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When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work, This Does

womanThere’s no shortage of self-help gurus who swear that repeating positive phrases to yourself can change your life. According to them, if you tell yourself, “I am strong and successful,” your fears will simply disappear.

If you’ve tried using positive affirmations, you know that it can be a difficult habit to maintain. You may spend five, 10 or even 20 minutes reciting your affirmation, but the other 23-plus hours of the day? Chances are that your mind drifts back to old, repetitive thoughts that have burned deep grooves in your brain.

The problem with positive affirmations is that they operate at the surface level of conscious thinking. They do nothing to contend with the subconscious mind where limiting beliefs really live.

It goes without saying that if you command yourself to think, “I am abundant and attract wealth,” yet your deeply held core belief is that you are never enough or unworthy of your success, your brain will be quick to incite an inner war.

If you trying tell yourself, “I am successful,” but you struggle with insecurity regarding your skills and accomplishments, your subconscious may likely remind you of the many times you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of your boss or made a mistake at work (trust me, we’ve all been there!).

The truth is that it’s natural and healthy to experience a range of feelings, including less pleasant ones such as disappointment, sadness or guilt. While there’s no question that dwelling on negative emotions can turn toxic, whitewashing your insecurities with positive thinking is merely a temporary fix.

Unreasonably optimistic thinking can trigger a self-defeating spiral, particularly for those prone to anxiety and depression. Research shows that while repeating positive self-statements may benefit people with high self-regard, it can backfire for those lacking confidence.

If positive affirmations may be ineffective–even detrimental–how are we to take control and mentally empower ourselves to change?

While wishing ourselves into a success mindset won’t work for most, here are a few strategies to try to make your self-talk work for you instead of against you.

Dig Yourself Out from “Debbie Downer” Thoughts
Start with articulating and acknowledging thoughts weighing you down–ones that don’t serve any useful purpose beyond keeping you stuck. Making statements, such as, “I forgive myself for procrastinating” or “It’s okay for me to be angry” shortcut self-bashing and free up emotional resources.

If you spend less time beating yourself up for procrastinating, you can redirect that energy into breaking down a project into manageable tasks and actually tackling your to-do list instead.

Give Interrogative Self-Talk a Try
Research shows that asking ourselves questions rather than issuing commands is a much more effective way to create change. It’s as simple as tweaking the way you speak to yourself. When you catch your inner-critic flinging accusations, think: how can I turn this statement into a question? (see what I did there?). Asking questions opens up exploration and possibility.

Here’s some examples:

  • Am I willing to do what it takes?
  • When have I done this before?
  • What if [insert worse case scenario] happens?
  • How can I…?

This type of self-inquiry powers up problem-solving areas of the brain helping you tap into your innate creativity. You’re able to greet negative thoughts with curiosity instead of fear.

Focus on Progress, Not Perfection
Using a positive affirmation such as, “I am wonderful and powerful” may backfire if you don’t truly, deeply believe it at both a cognitive and emotional level. To effectively reframe your thinking, consider who you are becoming, focusing on your progress–the current track or path you’re on.

You might rework your self-talk to sound more like, “I am a work in progress, and that’s OK.” Statements such as this are pointing you in the direction of positive growth and are both realistic and achievable. Another example: telling yourself, “Every moment I’m making an effort to be more conscious about how I spend my money” acknowledges the fact that you are evolving and that you have a choice in creating a better financial future for yourself.

If you’re prone to negative self-talk and are sick of positive affirmations that don’t work, try one of these reframing techniques. You may start to notice major changes in your mindset and an uptick in your productivity and success.

Get the FREE toolkit thousands of people use to better describe & manage their emotions at melodywilding.com.

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When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work, This Does


Melody Wilding, LMSW

Melody Wilding, LMSW is a performance coach, licensed social worker, and has a Masters from Columbia. She helps established and rising managers and executives advance in their careers. Her clients work at companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP, and Deloitte. She also helps entrepreneurs take bold steps to grow their businesses. Melody has helped over 10,000 smart, self-aware people like you. Her coaching gives you actionable strategies to reach your goals. You get concrete steps to overcome the complex struggles of success. Melody loves arming ambitious people with tools and tactics to boost their confidence. She can teach you skills for assertiveness and influence. Her specialties include better managing your emotions at work. Melody also teaches Human Behavior at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. She writes about psychology and careers for Inc., Forbes, Fast Company, and more. Click here and grab the FREE COURSE to go from insecure to unstoppable confidence 5 DAYS TO FREEDOM FROM SELF-DOUBT..


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APA Reference
Wilding, M. (2018). When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work, This Does. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 15, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-positive-thinking-doesnt-work-this-does/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.