Its 150 years since the publication of what is now regarded as the first self help book – Samuel Smiles “Self Help“. Still on sale today – and apparently a big seller in countries such as Japan and China. But when first published it sold 20,000 copies in its first year, and by the time of Smiles death in 1902 had sold over 1/4 million copies. In the 19th Century it was only out sold by the Bible!
In a recent radio program it was said Smiles book was published on the same day as “On Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. I cannot find any other proof of that fact. Either way, it could be that Smiles message “Heaven helps those who help themselves” was reassuring to a society held together by Christian beliefs.
But the underlying message from Smiles was that success came through dedication and hard work. He didn’t appear to believe in the concept of “genius”, all those he portrayed in his case studies got there by hard graft and application. Interestingly, this is a central theme of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers.
The End of Self Help?
I write this as some have been predicting the end of self help, with a flurry of headlines such as Sorry Oprah: Self-help books seldom helpful
As in my last post, regarding self confidence being genetic, the reports are journalistic interpretations of some recently published research. The original article,”Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others”, published in Psychological Science has the following abstract:-
Two experiments showed that among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement (“I’m a lovable person”) or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement or who focused on how it was both true and not true.
… Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who “need” them the most.
The researchers argument being positive self statements, or affirmations, don’t work is because they are being used to get someone to believe something that they don’t believe. The research found that when used by people with high self esteem they did have a slight improvement in how they felt.
This is not the first time I have come across challenges to affirmations or positive thinking generally. It is overly simplistic to implore someone to “be postive”, as if just saying the words will bring about change.
In my main post on affirmations to date, Build Self Esteem with Affirmations, I reflect on my own use of affirmations, but also on some other negative effects. Apart from the nonsense of the Law of Attraction, I wrote:-
Another argument against affirmations is they don’t engage your brain in problem solving, nor tap into our creativity and imagination. In other words they encourage a passive use of the brains massive power.
Affirmations can encourage bad thinking habits, by encouraging to much focus on the self. I went over these in three posts earlier this year. For example an affirmation could be
“I always communicate in a clear and assertive manner”
Even if you are a good communicator, you are unlikely to always be clear and assertive. So such an affirmation is likely to lead to frustration and negative self talk when you fail to live up to this.
Write affirmations you can believe
Personally, in the above example, I would use “I am a good communicator”, as an affirmation. My negative automatic thoughts can readily recall and deliver memories of where I have messed up – fluffing my line in a school play 39 years ago being one of them! I will forever remember 15th March as “the Ides of March” as my one line (as soothsayer in Julius Caesar) was
“Beware the Ides of March” – I could never remember “Ides”…..
There have been many other mess ups since – but I choose to remind myself of the positives. Linked to the affirmation, I would list times I have done very well as a communicator.
Going back to the research, even though I now have what I think is healthy self esteem, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying “I’m a loveable person” (which was used for the experiment). My affirmations are more reminders of what is good about my life:- “I have a wonderful family”
I see affirmations as a useful tool to help reinforce positive thinking.
But they don’t work as a stand alone method to change how you feel about yourself. You need to learn to challenge your negative thoughts, not assuming that every thought you have is a fact.
If your negative thoughts are being fed by underlying negative beliefs about yourself, then again take them apart and start questioning and challenging them. Once you tease out a new belief that you have backed up with evidence, then its time to start using affirmations to reinforce and establish that belief.
Affirmations can be a useful tool – but they are not a magic wand that can miraculously transform your life with no other effort.