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Stop being so positive: How to find your answers in self-help books

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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

Sabrina Hassell knew something was amiss in high school. 

"I felt like I was ugly," said Hassell. "That was a big thing because I never fit anywhere."

She heard people comparing her to her sister - what she wore, how she styled her hair, and didn't feel that she measured up. 

"I knew who I was and what I wanted to do," said Hassell. "But when people are putting all that pressure on you, it's like 'Dang! I need to change because something's wrong with me.'"

It wasn't until well into college, though, that Hassell turned to self-help books, ones that would boost her confidence with positive thought. She also told herself over and over that "'This month, I'm going to read this book and apply this principle,' and I would wake up a month later or so and nothing had changed."

How could positive thoughts not make her feel better? Well, as three psychologists found in a study for psychological science, for people with low self-esteem, repeating statements like "I am a lovable person" and "I will succeed" can have the opposite effect and make them feel worse. 

"I can read something, but if it's not real to me, then I can't relate to it," said Jessica Cleveland, a licensed professional counselor at Behavioral Sciences of Alabama in Huntsville. She's seen that positive to negative thought pattern in patients.

"It almost sets expectations that this is how I'm supposed to feel," said Cleveland. "And when I'm not feeling that way or I can't figure out how to get there, it becomes very discouraging to people."

Hassell even tried a Christian self-help book, "The Confident Woman", which told her..."God loves you".

"Okay, God loves me," said Hassell. "That's great, but I don't."

So, how do you change that way of thinking? What Cleveland does is have her patients answer questions from a worksheet to get to the root of why they're feeling the way they do. So, if a patient says "I'm a failure", she has them look for alternatives. She has them go from what she calls "give up thoughts", like "I'm a failure"...to go-to thoughts.

"So, instead of I'm a failure, more like it's okay for me to make mistakes," said Cleveland. "That doesn't equate to failure.

There are self-help books that can get you to the same spot. For Hassell, that book was one by Azizah Morrison - "Awaken the Woman Within".

"She talked about being a single mom and all this stuff," said Hassell. "She had low self-esteem and all that stuff. And then, she showed her principles."

One of those principles is alignment - aligning your outer behavior with your inner convictions. Hassell even reached out to Morrison on Facebook and Twitter and got even more answers.

Today, she's a grad student at Alabama A&M and is happy with who she is, and she says if you're going through what she did...

"There are going to be days when you're going to cry," said Hassell. "You're going to be, like, 'Man, today sucks, and I'm not happy!' And that's okay! You have to face that before you move past it.  I'm going to deal with it, and then I'm going to wake up in the morning. I'm going to dust myself off, and I'm going to keep going."

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