As someone who’s struggled with self-image myself, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the hype over positive affirmations. This mental health practice is advised all over the internet and appears in about every self-help book on the shelf. However, it wasn’t until recently, through my personality psychology class, that I learned positive affirmations can actually do the opposite for some people.
Chanting phrases such as “I’m powerful, I’m strong, nothing in this world can stop me” can actually backfire. If the person saying these statements finds them too extreme to be true, “a boomerang effect may actually cause the person to feel worse” (J. V. Wood, Perunovic, & Lee, 2009). Repeating these phrases may create your self-perceived unlovability or lack of purpose just more prominent in your mind.
Instead of using declarative statements, it might be more beneficial to use interrogative self-talk. Questions search for answers and stimulate curiosity. For example, instead of saying “I am terrible at job interviews,” you can ask yourself “Am I terrible at job interviews? Have they ever gone well for me?” This can lead you to focus on positive experiences while acknowledging what made the outcome different. Through interrogative self-talk, we are less likely to resort to negative affirmations that combat positive affirmations. By rephrasing the statement into a question, we can explore our thoughts instead of immediately jumping to a conclusion and sticking with it. Thinking “I am not strong” after telling oneself “I am strong,” is not beneficial and doesn’t bring you to the root of the problem. You may feel an internal struggle by constantly falling back into a pattern of negative thinking without discovering why you may feel this way.
In fact, Ibrahim Senay and colleagues conducted a study to test the effects of interrogative self-talk versus declarative self-talk. The participants in the experiment were asked to perform an anagram after either writing “Will I” or “I will” on a sheet of paper 20 times. An anagram is a word or phrase that is formed by rearranging the letters of another word. Those who wrote “Will I” had better anagram-solving performance, which suggests that interrogative talk can motivate goal-directed behavior.
Overall, positive affirmations can backfire if they clash with the individual’s actual beliefs. They also may not lead to much change, and interrogative self-talk is more beneficial for motivation. But don’t get me wrong, if you think you’re a badass, call yourself a badass.
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 21(4), 499-504.
Wood, J. V., Elaine Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860–866. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x