Will Positive Thinking Help Low Self-esteem?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group. “Ron” is a composite of multiple cases.

Children’s self-esteem can be enhanced by teaching them how to cope with both success and failure. Whether dealing with accomplishments or disappointments, when parents help their kids focus on things they can control – like effort – then both their achievements and self-esteem are enhanced. In fact, research shows that high achieving and high self-esteem children tend to attribute their successes and failures to effort, and similar factors that can be controlled – and changed if necessary – such as focus, organization, and planning.

These principles also apply to adults. The key is learning how to analyze and evaluate your experiences. Tackling job assignments, resolving daily interpersonal conflicts, meeting the demands of childrearing, and maintaining friendships – all these challenges are subject to success and failure. Whatever the outcome, analyze your preparation and effort before you let success – or failure – intoxicate you into believing you are better – or worse – than you truly are. When you are realistic in assessing the reasons for your successes and failures, you will maintain a stable self-concept and high self-esteem. 

Many people wonder if positive thinking is important in this process. Self-help books are filled with comments about the so-called power of positive thinking. When it comes to self-esteem, however, psychological research and clinical observation do not consistently support its usefulness. That makes sense when you think about it. To feel better about ourselves, if all we have to do is think positively, then why is it that so many people languish in a swamp of low self-esteem? Why don’t they simply snap out of the doldrums by having positive thoughts? The fact is, you can say positive things to yourself all day long, but that is not sufficient to increase your self-esteem. Let’s face it, psychologists would be out of business if all people had to do was think positively in order to enhance their self-esteem.

Positive thinking is ineffective with low self-esteem because people can see that their positive thoughts are inconsistent with their already well-established self-doubts. In short, they know better! What we’re saying is that you won’t be fooled by having positive thoughts that don’t square with your personal reality! What you have to do, therefore, is change that personal reality. And how do you do that? Simple. Engage in actions that bring you satisfaction and contentment, actions that make you feel worthwhile and productive. Such actions will provide you with positive feedback that will result in more optimistic feelings about yourself. Without appropriate actions, positive thoughts are nothing more than fantasy.

Ron was a socially unskilled young college man with relationship and emotional problems. He generally had a hard time making friends and getting dates. A psychologist told him to think positively and act assertively, and his problems would be eliminated. Beginning several days before each counseling session, he required Ron to ask co-eds for a date. As you might expect, the strategy didn’t work. The poor guy came to therapy sessions “bummed out because I was rejected again and again.” 

Ron was blinded by the “power” of positive thinking, believing that his optimism would be enough to encourage women to agree to his date request. The fact is, however, his belief in positive thinking prevented him from reasoning things out rationally. That is, how often is a young man going to be successful in asking out a woman he barely knows? Not often. Ron, however, thought, “I know she will say yes. I’ve got to think positively!” Ron may have been thinking positively, but he wasn’t thinking or acting rationally. He believed positive thinking and assertiveness would produce success; but all it led to was frequent rejection, which prevented him from analyzing why he was having social problems. Ron didn’t need positive thinking; he needed social-skills training and some cognitive restructuring! He found his way to a new counselor, and that is exactly what they worked on in therapy.

Ron had to learn to lower his expectations and re-evaluate social pressures from others to date regularly; being turned down, for instance, did not mean he was an unworthy person. Furthermore, he needed to accept the reality that many of his social problems resulted from fairly normal anxiety and discomfort when talking with women. Rather than compensate for these insecurities with fake confidence – “Hi, honey. I’m the man of your dreams!” – Ron learned to be more realistic about his poor social skills. He worked at focusing on his social abilities, and not being distracted by irrelevant positive thinking. For instance, Ron believed it was appropriate to approach a girl after class – a girl he barely knew – and say, “Hey, how about a movie with me tonight?”  He had to learn there are ways to initiate a conversation and ways not to initiate one; there are ways to keep a conversation going; there are signals from others he needed to be sensitive to, and react accordingly. The effect of working on these changes in his thinking – and coordinating his actions to those changes – was to lower his social anxiety.

Eventually, Ron asked out only the few women who showed some reciprocal interest in him after several casual conversations over a period of time. This strategy increased the odds of actually getting a date – which he did, sometimes. But he learned that expecting only occasional success was realistic, and those occasional successes were sufficient to increase his self-esteem. He accepted the realities of the dating world; he made himself accountable for adapting to those realities; he devised a plan of action. In short, with some guidance, he taught himself to cope better with his social stressors.

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