Earlier this year I watched a video of a psychologist called Guy Winch, titled “The Rejection Experiment” (the video can be watched here – links to YouTube). It’s an interesting and amusing short discourse on rejection and how much it hurts – even when the logical part of your brain evaluates the rejection as not a biggie.
Dr Winch goes on to talk about ‘positive affirmations’. This caught my interest, as someone mentioned positive affirmations to me years ago – the idea that you get out of bed each morning and say out loud “I can accomplish anything I want to!“, or “I trust and believe in myself!“, and this is supposed to make you feel better. I’m pretty darned sceptical. Dr Winch makes, I think, a very good point: the problem with these affirmations is they’re not believable. He goes on to suggest that you write your own ‘self-affirmations’ – choose five positive qualities about yourself and write a small essay about each.
And so this video inspired an exercise I use sometimes, in the form of a handout.
Now in my job I’m aware that some people might struggle to think of five positive qualities. Some people have low self-esteem, and I dare say if I were to say ‘tell me five positive qualities about yourself’, the answer I might get back would be “there aren’t any”. Thus, I compiled a list of keywords as a starting point – qualities like being thoughtful, considerate, co-operative, polite, moral, loyal, kind and so on. I would add that it’s not necessary to fulfil a quality 100% of the time; I’m not sure anyone is, for example, kind all of the time, but that doesn’t mean that overall they’re not a kind person.
We humans seem to have in-built confirmation bias, a natural tendency to seek out and accept information which confirms our existing beliefs. This means we tend to ignore, disregard, minimise, or even just not notice information which contradicts our beliefs. So if a person is stuck in a mindset of self-loathing, it’s going to be a challenge to write positive things about themselves. But the good news is, based on ideas from the world of neuroscience, there is reason to suppose that it’s possible to re-wire or re-train your brain into a new way of thinking. It may take some effort and persistence, analogous perhaps to getting physically fit, but using self-affirmations can help.