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Positive Self-Talk Is Self-Defeating


Who wouldn’t want to believe that wishing hard enough makes good things happen? Unfortunately, the reality is quite different, no matter how hard self-help authors might try to convince us otherwise. Instead of visualizing what you want, you must plan ahead and do the hard work required to meet your goals. As a matter of fact, all that positive self-talk and fantasizing about where you will be five years may be holding you back.

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It’s Not a Secret

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Remember The Secret? It’s a philosophy that teaches that you can will things to happen, similar to bending a spoon with your mind. People who are attracted to the The Secret tend to want things like weight loss, a higher salary, or true love. The usual, more traditional ways to do these things prove difficult and The Secret offers an alternative.

The problem, of course, is that just wishing won’t make something true. The danger is that by using systems that depend on believing something hard enough, practitioners will come to blame themselves if their good vibes don’t translate into success. 

Science Says So

Advice about fantasizing about what you want may sell a lot of books, but it won’t get you any closer to your goals. Positive daydreams may also backfire.

Researchers in 2011 did an extensive literature review on reams of studies that conclude positive fantasies about the future are counter-productive and harmful. One problem is that daydreaming about what it will be like when you achieve your goals produces the relaxation you will likely feel if and when you actually achieve said goals. This relaxation is detrimental, because it saps your energy to go out and do the work necessary to achieve your goals.

In one study, participants entered an essay contest. Some were asked to visualize winning the contest, the others were asked to visualize losing. The latter group wrote better essays, because the awareness of the disappointment of losing caused them to work harder.

Positive “self-talk,” such as self-help statements (“I am a loveable person”), falls into this category of sometimes useful, sometimes hurtful. Telling yourself something does not make it so, and research has shown that people with lower self-esteem, the very ones self-help talk is supposed to benefit, are more likely to be hurt by it.

The key here is not to get lulled into focusing on your visualizations. Rather, focus on how you intend to achieve your goals. You will likely do so via hard work, so think about what you need to do to succeed. It could be more education, getting more sleep, or skipping dessert.

Work Toward Your Goals

Psychological counselors sometimes use a lighter version of The Secret. They ask clients to visualize where they would like to be in five years. As discussed above, this alone is not helpful.

When you map out your future, it’s fine to think about where you would like to be, but don’t waste energy daydreaming about how awesome it will be when you get there. Instead, focus on how you intend to get there.

Do you want more money? Ask for it. Want to lose weight? Diet and exercise will help you achieve this. Want to meet people? Don’t stay home fantasizing about it; make a plan that realistically involves being around other people, such as attending an event or joining a club.

Tell Us What You Think

Are you planning on meeting your goals? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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