The simple answer is: Yes. Here is the longer story.
Anyone that has a social media account has the experience of having their feed inundated with memes, quotes, and inspirational messages. The intent is to portray, a sense of optimism and positivity. But, are these messages really resulting in people feeling better? The answer is mixed.
Very strong research in Social Psychology shows that positive messages and affirmations make people that feel good feel even better. Someone already feeling good about themselves will feel uplifted by a positive message, someone with good self-esteem will feel even more confident, someone who feels accomplished in their life, or on the way of attaining their goals, are capable of feeling a sense of gratitude, and feel very grateful. Those that feel motivated will feel even more energized by a motivational speaker, book, etc. So, the conclusion of the research is: positive memes, books, speakers, and self-help tools will help people that already have a positive view of themselves. But, what is the effect on people that don’t feel good about themselves?
People who deal with depression, anxiety, and many other psychological conditions don’t feel good about themselves. Conditions like depression manufacture thoughts that tell the person experiencing them that they are hopeless, ineffective, and generally not good enough. Anxiety, tells people who experience it that the world is a dangerous place to live in, and they are not equipped to handle it; that is why anxiety is basically fear. Now, this is a very important point that most people, even some therapists miss: these people don’t want to think like that, they are not choosing to think like that; their depression and anxiety are manufacturing those thoughts in their brains and feeding them to the person. These thoughts are a symptom of their depression and anxiety, like fever is a symptom of the flu. It comes with it, and no one is choosing it. Trust me, no one who experiences depression and anxiety would choose to experience the indescribable suffering that they produce. Ok. Having made that very important point, let’s get back to the effects of inspirational, positive, messages.
We know that Social Psychology research shows that positive messages and affirmations reinforce already existing positive self-concepts and feelings. Well, they also reinforce already existing negative self-concepts and feelings. In other words, they reinforce whatever is there to begin with. Pretty simple and logical.
As a result, the person who sees him/herself as worthless, ineffective, and incapable sees the positive messages as reflections of everything that they are not. They get the message that some people are capable of getting out of suffering through “positive thinking”, the “right attitude”, “being grateful”, having a “positive mindset”, “talking to themselves in the right way”, “loving yourself”, “not caring what others think”, “living in the now”…the list is too extensive to cover here. You get the message. They see/hear/read these messages and testimonials and they believe them.
They believe them, and they try them—desperately. They buy the books, sign up for the courses, join the programs, and every time they discover that none of these lessons and systems help them out of their suffering. These methods fail to bring the clinically depressed person relief because they suffer from serious psycho-biological conditions. Depression, anxiety, and most other psychological-biological disorders have to be treated in the same professional way as all other chronic biological conditions. Conditions like diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease have to be treated professionally. They have to be treated by professionals using professional science and methods. They don’t get better by treating them with amateur non-professional means. No rational caring person would think of saying to a person suffering from heart disease, diabetes or asthma, to forgo professional treatment and manage their condition with positive thinking, exercise, and yoga. It is true that all of these things would be incredible adjuncts to their professional treatment, but not a substitute. As we saw the search indicate, they will work, by themselves, for people who are already experiencing some level of their benefits.
Even when the need to treat psychological-biological disorders professionally, still the suffering depressed and anxious people see messages screaming at them that amateur solutions and cures are effective for whoever applies them. They read, see, and hear, testimonials asserting that seemingly everyone who tries these methods have been successful in managing, even ending, their suffering. Even worse, the proponents of these methods usually argue that, if you did not get the results that they promise is because the person practicing them was “not trying hard enough”, or “not serious enough”, or “didn’t want it enough”. In other words, if the method did not work, it’s the practitioner’s fault. So the depressed and anxious person thinks: What does this say about me? The usual conclusion that they reach is that they are irredeemably broken. All the negative things that they believe about themselves are proven true. They conclude that they are losers, they are defective, they are lazy, they don’t have the capacity to overcome adversity that these other people do. They come to believe that they can’t do anything right. They feel that they can’t succeed at anything. Can you imagine the level of despair and hopelessness that follows?
Despair and hopelessness so deep it makes life seem unbearable. And, a lot of suffering people conclude, this unbearable life has to be medicated or ended. So, the people that lose hope in their ability to overcome their suffering, as everyone else seems to be able to do, are very vulnerable to fall into alcoholism and drug abuse to ease their pain or decide that everything is hopeless, and try to end it.
This is how positive messages can hurt people. They inspire the confident, the happy, and the people blessed by nature and nurture with the absence of depression, anxiety, and other psychological-biological problems. But, to the ones that were not so lucky, the ones that struggle with mental and psychological-biological disorders, they are mirrors that reflect a view of living in a world in which everyone, except them, has the capacity to overcome adversity and get whatever they want, by willing themselves to do so, and following the direction of a book, a program, or a guru. These messages are not positive for them. These messages hurt them.
It may seem that I am negative and “dark”. I don’t think so. I am a realist that believes in the resiliency of the human spirit. I don’t think that it has to be dressed up and made nice. In that spirit, I want to end with an acknowledgment and a paradox.
In my 30 years of doing therapy, and a lifetime of living with depression, I am fascinated by 2 paradoxical, and reality-based, inspiring facts:
1. The people that live with, and survive, psychological-biological mental conditions, are the toughest people in the world, while at the same time seeing themselves as weak.
2. The same people that get hurt by positive and inspirational propaganda are people that— through having to overcome their suffering to survive on a daily basis—are living sources of inspiration. It would mean a lot to us if you would acknowledge this.