• Dr. Glenn Sloman

Why Positive Affirmations Fail

I’m going to begin this post with a little background on Greek mythology and a creature called the hydra. The hydra was a water monster with multiple dragon-like heads. The mythical hero Heracles found out that when cutting off one head of the hydra, two grew in its place. The more he did to combat the beast, the more powerful his opponent became. Something similar occurs when we try to combat difficult or negative thoughts about ourselves with positive affirmations. We think they will help us when unfortunately, those affirmations do the unexpected opposite - produce more negative thoughts! Try it out yourself. Think of a time that you had some self-doubts and what you did to try to make those thoughts go away. You may reassure yourself but doing so only gets you so far. Those pesky thoughts keep coming back stronger and stronger. You may find that you’re arguing with yourself to get the upper hand. This can go on and on, and what happens in the meantime while battling the hydra? Your attention gets diverted. You try to destroy the hydra and all of your focus becomes the hydra.

This is all to say that when we try to control our thoughts, we often make matters worse. Try this simple experiment- I want you to think of a green mouse, imagine what it looks like, how it moves, what it must feel like to pet, the smell, the texture of its fur, the sounds it makes. Got the mouse? Now for a minute actively try not thinking of the green mouse, no matter what don’t think of the green mouse for one minute. How did it go? The green mouse comes to the heart of the issue - unlike the Greek myth, we can’t slay the hydra, thoughts especially positive thoughts appear to attract negative thoughts under emotionally intense situations such as when something important (i.e., our reputation) is at stake.

Perhaps, the hydra will always be there. Not a very cheery thought, is it? Sorry, but the sooner we can come to terms with this fact, the better off we’ll be. So, what is to be done? How do we get out of the loop/battle? First, becoming aware that you are in a loop, that is the battle, is a great starting point. Second, ask yourself, “What has been my experience in trying to combat negative, self-defeating thoughts with positive affirmations? Has it worked? If it has, has it worked in the long run?” If it hasn’t worked in the long-run, try getting some distance from the thought and trying approaches which are different from what you typically do. Here are a couple things to try:

1. Imagine your favorite cartoon character saying the hurtful/challenging thoughts (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999).

2. Sing to yourself or aloud if you dare, the thought to the melody of “Three blind mice,” “Happy Birthday”, or another simple song (Hayes, et al., 1999).

3. Give the story a name (i.e., the “I’m going to fail” story) each time the thought and similar thoughts appear, name the story (e.g., “Here’s the ‘I’m going to fail’ story again.”) (Harris, 2007).

We are not trying to change the thought in anyway, the words stay the same. We are attempting to lessen the grip the thought has on our attention, so we can turn our attention to what matters. In fact, you may find that you end up smirking or laughing a little when doing the exercises above. If that happens, great! You are on your way to releasing the grip of the thought. Next time you find yourself reaching for a positive affirmation, try a couple of the above out, it might just be something different that works.

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