Do Positive Affirmations Work? Maybe Not
“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. This humorous version of a positive self-affirmation is reflective of a common belief that positive affirmations will change how we view ourselves, and our happiness and success.
“I will be terrifically successful/wealthy,” “I am a wonderful person,” “I will find a perfect mate,” and many other similar phrases that some people may repeat to themselves over and over again, hoping to change their lives.
Self-help books through the ages, from Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, all the way to the The Secret and many self-help books and programs have encouraged people who have low self-worth to make positive self-affirmations to raise their self-esteem. Also, therapists, counsellors and coaches have suggested their clients/patients use positive affirmations to help them with issues of self-esteem, negative thinking and pessimism.
However, now there is research and expert opinions to question if positive affirmations are that helpful, particularly with people who have low self-esteem.
What are Positive Self-Affirmations?
Self-affirmations are grounded in a psychological theory that focuses on how individuals adapt to information or experiences that are threatening to their self-concept. Claude Steele, in his published work titled “The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self,” published in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, originally popularized self-affirmation theory in 1988. That theory was widely accepted and built on by other researchers since.
Self-affirmation theory contends that if individuals affirm beliefs personally relevant to them, they are less likely to experience distress and react defensively when confronted with information that contradicts or threatens their sense of self.
The Argument in Support for Positive Affirmations
Researchers and therapists argue self-affirmation reminds people of important aspects of the self, enabling them to view events from a reasonable, considered, and rational viewpoint. Further, the argument is made that by enhancing the psychological resources of self-integrity, self-affirmation reduces defensive responses to threatening information and events, leading to positive outcomes.
One research study by Jennifer M. Taber and colleagues published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, shows that self-affirmation had a positive impact on ill-health. In the study, 326 cancer survivors reported that participants with higher optimism reported better health, greater happiness, hopefulness and lower likelihood of cognitive impairment.
According to a study by Tracy Upton and colleagues published in Health Psychology, at the behavioral level, self-affirmation improves problem-solving performance on tasks related to executive functioning. Their findings 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
“A positive mindset begets positive end results.” “Imagine a positive result, and you will make it happen.” These popular tenets are espoused by the likes of Louise Hay, Napoleon Hill, Anthony Robbins and countless other self-help gurus. The problem is, they don’t actually work.
According to Heinz Kohut, the grandfather of psychology of the self, and author of The Search for Self, the fear of failure is often intimately connected to a childhood fear of being abandoned, either physically or emotionally. When we fear failure, Kohut posits, we tend to overestimate the risk we’re taking and imagine the worst possible scenario — the emotional equivalent of our primary caretakers deserting us.
Having made a positive self-affirmation and it doesn’t come to fruition is that we end up convincing ourselves that we shouldn’t try to change. We end up avoiding opportunities to do so, or if we do try and fail, we re-confirm it’s “not in the stars,” or “it’s not my karma.”
The important point here about positive affirmations is that if a person has a negative belief about themselves, it is deeply rooted in the unconscious mind, so that belief overrides any positive affirmation they may make. As Rick Hanson has described in his book, Buddha’s Brain, negative thoughts are far more powerful than positive ones.
The reason positive affirmations don’t work is that they target the conscious level of your mind, but not the unconscious. If what you are trying to affirm is incongruent with an unconscious negative belief, then that creates cognitive dissonance or inner conflict.
For example, you may believe that you are “ugly” or “worthless”, which is a common belief held by people suffering from depression. Yet, from the perspective of other people, this is not true. They don’t see you that way. But if your belief (often created in childhood) is unconscious and deeply held, the reality is not seen. It was reported that 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.
Many people are embarrassed when they are paid a compliment because they believe “it isn’t true.” So engaging in the affirmation exercise of looking in the mirror and saying to yourself, “I am beautiful, inside and out,” doesn’t ring true to you because you believe the opposite down deep. This cognitive dissonance can result in the negative belief becoming even stronger and the affirmation actually doing harm.
