“When you feel insecurity and doubt creeping into your thoughts, tell that little defeating voice inside your head to be quiet. Instead, choose to focus on what’s positive.”

-Rose Caiola

Why positive affirmations don’t always work

We all have a critic inside our heads. Through talking to people, I’ve been able to form more complete pictures of what those critics look like. I’ve found them to be as varied as the heads they inhabit, with personalities and characteristics of their own. Some critics speak in fragments, muttering key words in people’s ears: fat… failure… loser… always be alone. Some form complex arguments. All inner critics, however, are sharp in their cruelty and ingenious in the way they intrude our thoughts and convince us of our lack of worth.

Our inner critics were born out of a need for protection. Their job is to spare us shame and pain. If they criticizes us before we have the chance to say or do the wrong thing, they can help us avoid social humiliation, rejection and isolation.

However, the disparaging, constant stream of criticism often leads to depression, low self-esteem and negative identity perceptions in many people. A strong critical voice may cause us to question our own beliefs and decisions. It has the power to poke holes in the social armor of our self-esteem, diminishing the good feelings we have about ourselves and destroying our sense of personal value, self-worth and resilience.

There are many ways to develop a healthy relationship with the critical inner voice and address issues of low self-worth and low self-esteem. One of these ways is to strengthen other, more positive voices, which serve to give us a balanced view of ourselves.

Self-help books and feel-good memes emphasize the importance of positive affirmations.

“Write down ten things you love about yourself before you go to bed every night!”

“Recite ‘I am beautiful, healthy and happy’ five times each day!”

“Write ‘I love you!’ and ‘You’re awesome!’ in lipstick in the bathroom mirror, and look at it every morning before you to go to work!”

The suggested positive ways of talking to ourselves are endless.

According to Dr Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid, research shows that positive affirmations can be very effective at raising self-esteem. However, their efficacy only applies to a certain group of people. Affirmations can boost the morale of those who already have high self-esteem and a high sense of self-worth. But in people who struggle with strong critical voices, depression and feelings of self-loathing, positive affirmations only result in making them feel worse.

Science tells us that we accept statements and ideas when they fall into our current belief system. Therefore, people with healthy levels of self-worth – who already believe that they are loved, good at their jobs and successful – will reinforce those feelings through reciting positive affirmations about themselves. However, people struggling with issues of self-esteem will comment that when they feel unattractive, unloved or unworthy, reciting the opposite sentiments as affirmations – such as, “I am beautiful, loved, worthy!” – only reinforces their current feelings of unworthiness and unattractiveness.

When a positive affirmation doesn’t overlap with the beliefs we hold about ourselves, we will reject it, thereby failing to convince or persuade ourselves to feel otherwise. Trying to force oneself into feeling a positive emotion can often only serve to remind us of how unhappy we are actually feeling.

Dr Winch offers an alternate three step exercise, which reminds me in many ways of Narrative Therapy, as it aims to build on one’s preferred identity.

The exercise is based on increasing the aspects of the identity we already hold about ourselves.

It takes about 20 minutes and requires writing. Writing helps us process the information on both sides of the brain, properly integrating and enforcing these more balanced thoughts about ourselves.

Step 1: Choose a specific situation in which you feel bad or unworthy. Perhaps you have a test coming up and feel unprepared or convinced you’ll fail. Or a date you’re going to go on, but you feel ugly and unworthy of someone’s time or attention. Maybe you feel unpopular and have come to the conclusion that you’re a bad friend. Using context is important for creating an alternate voice to that inner critic.

Step 2: Once the context has been selected, write down a list of things—traits or behaviors you exhibit—that you have to offer that you believe are valuable to the situation. This list should be exhaustive. Perhaps you would make a good date because you are generous, always offering to pay. Maybe you’re loyal or you care about others. Perhaps you remember important dates and make your partner feel special on his or her birthday. It may be that you’re a good student because you get to class on time or study for an hour after class instead of watching movies. Perhaps you always take notes in class and often share them with others.

Focusing on even the tiniest detail of what you have to offer the situation will help you in the creation of your list. If you can’t think of anything positive about yourself, pretend that you are writing it for a friend. What would your friend have to offer if he or she were faced with the same context and self-defeating thoughts as you?

Step 3: Choose one of the items on your list and write a short essay on why these traits or qualities are important to the context. Why is being thoughtful, such as remembering birthdays, important for dating? How have you managed to manifest this trait in the past? How will you manifest this trait or behavior in the future? Write about how this trait has been valued by others or might be of value to others in the context. Focusing on specific details helps to flush out the narrative of how this trait has helped shaped your identity.  Again, if you are unable to write about yourself, continue to write as if it were about a friend, sticking to more general ideas. Then put the paper aside, pick it up 24 hours later, and read it as if it were about you.

Writing a short, detailed essay about what we know we have to offer and why these offerings are worthwhile can help to build a more balanced view of ourselves and the qualities we bring to the world. Narrative exercises serve to strengthen what we already know about ourselves, thickening the preferred identity stories that either fail to get told or get drowned out by the dominant stories of negative labels and personal failings. The aim is not to shut up the inner critic, but to strengthen the voices that oppose it, balancing and creating a dynamic sense of self.

This article originally appeared on TaliaND.com and is republished here with permission.

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