yourself in a drowsy, sleeping state before you perform affirmations.

When in this state your conscious mind is at rest and won't "fight" your positive affirmation. It will feel good and true to you and soon enough will come to pass in your life.

Follow this practice 4-5 times a day for 5 minutes at a clip and you'll be amazed at the results.

Hi Ed, I liked your article. I initially tried affirmations, but only with sometimes positive and mostly negative results. It's no surprise, since we unwittingly condition ourselves in life not to believe what we say (beginning with white lies) But there does exist a technique, used along with cognitive therapy, to restore your belief in what you say to yourself. Here it is: write down simple tasks that you know for sure that you will do. Then before you do them, say, "I have decided to do this" and then do them. This reinforces a belief that we say, is true or becomes true.

When the going gets tough, the tough get cognitive. LOL.

Great article, and I plan to use some of the data as a preface in my next workshop (which has NO affirmations...haha!)

I recommend examining ones thoughts FIRST, testing one's assumptions and beliefs where their life ISN'T working, and then making INCREMENTAL changes!

We are much more comfortable and confident(and feel justified, and feel like we are making credible, competent progress) when we can see the next logical step, and the next most relieving thought, and the where we can change our existing thinking and choices and actions by a nuance.

Some folks can take larger leaps than others, but the rule of thumb is: if it doesn't bring relief, why do it?

Kind Regards to all...


This is one of the main themes of Albert Ellis's school of congnative therepy, REBT. He calls self-esteem one of the greatest sicknesses of humanity. He says that humans are demanding creatures who confuse their needs with their desires. Its natural to want to be loveable and to perform better than others, but in reality, its not a requirement for happiness. So, rather than a person repeating to themselves, "I'm going to do well. I'm a worthwhile person. I've got great qualities," they learn to believe the truth, which is, "I am a naturally f*d up human and don't have to be perfectly loveable or capable to be happy."

positive thinking does work! you need to be persistant, and no you dont need to believe what you are saying, you eventually believe it! coming from someone who was really deppressed, positive thinking saved my life it really works u just gotta stick with it, and repeat it as much as possible.You dont have to be dillusional just try and find the positive in every situation.

By whatabadarticle (not verified) on 06 Aug 2009 #permalink

After trying dozens of self-help books on positive thinking, finally something that makes incredible sense! I wish it would work, but just as I start to repeat the positive affirmations, all the negative self-talk comes rushing back. I think the most helpful self-help would be to work out what is causing all the negativity (childhood experiences, for example) and then the positive will slowly begin to shine through.

For heavens' sake, everyone has long known that affirmations of things known not to be true will not work. Your mind simply responds "no it's not', or "no I'm not", usually accompanied with annoyance or embarrassment at least, anger or depression at worst, thus investing emotional energy into the negative belief. Cognitive Therapy on the other hand, helps people to develop skills in correcting false negative beliefs, and has been proven to work as good as or better than anti-depressants for many people. Other effective approaches include "Belief Repatterning" which uses a mind-body method to help people move towards true and helpful ways of thinking. ( and there are other methods that help people to move gradually and truthfully towards a happier and healthier way of being.
This study is no surprise to those working in the field this last decade.

Human beings are frequently described as social animals. Relationships are thought of as the fabric of society and, in early development, the key to our survival. Relationships contribute to the formation of our identity. We are born into relation and spend most of our lives relating to others. Even when we are alone, much of our mental activity is devoted to relating to our memories or ideas of others.

Our experience of old relationships can affect how we behave in new ones. Our experience of new relationships can influence how we view or interpret relationships of the past.

After reading this article, it brought up something of a «flashback» for me. I'm staring in the mirror, muttering to myself "I am an important part of this world". Followed by that of course was my logic. If their was 7 billion people in the world, what difference could I possibly make? I was just one small unattractive person.

I realized that this «positive» thinking wasn't being very positive for me. I was a person of logic, the kind that works to disproove anything and everything.

I came up with a phrase that I could not undermine using cold hard facts. As silly as it sounds, the sentence was "I have nice eyes." And it was true. Everytime I met someone they would compliment me on my sea-green eyes. I said that every morning. And it worked.

The trick to positive thinking is getting the right phrase. If you find something nice about yourself that you can't deny, and repeat it whenever you're down,you will feel better. If you state something that goes against you're beliefs, you will get the «boomerang effect», just like I did.

Positive thinking has its ups and downs. And as ironic as it seems, most of us get the downs instead of the ups.

By Avadeyena (not verified) on 19 Dec 2009 #permalink