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An Evaluation of Self Help Books and Affirmations

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

The study:

A study was recently published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. the study found that self help books and positive affirmations can be damaging. The study was conducted by psychologists at the University of New Brunswick and the University of Waterloo.

The researchers gathered two groups of people, those with low self esteem and those with high self esteem. The members of each group were asked to repeat the self help phrase, “I am lovable.” The psychologists then measured their momentary sense of self esteem immediately after repeating the phrase. Those with low self esteem felt worse, and, those with high self esteem, felt better after the reading and repeating the phrase.

The researchers concluded that the low self esteem group felt worse because the expectation of “feeling lovable” was too high for them to believe.


If the concept of “Self Help” were as easy as simply repeating self affirming phrases then I could well agree with the conclusions reached by these researchers. However, if anyone examines the excellent “Online Self Help Book” that we have on Mental Help Net, they will find that a lot more is involved than simply repeating fake positive phrases. The URL is here:

In fact, any good self help book goes into the entire explanation about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is not based on memorizing superficial affirmations that a person cannot and will not believe. Rather, it asks people to examine their thoughts and whether or not those thoughts are based on concrete facts and evidence. Most “automatic” or distorted thoughts are based on very little evidence.

For example, if someone misses the bus on the way to work and concludes “I am just a failure,” they can examine the evidence. Looking at that thought and examining ones achievements and failures, they will realize, “oh, I have not been successful at some things but I have been at others.” Further examination will help them realize, “Oh, I am just angry with myself for missing the bus, and that happens to everyone sometimes.”

This is far from a fake or superficial “affirmation.”

The best self help books, as exemplified the one that we have, are based on doing things like using meditation to relieve stress, engaging in deep muscle relaxation, applying CBT methods and other sound practices.

There is no doubt that if this does not succeed in helping a person feel better, then, the next step is psychotherapy. In fact, many times it is better to immediately enter psychotherapy. Finally, self help methods and psychotherapy can blend together very nicely.

It is important that readers use care when learning about the “latest research.” I often meet people who quote facts from this study and that. However, not all studies are of equal quality. That is why web sites like Mental Help Net are useful to so many people.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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