Self-help often encourages people to improve their lives by making statements like, “I have all the money I need,” or, “I have unlimited energy to take on all challenges.” But despite endless internet lists of positive affirmations, if you don’t already have a positive mindset, positive affirmations may actually hurt your self-esteem.

However, all affirmations are not bad. Changing your life starts in your thoughts, but those thoughts must be realistic. You can’t magically remake your life overnight by wishing for it, but you can use neutral affirmations to assess and accept your present situation, letting you improve by focusing on getting a little better every day.

The False Promise of Positive Affirmations

Positive affirmations have a long history. For example, Émile Coué, a therapist and pharmacist (professional lines were blurry at the time), developed a popular philosophy of “optimistic autosuggestion” at the beginning of the 20th century. However, even Coué noted that just repeating positive phrases over and over wasn’t good enough by itself. He wrote that autosuggestion, “is, however, a dangerous instrument; it can wound or even kill you if you handle it imprudently and unconsciously.”

Nevertheless, positive affirmations are sacrosanct in parts of the self-help world. The concept is the foundation of many self-help careers. Think of Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling book The Secret, which promises that anything you wish for will come to you with the right thoughts.

Unfortunately, positive affirmations were based on untested ideas, and when a few researchers from the University of Waterloo decided to properly test positive affirmations in 2009, they found that, while positive affirmations do help people who already have high self-esteem, positive affirmations hurt people with low self-esteem. The study’s authors explain that for some people, “positive self-statements may be not only ineffective, but actually detrimental. When people with low self-esteem repeated the statement, ‘I’m a lovable person,’ or focused on ways in which this statement was true of them, neither their feelings about themselves nor their moods improved, they got worse.”

You can’t just convince yourself that everything is great if it’s not. If you run a business with constant loses, it won’t help to constantly repeat positive affirmations like, “My business is constantly growing and thriving.” If you tend to run away from problems, it’s not believable to say, “I have unlimited abilities to conquer all challenges.” If you can’t pay your rent, it’s a cruel joke to say, “I have all the money I need.”

In other words, if you’re not already in a positive place, your brain will reject positive affirmations because they don’t fit your reality.

Actor Jim Carrey making faces as he experiences a stream of negative and worrying thoughts.

Worse, after rejecting false-positive affirmations, your mind might seek “self-verification.” Meaning, if you tell yourself that you cannot fail, your mind might remind you of all the times you did fail. If you tell yourself that you are filled with endless energy to take on all challenges, your mind might remind you of all those times you were too tired to give 100 percent.

Be Realistic with Neutral Affirmations

Instead of repeating positive affirmations over and over again, desperately hoping that they might become true, try to be realistic with your thoughts. While positive affirmations tend be unrealistic, your own negative thoughts may be unrealistic as well. But instead of denying your unrealistic negative thoughts, the first step out of negative thinking is not constant, suffocating positivity, but neutrality.

A lady trying to block negative thoughts by spinning both hands around her head.
While positive affirmations tend be unrealistic, your own negative thoughts may be unrealistic as well.

Think of it this way: If you have the time to sit and read this article, then at the very least–at this particular moment reading this sentence–you are okay. In this moment you are alive and breathing and taking a little bit of a step toward self-improvement, and every little step you take will bring you closer to a moment when positive affirmations might make a bit of sense.

If you tell yourself things like, “I always fail,” this is just as unrealistic as telling yourself that you will always succeed. If you’re here reading this today, then you must have succeeded in many things to get here. You might not be full of boundless energy, and you might not be able to take on every new challenged that hits you with utter perfection, but at least you have made it to this point.

Instead of trying to make yourself believe positive affirmations, try more realistic statements like, “Sometimes I fail, and sometimes I succeed, and many things are not under my control.” You don’t even have to fully accept yourself, as many self-help gurus demand, so long as you can tell yourself that you are working on accepting yourself.

Additionally, while making grand positive statements about your life is not helpful, researchers did find that targeted positive affirmations are sometimes helpful. For example, if your life really is a mess–even if you have no job and no friends and no prospects–there’s probably still something that you could be positive about, such as particular skills or past achievements. If you’ve gotten this far, then you must be capable of something.

“Your ability to control your thoughts–treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions.”

–Marcus Aurelius, 2nd-century Roman emperor (Meditations)

 

You Are Okay

There’s a bit magic in the word “okay.” It confirms without judging. It’s the ultimate neutral affirmation. So long as you exist and can think, then you will be, in a sense, okay. That’s why people can say they’re okay after getting hurt. Maybe they’ve been hurt, but not so bad that they aren’t at least okay.

You’re not a perfect person, and you don’t have to be. It’s okay to fail sometimes. It’s okay to say and do the wrong things, and when you recognize that you’ve done the wrong thing, don’t beat yourself up about it. But don’t try to bury those mistakes in positive affirmations either. Instead, tell yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes, and then use your mistakes as opportunities to think about what you’d do differently next time.

As you come to accept where you are and start to turn your negative thoughts into areas for improvement, positive affirmations will come naturally as you notice that, “I did alright today.” Eventually, you might even be able to say truthfully at the end of the day that, “I did great today,” and because it is the truth, this positive affirmation will boost your mood.

You can’t instantly change who you are with a few magic positive words. Worse, those positive words might even hurt. Instead of countering negative thinking with positivity, counter negative thinking with neutral realism. Instead of suppressing your negative thoughts, deal with them by telling yourself that your life is what it is, and you will be okay if you try to make things a little better every day.

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