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; and conversely, to ignore, 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.