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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

An Evaluation of Self Help Books and Affirmations

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 21st 2009

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.



Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

positive self-talk works better for me - confuzzed - Sep 24th 2009

Interesting article, Dr. Alan!!

I know for myself when I was in therapy my therapist insisted I select a positive phrase for myself and then repeat it 500 times a day. I honestly tried to do that, but I found for me the repeating became just an exercise in counting which ended up frustrating me to no end because I kept losing track of how many "affirmations" I had said.

So I stopped, and have found that positive self-talk works better for me that repeating the same phrase over and over and over again.

Studies? - Cathy - Sep 22nd 2009

I like the study where they use 40 people and from those they draw conclusions that will effect billions of people - I mean really.  The self help book that is referenced is excellent and even if you don't need help, it makes for interesting reading and it is always nice to have something to refer someone to when they tell you about a problem they are looking for help with.  Self-help is excellent in any field as long as the person is motivated, of course, if the person isn't motivated you aren't going to get anywhere anyways.  I just have one affirmation "they (you, it, she, he) will not steal my joy" - it works! 

Interesting piece. - JR - Sep 22nd 2009

Thanks, Allan.  Having been "through the mill" a bit with this sort of thing, I agree with your comments, from a "consumer" standpoint.  I have little doubt that I have benefitted from using some self-help texts - in particular, ones dealing intelligently with CBT and meditation.  However, I despair at the scriptures emanating from the "Church of Oprah", many of which give the impression that anybody can self-empower themselves in any way by some simple process, essentially, of self-sloganeering.  This is not a case of optimising though - it is more a case of stopping it, in favour of an illusion.  It is not just a matter that those most in need of help feel that much of what is promised in these books is impossible - they actually know, deep down, that such texts promise the impossible.  The real response is hardly likely to be positive.

It is simply, and patently, not true that anybody can achieve anything, just by persuading themselves or believing this to be true.  On the other hand, even the humblest of us can achieve much by identifying our abilities realistically, and employing them in a realistic way.

Thanks again,


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