Do Positive Affirmations Really Work?

“I am successful,” “I am a wonderful person,” “I will find love again,” and many other similar phrases that some people may repeat to themselves over and over again, hoping to change their lives. “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better,” was affirmed by police Commissioner Dreyfus in the Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau series but originated with French psychologist in the 1800s, Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie.

Self-help books through the ages, from Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, all the way to The Secret and many self-help books and programs have encouraged people with low self-esteem to make positive self-statements or affirmations. Many therapists, counsellors and coaches suggest their clients/patients use positive affirmations to help them with issues of self-esteem, negative thinking and pessimism.

However, a debate exists among researchers and psychologists regarding the efficacy of positive affirmations in relation to one’s success and well-being.

What are Positive Affirmations?

Self-affirmation theory focuses on how individuals adapt to information or experiences that are threatening to their self-concept or self-esteem. Social Psychologist Claude Steele originally popularized self-affirmation theory in the late 1980s, and it remains a well-studied theory in social psychological research.

Self-affirmation theory contends that if individuals reflect on their personal values, they are less likely to experience distress and react defensively when confronted with information or an experience that contradicts or threatens their sense of self.

Some research on self-affirmation theory suggests that self-affirmation can help individuals cope with threat or stress and reduce defensiveness. Also, some research contends that self-affirmation contributes to an individual’s overall health and likelihood of success.

The Argument for Positive Affirmations

Geoffrey L. Cohen and David L. Sherman published their research in the Annual Review of Psychology suggested self-affirmation reminds people of important aspects of the self, enabling them to view events from a reasonable, considered, and rational viewpoint. They argue self-affirmation reduces defensive responses to threatening information and events, leading to positive outcomes in various areas such as psychological health, education, prejudice, discrimination , and social conflicts .

For one study Jennifer Taber and colleagues reported in the journal Psychology and Health that cancer survivors reported that participants who had positive self-affirmations reported better health, greater happiness , hopefulness and lower likelihood of cognitive impairment.

J. D. Cresswell and colleagues reported in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin self-affirmation improves problem-solving performance on tasks related to executive functioning. They cite numerous studies that self-affirmation activates neural reward pathways. They suggest “that self-affirmation may be rewarding and may provide a first step toward identifying a neural mechanism by which self-affirmation may produce beneficial effects.”

The Argument Against Positive Affirmations

Control your thoughts and you create your reality. A positive mindset begets positive end results. These popular tenets are espoused by the likes of Louise Hay, Napoleon Hill, Anthony Robbins and countless other self-help gurus. The problem is, this easy prescription doesn’t work.

Peoples’ common aspirations are for something as small as a great parking space, a dream job or wealth. According to popular advise from self-help gurus you should write down your aspiration, or post a picture of it, or repeat it out loud over and over again. But for many the end results of your efforts were probably not the ones they were looking for.

Having failed to achieve their aspirations they might then harshly judge and criticize themselves. They may come to the conclusion they didn’t perform the affirmation correctly, or conclude fate has decided it was “not meant to be

Psychological researchers conclude that the reason positive affirmations don’t work is that they target the conscious level of your mind, but not the unconscious. In other words, if you are trying to affirm something that is incongruent or a contradiction to your deeply held negative belief, the result can be cognitive dissonance and an inner struggle. If what you are trying to affirm is incongruent with a deeply held negative belief, then all that results is an inner struggle.

For example, you may believe you are unattractive ugly– a commonly held belief by depressed people all over the world. Your belief is deep in your unconscious and conscious mind. No matter what people tell you and what the reality is, an affirmation to the contrary may not shake it. For example, at the peak of her career Jane Fonda was held to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, yet, as her autobiography reveals, she judged her physical appearance as inadequate and struggled with eating disorders for decades. Eating disorders can often trace the problem back to this.

You may decide to look at yourself in the mirror and say out loud: “I am beautiful, inside and out. I love myself.” If you deeply believe and feel that you are ugly and worthless, it will set off an inner war. With each positive declaration, your unconscious will cry out, “it’s not true, it’s not true!”

This conflict uses up a great deal of energy and creates massive tension in the body. The end result is that the negative belief becomes stronger as it fights for survival and what you really desire fails to manifest.

Also, the subconscious mind cannot differentiate between negative and positive, or between what is real and imagined. For example, if we want to be successful, we cannot say things like “I don’t want to be a failure.” The subconscious mind will act upon the word “failure,” ignoring the word “don’t,” and actualizing the undesired result.

