Does self-help make you feel worse?

A study
by Canadian researchers published in the latest issue of the journal Psychological
Science
(20:7, July
2009, 860-66),
as recently reported by BBC news,
discovered that people with low self-esteem paradoxically happened to feel
worse after repeating a series of positive statements about themselves. The
conclusions of this study are interesting, yet one might regret that the BBC
News headline, “Self-help ‘makes you feel worse’”, though certainly
attention-grabbing, is also rather misleading.

 

The
researchers in question don’t make the sweeping claim that “self-help makes
you feel worse”; nor does it follow from the content of their study. What they
found was that when the members of a group of subjects with low self-esteem
repeated to themselves “I am a lovable person”, they ended up feeling worse
afterwards than members of the same group who did not repeat the mantra. On the
other hand, subjects with high self-esteem turned out to be feeling slightly
better after repeating the statement in question. The researchers also found
that the subjects with low self-esteem actually felt better when they were
allowed to think about ways in which their positive self-statement wasn’t true,
than when they were asked to think only of ways in which it was true.

 

The
researchers’ conclusion is simply that positive self-statements may actually
not help the very people they are designed for, i.e. people with low
self-esteem, but may on the contrary backfire. This doesn’t entail a global
condemnation of self-help techniques, as positive self-statements obviously
don’t constitute the whole of the self-help literature, which includes myriads
of other kinds of advice such as methods for dealing – through one’s own
efforts rather than with the help of a third party, hence the term “self-help”
– with various issues from phobias to improving one’s social skills. The
researchers don’t even conclude that all
positive self-statements must be harmful to
people with low self-esteem; they remain open to the possibility that they
might be beneficial in some cases, e.g. when the views at stake are not major
(Wood & al. op.cit.
, 865), unlike the case of “I am a lovable person”.

 

The
explanation suggested by the study’s authors for the negative effect that
repeating a positive mantra had on subjects with low-self esteem is that people
are motivated to preserve their own self-concept, even when it is an
unflattering one, and thus tend to resist information about themselves that is,
by their own criteria, overly positive. A positive self-statement that appears
to have that latter feature will actually make the person feel worse by
highlighting her failure to meet the standards they would like to meet (ibid.
, 861).

 

Though
this might look like bad news for people suffering from low self-esteem, I
think the conclusion of this study is to some extent to be welcomed. Indeed, it
suggests that people’s self-image and self-assessments are tied to what they
take to be the relevant evidence about themselves, and that this relation
cannot easily be severed – for instance, by repeating positive self-statements
the truth of which the person doesn’t believe she has adequate evidence for. At
least this is one possible way of interpreting the study’s results. If these
results are to be confirmed, we can hope that they will help promote the view
that problems such as low self-esteem need to be addressed by tackling their
roots, i.e. by helping people to change their beliefs about themselves that
underlie their low self-esteem – either by helping them realize that these
beliefs are unjustified, or to make changes in their lives that will render
those beliefs obsolete when they were not unjustified in the first place.
Trying to foster an unreasonable form of self-esteem via the use of positive
mantras doesn’t look like a desirable solution, especially as it isn’t clear
that it can be achieved at all.

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