Affirmations, Interrogative Self-Talk &  Positive Thinking

How to sell snow to an Eskimo.

‘I will sell snow to the Eskimos,’ or so the positive thinker affirms.

As those of you who have read the writings on this site before will know, I am not an advocate  of positive affirmation, simply because I have recognised that in the long term, it hasn’t helped me much, if at all.  However, recently I have read about a different form of ‘self-talk’ known as ‘interrogative self-talk’1 that seems to to ring true, which I will introduce below.

The business man, starting a new venture, that may have a good idea and also a sense of foreboding will probably not bother.  His competitor, also armed with a good idea and a sense positive expectation, probably will try.  Global warming aside, it may not be a wise enterprise to invest money and capital into making snow in order to sell it to Eskimos; it is important to not believe that you can do anything, because success is the game of giving things a try and recognising challenges that need to be overcome, and also recognising the potential flaws in a plan; it seems that neither the pessimist nor the optimist have the perfect mind set.  Herein, I am writing about confidence; not just business confidence, but the development of a confident outlook in all aspects of life, lifestyle, relationships, careers,  vocations, …  However, confidence does not mean that a person always believes that they can achieve their goals.

Confidence is an important life skill, and not necessarily an easy one to learn.  There are those with low self-esteem that may lack the belief and determination to move forwards in their lives, and then there are those that may never doubt their abilities, who will give anything and everything a try, but perhaps they may be a little too arrogant to succeed as often as they assume that they are able to.  I would like to project self confidence as being a state of mind that is a little ‘out of the box’ of the average writings that we may be force-fed by the positive thinking self improvement enthusiasts - curious.

Sometimes, when we want to improve our skills or learn something anew, it is important to look towards the example set by masters in order to learn a new trick or two.  ‘Which masters and what are they good at?’ you may ask.

I remember a trip to Knole House, a beautiful Tudor mansion in Kent.  A massive house, full of royal paintings and furniture, so much to see; as I was walking through a room taking in the carvings, decorations, gold leaf, pictures of Kings, a young girl was dragging her father past and towards a door into the next room, “Ooo Daddy, I wonder what is through here!?’ she said with a sweetshop enthusiasm.  The excitement of seeing such beautiful things and her curiosity to see what else there was to discover, was quite infectious.  It made me contemplate for a little while.

The stars, the universe, is there life on other planets or a god?  What greater wonder is there in life than the feeling that a child has when they are learning something new.  Children are the masters of self development, they have to learn to walk, speak, learn to read, write, add, subtract and so much more; childhood is the time when we have learnt the most in our lives, and it is important to recognise how they do that, if we too want to move forwards in our lives.  Curiosity is the fundamental mindset of self-development.  The child does not, each day, wake up and affirm to themselves, ‘Every day in every way, I get better and better;’ they do not need to because they wonder what new things the day will bring.

Every day in every way will I get better and better?  The new mantra for the inquisitive generation.

Sounds quite plausible, do you think?  Well, also there is some scientific evidence to back up this theory.  Albarracin, Dolores, Ibrahim Senay and Kenji Noguchi recently published a paper on their study that compared positive affirmation against interrogative self-talk - a person affirming ‘I will achieve …’ as compared to a person asking them self ‘Will I achieve …?’  Their research showed that of the people in their study that were given a task to perform and were instructed to use interrogative self-talk ‘Will I ?’ were able to accomplish their task with significantly more success compared to the people that performed the same task after practising positive affirmation ‘I Will.’1

In my earlier writings about positive affirmation I have questioned whether a person affirming to them self something that they possibly doubt to be true, could assist them in achieving their goal, and there are a lot of books in the self-help shelves of the stores encouraging just that; ‘I will win the lottery!’  I believe in the efficacy of a positive state of mind as much as any person; however, I perceive that a person with a strong pessimistic outlook on life cannot simply and easily alter that outlook by using positive affirmation; I do actually think that positive affirmations can help but I also believe that it would take an extremely persistent effort to turn a pessimistic person into an optimistic person, and optimistic people do not need any help in developing self belief; and so a more targeted approach may be more helpful.

Tonight, if at bedtime I affirmed, ‘I will wake up tomorrow!’ I might easily achieve my goal; I hope, but it is probably best to not try it just incase I jinx myself and fall into a coma.  However, if there are goals that a person has in their life, like quitting smoking, loosing weight, finding a new job, it is arguable as to whether their own - intelligent - appraisal of previous efforts that they have had in these areas of self improvement, will easily be washed over by some affirmation.  Moreover, a person that has had little past success in an area of their life that they are looking to develop, when practising affirmation may soon conclude, ‘I knew this would be a waste of time!’ as soon their new regime fails to quickly produce the desired outcome.

A person may find the practice a little crushing to affirm something to be true and then for their endeavours to fail; and in this situation, the positive affirmation advocates will say, ‘Practice more affirmation until it materialises!’ and yet once it has failed to achieve observable results, their intrinsic faith in the method crumbles and so their motivation to practise affirmation wanes and hence they look for another book to help them turn their life around, which is why there is such a lucrative market for books telling people how to achieve their dreams.  Interrogative self-talk does not impinge upon our intelligence, it does not state something to be true when it may not be true, and so it does not feel like self-brainwashing.

Interrogative self-talk, ‘Will I find a new job?’  ‘Will I achieve …?’  ‘Will I …?’ opens our minds to the possibility self development, opens our curiosity to opening our eyes to opportunities, and to trying; not trying with the expectation of success or failure, but trying purely for the purpose of finding out; just as the child tries to find out.  When we place the importance of success onto a task, it can close our eyes to negative information and so we may find ourselves trying to sell snow to the Eskimos.  Equally, placing the importance of success onto a task can lead to ‘giving up.’  Curiosity is the state of mind that leads more consistently towards success when success is possible, and a change of plans when a change of plans is appropriate.  For the pessimists, there are success and failures; those that have read my previous writings on positive thinking know that I believe in success versus learning, we either succeed or acquire feedback that helps us to succeed on the next occasion; I may not succeed at everything that I do, but I never fail, just learn so that I can succeed on the next occasion.

Yesterday I asked myself, ‘Will I win the lottery?’  Unfortunately, it seems that I managed to intuitively pick the previous week’s numbers, and so I did not.  Fortunately, I hadn’t affirmed that I have some form of magical power to achieve anything and everything that I believe and so I still feel hopeful enough to try again next week.

The only question left is:

‘Will I manage to finish writing my new article on awareness meditation?’  Learning the state of mind known as ‘Awareness’ is pivotal to any self development plan.

1.    Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracin and Kenji Noguchi. “Interrogative Self-Talk and Intention: Motivation Goal-Directed Behavior through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense.” Psychological Science. April 2010. Volume 21, Number 4.

Posted by Roz on 14th June 2010|

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