Another problem in self-affirmations is that they can become disconnected from reality. University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson suggested we should have “realistic optimism” which hopes for the best while remaining attuned to potential threats, from unrealistic optimism, which ignores such threats.

A 2007 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science by University of Virginia psychologists Shigehiro Oishi, Ed Diener and Richard Lucas reinforces Peterson’s arguments. Using analyses from several large international samples, they found that although extremely happy people are the most successful in close interpersonal relationships and volunteer work, moderately happy people are more successful than extremely happy people financially and educationally and are also more politically active. Their findings raise the possibility that although a realistically positive attitude toward the world often helps us to achieve certain life goals, a Pollyannaish attitude may have its costs — perhaps because it fosters complacency.

Canadian researcher Joanne Wood and her colleagues published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, which concluded “repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

The researchers asked people with and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.” They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves. The low-esteem group felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not. However, people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive affirmation–but only slightly. The psychologists then asked the participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves. They found, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

The researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals in individuals with low self-esteem. When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, the researchers argue, there is not mere resistance but a reinforcing of self-perception. People who view themselves as unlovable, for example, find that saying to themselves they are lovable it can be unbelievable which in turn strengthens their own negative view rather than reversing it.

Wood goes even further. In her Psychology Today blog, she says that most self-help books advocating positive affirmations may be based on good intentions or personal experience, but they are rarely based on even one iota of scientific evidence. She cites psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness as an exception.

Does that mean positive affirmations are of absolutely no value? Not according to Wood and her co-researchers. They say that positive affirmations can help when they are part of a broader program of intervention. That intervention can take place in a number of forms such as cognitive psychotherapy or working with a coach who has expertise in the behavioral sciences.

What kind of intervention is best to use to make positive affirmations most effective?

Traditional cognitive psychotherapy may not be the best intervention according to Dr. Steven Hayes, a renowned psychotherapist, and author of Getting Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Hayes advocates a different approach which is termed ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which says that we should acknowledge that negative thoughts recur throughout our life and instead of challenging or fighting with them, we should concentrate on identifying and committing to our values in life. Hayes would argue that once we are willing to feel our negative emotions, we’ll find it easier to commit ourselves to what we want in life.

Hayes represents a “Third Wave” of psychologists who are focusing less on how to manipulate the content of our thoughts (a focus on cognitive psychotherapy) and more on how to change the way we see thoughts and feelings so they can’t control our behavior. Whereas cognitive therapists speak of “cognitive errors” and “distorted interpretation,” Hayes and his colleagues encourage mindfulness, the meditation-inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled by them. For example, “imagine the thoughts being a leaf or canoe floating down the stream.”

Hayes and his colleagues argue that trying to correct negative thoughts can paradoxically actually intensify them. As NLP trained coaches would say, telling someone to “not think about a blue tree,” actually focuses their mind on a blue tree.

Third Wave psychologists and coaches focus on acceptance and commitment which comes with a variety of strategies to help people including such things as writing your epitaph (what’s going to be your legacy), clarifying your values and committing your behavior to them. This approach comes along at a time when more and more people are looking for answer outside of the traditional medical model (which psychiatry and traditional psychotherapy represent

The Third Wave Psychologists approaches are very consistent with much of the training and approach that many life coaches receive, inclusive of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and many spiritual approaches to behavioral changes reflected in ancient Buddhist teachings and the more modern version exemplified by Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now). The focus of those approaches reinforces the concepts of acceptance of negative emotions and thoughts, and rather than giving them energy and fighting with them, focus on mindfulness, and a commitment to an alignment of values and behavior.

So What Should You Do?

So what can we learn from all this? First, just engaging in positive affirmations by themselves can do harm to people with low self-esteem, and sometimes give little benefit for those with high-esteem, if those affirmations are not part of a comprehensive program of self-growth, preferably with a knowledgeable professional. And second, the traditional cognitive psychotherapeutic approach of trying to change people’s negative thinking through logical processes may actually be counterproductive, compared to an approach that has people accept their thoughts, not resist them. Engaging in positive behaviors rather than just making affirmations will have a much greater impact and better results.

A study by Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracín, and Jenji Noguchi, published in the journal Psychological Science, “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense,” described how groups of participants were asked to solve anagrams. Before completing the task, the researchers told them that they were interested in handwriting practices and asked them to write 20 times on a sheet of paper either: “I will,” “Will I,” “I” or “Will.” The group that wrote “Will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as any of the other groups.

From this and similar studies the researchers conducted, they found that asking ourselves questions is far more powerful than telling ourselves something when we wish to create successful end results.

So if affirmations don’t work, what does? The good news is that there is a simple method you can use, apply immediately and have instant and excellent results.

