Self-Help Hurts

For over 150 years, a variety of would-be do-gooders have told people (usually charging them a fee along the way) that the only way to improve their lives is to think positively about themselves. Frenchman Emile Coue told his 19th-century readers to repeat to themselves “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.” Englishman Samuel Smiles admonished his Victorian readers readers that “Heaven helps them who help themselves.” American Norman Vincent Peale also extolled the virtue of “positive thinking.”

This astonishingly simple idea has worked its way into all manner of psychotherapy, educational theory, and everyday life. And like most astonishingly simple ideas, it turns out to be false. Indeed, it turns out to be harmful.

According to an article in the BBC’s health section, Canadian researchers have discovered that “repeating positive self-statements may … backfire for the very people who need them the most.” According to the BBC:

The researchers, from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick, asked people with high and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.”

They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves.

In the low self-esteem group, those who repeated the mantra felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not.

However people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement – but only slightly.

The psychologists then asked the study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves.

They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

Of course, anyone with an iota of sense always knew that high self-esteem was more a little more difficult to achieve than simply declaring it, but it is always nice to have the obvious backed up by rigorous science.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

One thought on “Self-Help Hurts

  1. From what I’m seeing, there are more than a couple of ideals shared by the Pop Psychology Crowd that are false and harmful. The one in the article above is one of the glaring ones. Suppressing emotion, redirecting your thoughts – in my never to be humble opinion, is one of the most destructive things a person can do. Another glaring falsehood is the whole issue of “Taking responsibility”, as opposed to “Blame”. The definition of these two terms has become distorted beyond recognition. While I’m all for each person taking responisibility for his or her own actions, we are told by Pop Psychology people that anything and everything that happens to us is completely our own doing. If we are cheated, lied to, or taken advantage of, and we are hurt by such behavior, somehow, we brought that on ourselves – sorry, but that is absurd at the very least, and blatantly unrealistic. Once again in my never to be humble opinion, when one tells a lie, he or she owns that lie, and all subsequent events that occur as a result of that lie – including any and all reactions from other people.
    I’ve been seeing articles, hearing statements, and seeing statistics that more people are depressed, experiencing anxiety, and are having other emotional distresses today far more than any other time in history. This tells me that modern psychology, modern therapy techniques, what I call “Pop Psychology”, is doing more harm than good.

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