When Positive Affirmations Become Weapons

Helping clients to challenge negative self-talk with their own values

Sunita Osborn, PsyD, MA

Positive affirmations are an incredible and versatile therapeutic tool that can be utilized in a number of contexts, from supporting clients in developing healthier self-esteem to coping with grief and loss. However, positive affirmations run the danger of becoming weaponized as a tool to ward off even a hint of negative self-talk. This has become even more relevant as positive affirmations dominate social media platforms, touted as the “solution” to negative thinking.

Consider the client who is filled with self-doubt and negative self-talk before her job interview and describes her internal dialogue as, “I just know I’m going to embarrass myself. I always make a terrible first impression.”

This client begins utilizing the positive affirmations she recently came across on a social media post, and each of her “negative” thoughts is immediately countered with a positive affirmation: “I am successful. I love myself fully.” She works as hard as she can to avoid sitting with any negative thoughts by saying these phrases repeatedly.

Back and forth this process goes with negative self-talk followed swiftly by the weapon of positive affirmation. This client doggedly counters each negative thought with an affirmation, and while she experiences some temporary relief, she notices her energy decreasing with each counter-move. She begins to find it hard to focus on what is important to her in the moment, namely preparing for her interview. Additionally, she feels disappointed with herself that she can’t “even do this right” and that something must be wrong with her if these positive affirmations are not “working.”

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers clarity on what can make the battle between negative self-talk and positive affirmations so challenging. ACT posits that the more we attempt to fight, wrestle, or silence our thoughts, the more we get stuck in them. ACT commonly uses the metaphor of quicksand to highlight this point, noting that—like being inside a pit of quicksand—fighting and struggling will only make us sink faster.

This doesn’t mean we have to throw positive affirmations out the window. We just need to be strategic in supporting our clients in using them intentionally rather than weaponizing them as a tool of avoiding, escaping, or silencing our internal dialogue. For example, ACT offers the following acronym to help clients when they are feeling stuck or fused with their thoughts:

Accept and acknowledge your thoughts
Choose a valued direction
Take action

Thus, encourage clients to first notice and name these thoughts without doing anything to counter or change them. Use your own therapeutic creativity with this intervention, but one idea could be having them write the thought on a piece of paper and noticing how it feels to move the paper closer and further away from them.

After the client has named the thought, encourage them to look to their values on what action they want to take next. Their value of connection may urge them to reach out to a friend to discuss their concerns. Perhaps their value of learning encourages them to listen to a podcast about job interview anxiety. Maybe their value of self-love reassures them to choose a few positive affirmations they can say to themselves after the intensity of their negative thoughts has decreased.

Again, the problem here is not the positive affirmations themselves or even the existence of our negative thoughts which we know to be a normal part of the human experience. Rather, we run into danger when we believe one can cancel out the other. Let’s drop the struggle, drop the weaponization of positive affirmations, and allow ourselves to see where our values take us.
Self-ish: When Bubble Baths, Wine, and Affirmations Aren’t Cutting It
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) Flip Chart
In Self-ish, clinical psychologist Sunita Osborn challenges what we think we know about selfishness. With radical candor and bold humor, she dispels the myths and distortions that surround the fundamental psychological concepts of self-care, self-trust, self-love, and self-discipline, explaining how these terms have become empty badges of honor because of social media, societal norms, and our upbringings.

Dr. Osborn urges women everywhere to unapologetically nurture their personal growth with strength and wisdom, blazing a path to self-leadership with encouragement, tools, and concrete steps to level-up their whole selves.

Meet the Expert:
Sunita Osborn, PsyD, MA is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Houston, Texas and works with adults and couples. Known as an expert on the treatment of pregnancy loss, Dr. Osborn specializes in reproductive psychology and helps individuals and couples in all phases of the reproductive journey. After finding herself lost and without a map after her own experiences of pregnancy loss, she is committed to helping individuals cope with the pain of this loss, supporting clinicians in treating pregnancy loss, and promoting open dialogue on the realities of this prevalent and devasting concern.

Learn more about her educational products, including upcoming live seminars, by clicking here.

Topic: ACT

Tags: ACT- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Email Signup