If You Are Going to Use Positive Affirmations, Consider These Suggestions:

Use interrogative self-talk (questions) rather than declarative (telling). Researchers have found that asking ourselves questions is more effective than tell ourselves something when we wish to be someone or accomplish things, because questions ask for answers. They tap into the internal resources we have to provide those answers.

For example, if you were planning to give a presentation at work, you may have come to the conclusion that you are not good at it. You say something like “I’m terrible at presentations; they never go well for me;” or you may try to motivate yourself by saying “I am delivering a great presentation that inspires my audience.” Both are declarative statements that apply pressure on you to perform, and cut the possibility of accessing the inner resources and creativity needed for success. Instead, using the interrogative self talk would look like this:

  • “Am I terrible at presentations? Have they ever gone well for me?”
  • Or: “Will I deliver a great presentation that inspires my audience?”

You can reach inside yourself to provide some answers such as:

  • “I get shy and nervous and people switch off when I talk. However, in my last presentation, I made a point that people found interesting and I really had their attention.
  • How could I expand on that?” “The last presentation that I did went well. What did I do that worked and how could I do more of that?”

The interrogative self-talk strategy works better than affirmations because it acknowledges your negative thoughts and feelings and reduces the need to fight them. You start to become an ally to your unconscious mind, which in turn will elicit its cooperation. And the unconscious mind is fantastic at coming up with creative stuff.

Don’t aim for perfection; instead aim for progress

If you use a positive affirmation such as “I am wonderful and powerful” it may backfire if you don’t truly, deeply believe it. To effectively reframe your thinking, consider who you are becoming, focusing on your progress–the current track or path you’re on.

You might rework your self-talk to sound more like, “I am a work in progress, and that’s OK.” Another example: telling yourself, “Every moment I’m making an effort to be more conscious about how I spend my money” acknowledges the fact that you are evolving and that you have a choice in creating a better financial future for yourself. If you’re prone to negative self-talk and are sick of positive affirmations that don’t work, try one of these reframing techniques. You may start to notice major changes in your mindset and an uptick in your productivity and success.

Connect your affirmations to your core values

For instance, affirming “I am really rich” won’t make you feel great if wealth isn’t one of your most important values. On the flip side, saying “I am a kind and caring person” might have a positive effect if you greatly value empathy and compassion.

Emphasize personal attributes and successes

Instead of affirming something that you aren’t (which might cause your brain to focus on what it perceives as a lack in your character), try emphasizing great qualities you already have and accomplishments you’ve already achieved. For instance, if you’ve enjoyed success in your career, you might say something like “I am confident and capable at work.” Or if your family is an important part of your life, you might affirm that “I am a loving and caring family member who builds and maintains strong relationships.”

Focus on the future

As noted in the section above, affirmations that focus on positive future events are most likely to activate regions in our brain associated with self-processing and valuation. Put this research to work for you by crafting future-focused affirmations. For instance, if you’re just starting a meditation practice, you might affirm “I meditate regularly and feel more calm, balanced, and at ease.” For best results, make sure these future outcomes are actually achievable.

Psychologist Ronald Alexander also made these suggestions in his article in Psychology Today:

  • “Make a list of what you’ve always thought of as your negative qualities. Include any criticisms others have made of you that you’ve been holding onto — whether it’s something your siblings, parents, or peers used to say about you when you were a child, or what your boss told you in your last annual review. When you write out the recurring belief, notice if you are holding on to it anywhere in your body? For example, do you feel tightness or dread in your heart or stomach? Ask yourself if this unwholesome concept is helpful or productive in your life — if not, what would be?”
  • “Now write an affirmation on the positive aspect of your self-judgment. You may want to use a thesaurus to find more powerful words to beef up your statement. For example, instead of saying, “I’m worthy,” you could say, “I’m remarkable and cherished.” After you have written your affirmation, ask a close friend to read it to see if they have any suggestions for how to make it stronger.”
  • “Anchor the affirmation in your body as you are repeating it by placing your hand on the area that felt uncomfortable when you wrote out the negative belief. Also, “breathe” into the affirmation while you are saying or writing it. As you reprogram your mind, you want to move from the concept of the affirmation to a real, positive embodiment of the quality you seek.”

Summary:

The message here in this article is that there is no simplistic, universal use for positive affirmations. They can be useful for those people with high self- esteem but they can be counterproductive for those with low self-esteem. And if used, care should be taken to structure them properly.

Read my new book, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Moral and Ethical Leaders

Follow me on Twitter: @raybwilliams

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