Mindsets: Why Affirmations Fail

Waves of Life Kabat Zinn“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” The Queen in ‘Snow White’

“The Devil is in the details, but so is Salvation.” Hyman G. Rickover

“To change your mindset it’s not ‘what’ you are thinking that is important it’s ‘why’” Dr Pete

Affirmations: A Poison Chalice!

It’s not working!” cried my anorexia patient Chrissy. “Every day for the last few weeks I have been doing exactly what you told me to do – looking into the mirror each morning and telling myself ‘I am not fat and ugly – I am beautiful & healthy’, yet I feel even more depressed, fat and ugly then ever before!!!”

Affirmations are a poison chalice! Whilst it is a simple fact that your thinking patterns will lead you to happiness or despair – changing your thinking patterns is not so simple. When I did my postgraduate training to be a clinical psychologist I was taught to encourage people to use ‘affirmations’ and think ‘positive thoughts’ about themselves – and say these thoughts out loud in order to change their negative thinking patterns into positive ones. The idea being that if they repeat these positive thoughts often enough they will eventually replace the negative thoughts. Whilst this idea may be logical – the notion that you can ‘fake it till you make it’ – it does not change your thinking patterns – and used as a stand alone self-help strategy is down right dangerous – often making things worse.

Just look at what happened to a patient of mine ‘Chrissy’ (not her real name) who was suffering from anorexia and depression. Despite her engaging in therapy and doing her daily affirmations, staring in the mirror and saying to herself ‘I am beautiful’ she kept feeling worse about herself and ultimately ended up back in hospital. What went wrong? Why didn’t these daily affirmations change her negative thinking into positive thinking?

You and The Mirror: Your Thinking Patterns

Try a quick experiment with me now. Go to the bathroom and look into the mirror and say to yourself out loud “I am beautiful and healthy” then stop and take note of the thoughts in your mind as soon as you have finished speaking… what happened?

Mindsets Thought Bubble

Chances are many of us would have had after thoughts such as “this is silly”, “no, you’re not that beautiful”, “you wish…”, “who are you trying to fool…”. A few of us may have thought, “yes – you really are very beautiful and healthy” and the remainder may have not thought anything at all. For those of us who had some negative thoughts in our minds immediately after we had stared in the mirror and told ourselves we were beautiful we need to recognize why our affirmation failed to prevent our negative thinking from getting worse. Even more important we need to learn the secrets of how to truly change our negative thinking into positive healthy thinking to live a happy life.

The Story & The Back-Story: Surface Thoughts & Mindsets

“The real story is in the back-story.” Dr Pete

To understand what went wrong for Chrissy and also for many of us, we need to understand two important concepts in books and movies namely the ‘story’ and the ‘back-story’.

The ‘story’ of a book or movie is what you are experiencing in the present moment – what can be seen and heard – just like seeing yourself in the mirror and hearing your voice say aloud “I am beautiful”. In psychology the ‘story’ is known as our ‘surface thoughts’. Our surface thoughts (be they said out loud or in our minds) simply describe what we are thinking and can be either positive or negative such as the subsequent surface thoughts we had after we told ourselves we were beautiful. For many of us these subsequent thoughts were negative.

When it comes to psychology and mindsets, the ‘back-story’ of a book or movie is more important than the ‘story’. The ‘back-story’ is the narrative providing a history or background of why the characters are behaving the way the do in the main ‘story’. This ‘back-story’ is akin to our underlying mindsets, which develop over a lengthy time and influence our surface thoughts to be either positive or negative in response to the situations we face. For those of us who had negative after thoughts about how beautiful we are – our underlying mindsets are the ‘back-story’ that needs to be both understood and changed if we are to truly believe we are beautiful…

Mindsets Layers of Thinking

In research psychology we have known for a long time that it is the mindsets and deeper layers of thinking (the ‘back-story’) that are more influential in causing depression, anxiety and stress then surface thinking (the ‘story’). Yet, when it comes to therapy to change negative thinking we often make the mistake of only treating ‘surface thinking’, which does not change the underlying mindsets nor help people recover from depression.

Why Chrissy’s Affirmations Failed: The Story & The Back-Story

Let’s apply this theory to Chrissy, my patient with anorexia and depression. As you can see from the case study, when she was asked to change her surface thoughts from negative (“I am fat and ugly”) to positive (“I am healthy and beautiful”) she cooperated and began changing her surface thoughts by saying aloud the positive thoughts every day. Unfortunately despite using these affirmations to help her change the ‘story’ of her surface thoughts from negative to positive we did not help her uncover and change her deeper negative mindset and ‘back-story’. As such, her ‘back-story’ continued to negatively influence her thinking and ultimately made things worse for her, leaving her feeling more frustrated and skeptical about her therapy and prospects of recovery.

If Our Affirmations Fail – What Next?

So how do we (1) help Chrissy and ourselves uncover and identify the mindsets we have within us that lead us into negative thinking patterns and sabotage our attempts at positive affirmations to lift our moods?; and (2) learn the skills, techniques and strategies we can apply through a self-help approach to challenge and change unhealthy mindsets towards more positive mindsets for lasting wellbeing and happiness?…..to be continued…….

Ride the Waves of Life!

Dr Pete

The Stress Surfer

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