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There are no shortage of self-help gurus speaking about the benefits of positive affirmations and how they can change your life. And for some people, they really do make a difference. However, if you suffer from ongoing anxiety, stress, depression, negative self-talk, or low self-worth and self-esteem, positive affirmations can have the very opposite effect. Here, we take a deeper look at the trouble with positive affirmations, and what you can try if they’re not working for you.

What are positive affirmations?

Positive affirmations, as many self-help books will tell you, are simple phrases which are aimed at combatting your negative thoughts with positive ones. The practices hinges on the theory that thoughts put into words become actions, as well as having some basis in the law of attraction. Simply put, positive affirmations, repeated throughout the day, are meant to attract to you the things that you want for yourself, or qualities that you hope to foster in yourself. For example:

“I am confident and capable”

“I attract wealth and abundance”

“I am successful”

The trouble starts when your mind bucks against these ideas…

The trouble with positive affirmations

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of positive affirmations. For many people, they are an incredibly helpful practice which helps to bolster self-esteem and determination. However, for those who experience things such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or pervading negative self-talk, positive affirmations can do more harm than good.

If you’re someone who experiences anxiety, for example, telling yourself that you are “confident and capable” can have quite the opposite of the desired effect. Instead, your well-trained anxious mind will tell you that you’re kidding yourself, before reminding you about all of the times you’ve been less than capable or confident. Positive affirmations can, in some cases, dredge up anxious and negative thoughts, and send you down a rabbit hole of anxiety and/or depression for the rest of the day and beyond.

Unreasonably optimistic thinking, instead of addressing the deeper issues you’re dealing with, can trigger your self-defeating inner voice, particularly if you’re prone to depression or anxiety. These much-talked-about tools for self-growth can, in fact, ignore the deeper underlying reasons for your anxiety, depression, or low self-worth, and as such, are only temporary fixes – if they work at all!

For those whom positive affirmations make a positive impact on their lives, they can be a great tool. For those who are experiencing ongoing anxiety and depression, however, a more thorough and comprehensive solution is needed.

What are some alternatives?

Thankfully, there are several ways that you can start to manage your self-defeating thoughts right away, without risking making things worse by using only positive affirmations.

Challenge your negative thoughts: Instead of simply ignoring your negative thoughts and trying to replace them with positive ones, challenging your deeply held negative thought patterns is the key. When you find yourself thinking negatively about yourself, or having anxious thoughts, try to examine these and apply some critical thinking. For example, “I know that my mind is telling me that I’m a failure, but is that really true? I have accomplished a lot this week, and I am proud of myself for what I’ve been able to achieve.”

Work on progress, not perfection: Focusing only on perfectionism, or using positive affirmations to ignore how you’re really feeling, can make you feel worse instead of better. If you’ve set goals for yourself, and yet find that you’re having a few setbacks in reaching them, remember: progress, however small, is still progress. Positive affirmations which challenge your ingrained negative thought patterns can backfire on you, and have you reminding yourself of all the reasons you’re where you don’t want to be. Instead, try to reprogram the automatic negative responses you’re used to having, by countering these negative thoughts with, “I am a work in progress, and that’s OK.”

Interrogative self-talk: Some research shows that asking yourself honest questions can be much more effective than issuing commands or using positive affirmations. So, when negative or anxious thoughts creep up, challenge these with questions such as:

“Am I willing to try again today?”

“What was the reason I set this goal in the first place?”

“How is it going to feel when I try my best today?”

Detach from the thoughts altogether: This is a very helpful strategy.  Just because you have a thought – does not mean it is true, unless you make it true!  The problem is not so much having the negative thought to begin with, as we all have random negative thoughts.  It’s how we deal with the thought when we get it that counts.  The best approach is to gently acknowledge it and make a choice not attach or ‘hook into it’, ie. don’t give the thought power to grow!  Instead, simply observe and acknowledge the thought in a non-judgemental and curious way, and then move on.  By observing the thought, we are no longer the thought itself!  For example:

“Thanks for that, I wonder what my next thought is going to be?”

“That’s interesting I’m having that type of thought again, moving on then!”

Don’t forget the most important ingredient in recovery

Overcoming anxiety, depression, or low self-worth is like recovering from anything else: it requires ongoing, professional support. Just as you’d see a physiotherapist after an injury, to help in your recovery, recovering from and overcoming your mental health concerns are much more likely to happen successfully with the appropriate support. Seeing a counsellor, or a registered psychologist, will make the world of difference in defeating the demons you’ve been battling with, thanks to their expertise and years of experience dealing with human behaviour. And much like dealing with a physical illness or injury, support is required well beyond the point of your initial injury.

“The benefits of therapy extend far beyond periods of crisis,” says Ryan Howes, Ph.D., a California-based psychologist. “Many people want more than to be ‘not depressed.’ They wonder what they can do to be the happiest, most productive, most loving version of themselves.”

Not only will your therapist help you to develop real and effective strategies to combat your negative self-talk, they will also assist you in uncovering your deeply-held patterns of thinking and behaviour in order to reprogram your brain for success – now and well into the future.

At Integrated Health Specialists, we employ a range of highly effective therapeutic techniques, tailored to suit your individual needs and challenges, to help you overcome the anxiety, depression, or low self-worth you’ve been living with. From hypnotherapy, to Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), to Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), as well as counselling and psychology, we can give you the best support available to finally take back control of your life and start living the life you’ve been dreaming of. So, if positive affirmations aren’t working for you, and you’d like to finally unlock your true potential, get in touch and make an appointment today.

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen