A negative side to positive self-talk

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Illustration by William Hayden

By Catherine Gosen, Contributing Writer

It’s not uncommon in American culture to be exposed to a constant bombardment of cliched tropes about self-esteem, success, positive self-talk and motivation.

Smile bright. Speak positively. Give 110 percent. And the list goes on and on and on.

We, as a culture, enjoy amping ourselves up. We feel like having negative thoughts often equates to low self-esteem. This just isn’t true.

Some of these bits of advice are sound, while others are, let’s face it, less useful. Some advice we’re given about how we should treat ourselves and talk to ourselves even borders on harmful.

Positive self-talk (addressing oneself in an uplifting and encouraging way) seems like a good thing. And why not? It should help raise self-esteem and motivate you to success. But what happens when you positive self-talk yourself straight out of working at all? It has quite the opposite effect from success when that happens.

“Positive self-talk has, in some cases, been overemphasized,” said Dennis Anderson, M.S., a psychology professor at ewu, said with a crooked, knowing, little smile.

It has been his experience that people put too much worth in the idea of being positive, especially toward themselves. From time to time, people just need a reality check. And though the practice has its place, people tend to take it too far. Too much of a good thing is not always a good thing — ask any sex addict.

Anderson teaches Psychology at EWU and says he has seen students talk themselves up so much that they no longer feel the need to study. He has seen students convince themselves not buy text books (oh no, anything but that), not study for tests or even not bother showing up for classes. He blames it on an over indulgence of positive self-talk, but who knows. I mean, he just has an M.S and has been teaching Psychology for years. How would he know anything?

Anderson said positive self-talk can actually, in the long run, be a stressor.

People talk themselves up; people stop working because, “Hey, I got this;” people don’t “got this;” people get stressed because they don’t “got this.” And that’s how positive self-talk usually causes stress.

Sometimes, what’s referred to as “Defensive Pessimism” is the best mode of operation.

Julie Norem, a professor and researcher at Wellesley College, coined the term and defined it as the use of pessimism and general negativity to prepare for the future. (General negativity, huh? I’ll do it.)

Norem’s research suggested that the quickest way to positive outcomes was through negative thoughts, ironically enough.

Sometimes, humans just perform better when there is a fear factor involved. Defensive pessimism helps an individual envision the worst (because everyone needs help envisioning the worst) and then make plans accordingly.

“Do what helps you, as an individual, cope on a cognitive level,” said Anderson.

For some people, positive self-talk could be a wonderful tool — kind of like them: a wonderful little tool — but for so many others it is actually a hindrance.

Norem and Anderson both believe that positive self-talk could be used to ignore obstacles completely.

“We believe — I’m hesitant to say we ‘know’ —  what we say to ourselves affects our cognitive response,” said Anderson.

Thanks to peoples’ inability to see themselves clearly and truthfully, positive self-talk often just feeds an ego instead of boosting an ability to accomplish tasks, which was its intended purpose. But, as we all know, people always use tools for their intended purposes and for nothing else.

There is a time and place for negative self-talk just as there is for positive. I don’t care if you yell at yourself or pamper yourself, just get stuff done.

In the end, there is just a negative side to positive self-talk.