Some of the points made in Marisa Peer’s video (see below) worried me because I think they are over-generalized, precarious and insensitive. It ignited me to share my position passionately, as suggested by the length of the article, because even though I realize that my popularity might plummet as I dare contradict parts of it; I feel that as a psychologist and a researcher, I need to speak up and put another perceptive out there for people to hear… not to mention speak about what I believe to be the best, most effective and scientifically based therapeutic approach,CBT.
Let me start by saying that I do agree with the idea that self- affirmations are generally helpful.By itself, it can generate a boost of confidence but for someone without psychological problems that require therapy too. A number of psychological adversities that some clients have may indeed come down to the core belief that one believes that he/she is not enough… but that is where it ends. Two main issues were presented in this talk. The first is that all psychological problems are solvable by only saying and writing you are enough (literally only these 3 words)…. The second, it all comes down to “tricking” your mind and saying the extreme positive opposite.
First of all, I believe that saying that all psychological problems, which are widely divers, complex and vary on multiple levels and clusters, not to mention the existence of co-morbidities, cannot be oversimplified and gathered into one plain cluster that only has one root of the problem- “I am not enough… ” Core beliefs that influence our thoughts, emotions, behaviours and physical sensations are beliefs we hold about ourselves, others and the world, so not only about the self.
In addition, the core self beliefs vary hugely between individuals. “I am not enough” is only one type of belief not all of them. Claiming it in itself takes away the uniqueness of every individual and puts us all in one box. 1 size fit all problems and one dimensional solution- is that realistic? Not to mention that it is also not scientifically backed. Let’s face it, if that was the real and sole origin of all psychological problems and it all boiled down to a simple sentence that you need to write down on your mirror and keep repeating, there would be no psychological symptoms, no therapists, no psychiatrists, no mental illness at all in the world. We will all live in a lala land ecstatic pink planet because all the huge variety of mental problems will vanish. Simple as that…
This approach also ignores that fact that people are complex human beings, who do not live in a vacuum. There are many factors e.g. environmental, genetic, neurological, cultural, socio-economic,other people, life events and their implications etc that contribute to a psychological problem. Not to mention that our individual attributes, cognitive capacities, personality, behaviours, physical sensations,emotions also contribute, interact and influence our thoughts. In this video all these factors are totally ignored. Some factors are within our control and some are not and/or inflicted upon us like rape, death, wars, disease, terror, miscarriage etc. It is quite belittling and unrealistic to say that only because you do not say “you are enough” or trick your mind, you suffer from anguish and have psychological pain.
Exchanging one extreme negative thought with it’s extreme opposite positive is irrational, unrealistic and unsound. Extreme negative thoughts are mostly irrational, unrealistic and unfounded but replacing it with an extreme positive one does not make it more founded. When it comes to a core belief you need to challenge them, judge the evidence/facts and then formulate a new belief that is representative of your own perceptions of the facts that you have gathered from your past and present. The alternative belief is often balanced, thus is somewhere in the middle of the continuum; not extreme positive nor extreme negative, just like everything in life is. That is rational, reality reflecting and that is something that the brain can believe. That is when the true stable, consistent and long term changes occur. It is also when you see for yourself what you need to improve on and grow as an individual. As well as you start acknowledging and accepting the great strengths, capacities, achievements and characteristics that you have been ignoring due to the negative core self belief.
You discover truly why you are enough, if that is indeed your self core belief, not because you emptily and repetitively say it to yourself, but because it is a proven fact by you and only you, not by someone who tells you that is your magical bullet. You say it because you know it is true, your evidence as you perceive it says it is and you truly believe it. Supported by self -acceptance, self- compassion, self- care and the continuous challenging of negative thoughts and behaviours, the positive psychological changes will remain.
Self -affirmations is not an instead of therapy solution but it is 1 supportive tool/strategy that can help remind you of all that you have rediscovered about yourself, once you have reformulated your alternative self core belief. A positive self affirmation does not change your core belief, but it can help you cope better on the more challenging days, much like yoga, exercise, self- care, writing in a journal, expressing your emotions, listening to music, having gratitude journal, talking with a friend etc can. These are only supportive strategies of emotional coping, but they are not a substitution to the need to challenge your core beliefs about yourself, about others and the world and the required adjusting or adapting of more helpful behaviours.
When it comes to anxiety provoking situations flooding, which is what was said in the example, thus putting yourself immediately in the most frightening situation, it can be paralyzing and it will over flood you with intense physical and psychological anxiety, which you may not be equipped to handle and reduce, if all you are armed with is the strategy “trick your mind” by saying “I love being here… this is great”. It is ridiculously unhelpful in a state of panic. When flooding is done correctly, which is less preferable than hierarchical exposure, you first get taught and practice several anxiety reducing strategies, which will help you cope with the anxiety provoking situation. Only after mastering these skills you are exposed to the most feared trigger.
The last point that indirectly was made is mind over matter. If you trick your mind then….well, before we all start walking on hot coals, let’s put that idea in perspective.
The ability to overcome physical hardship and pain, as for example many women would attest to it , can come from mind over matter but not by saying “Yaay! give me some more of that pain”, “I love being in labor”.. It comes from the ability to deep breathe, relax the muscles, refocus your attention, be intoned to your body, be mindful, knowing what helps you to calm down and utilizing it ,receive and respond to support, believe in your abilities to do it, belief in your abilities to cope with whatever will come your way, the ability to express your emotions and needs when needed, reliance and trust in the medical care and advice given etc. The mentioned above are strategies and beliefs that you establish, gather,practice and utilize, which contribute to overcoming the physical pain. Similarly can be said about any other physically challenging activities or situations.
You do not just step into a physically challenging situation nor do you relay on tricking your brain by saying the unbelievable extreme opposite, but you prepare, practice, learn what works for you and utilize it, believe in yourself and in your capacities to achieve the desired goal and in those who help you…that goes way beyond and is more multifaceted than just tricking your mind is it not?
In sum, without challenging your core beliefs, eliminating or adjusting unhelpful behaviors, learning new and adaptive ones, change cannot occur nor be maintained. Additionally, our emotions and physical sensations are our evolutionary survival tools, like traffic lights, that signal us to stop; you might be threatened here. You should utilize it rather than dismiss it and say the opposite to your body. Take the time to examine and analyze if your thoughts are valid and rational or need to be reformulated. Evaluate the circumstances, the needed capacities and resources to cope with the situation- whether you have them and believe in your abilities or need more resources and support, make an action plan, consider all the other influential factors and/or problem solve, before you proceed with caution instead of jumping in head first.
But let us also not forget that we are all individuals; all unique beautiful beings who deserve respect , acknowledgment, acceptance and love for being who we are too and that does not come from oversimplifying who we are, our anguish and our needs. I believe as psychologists that it is part of our job to champion that with each one of our clients too. What do you think?