The subconscious mind can’t tell the difference between negative and positive, or between reality and imagination. For example, if we want to be successful, if we say “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.
Canadian researcher Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, 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 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 with high self-esteem who said the same thing, but did not feel worse. However, people with high self-esteem felt only slightly better after repeating the positive affirmation.
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 positive 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 strengthens their own negative view rather than reversing it.
Dr. 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 scientific evidence.”
Dr. Wood and her co-researchers do not say that positive affirmations are completely useless. Rather they argue that positive affirmations can help when they are part of a broader intiative of intervention such as cognitive psychotherapy or working with a coach who has expertise in the behavioral sciences. Of course, there are different kinds of cognitive psychotherapy. Which one is the most effective in relation to positive affirmations?
Steven Hayes, a renowned psychotherapist, and author of Getting Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. advocates a totally different approach.
Hayes and fellow researchers Marsha Linehan and Robert Kohlenberg at the University of Washington, and Zindel Segal at the University of Toronto, focus less on how to manipulate the content of our thoughts (a focus on traditional cognitive psychotherapy) and more on how to change their context (to modify 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.
These psychologists 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 elephant,” actually focuses their mind on a blue elephant.
They advocate what is known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which says that we should acknowledge that negative thoughts instead of challenging or fighting with them. Hayes argues that once we are willing to feel our negative emotions, we’ll find it easier to commit ourselves to what we want in life.
These psychologists and coaches who advocate this approach acknowledge that we have pain, but trying to push it away, trying to block it, or deny it just gives the pain more energy and strength.
This approach is 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 as exemplified in psychologist Susan David’s Emotional Agility. The focus of those approaches reinforces the concepts of acceptance of negative emotions and thoughts.
So What Should You Do?
So what can we learn from all this? First, just engaging in positive affirmations by themselves may not help people with low self-esteem, and sometimes give little benefit for those with high-esteem. And second, the traditional cognitive psychotherapeutic approach of trying to change people’s negative thinking through analytical processes may actually be counterproductive, compared to an approach that has people accept their thoughts, and not resist them.
If You Still Want to Use Positive Affirmations, Consider These Suggestions:
Replace declarative self-talk, either positive or negative, with interrogative self-talk.
Interrogative self-talk is about asking questions. For example, you are about to give a presentation and you’re feeling nervous about it. You may find yourself declaring: “I’m terrible at presentations; they never go well for me.” Or you may give yourself a positive affirmation by saying “I am delivering a great presentation that inspires my audience.” Both are declarative statements that apply a kind of external pressure to the self and may not be consistent with your deep unconscious beliefs about yourself. However, you can change the statements into questions: “ Have my presentations ever gone well for me?” Or: “Will I deliver a great presentation that inspires my audience?” Potential answers to these questions may be: “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?” Or, “The last presentation that I did went well. What did I do that worked and how could I do more of that?”
This powerful strategy works better than affirmations because it acknowledges your negative thoughts and feelings. 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 solutions.
Focus on Progress, Not Perfection
Reframe your thinking, consider who you are becoming, focusing on your progress–the current track or path you’re on.
Revise your self-talk like this: “I am a work in progress, and that’s OK. I don’t need to be perfect.” Statements such as this are pointing you in the direction of positive growth and are both realistic and achievable. Another example is: “Every moment I’m making an effort to be more conscious about how I spend my money” acknowledges the fact that you have a choice in creating a better financial future for yourself.
Relate affirmations to your core values
A positive affirmation will only seem relevant if it relates to your personal core values. For instance, affirming “I make a lot of money” won’t make you feel great if wealth isn’t one of your measures of success. On the flip side, saying “I am a kind and caring person” might have a positive effect if you greatly value compassion and empathy.
Emphasize personal strengths 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 your strengths you already and your accomplishments. 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.” In this was there is no cognitive dissonance with a deep down belief that you have that is the opposite.
Focus on the future
Affirmations that focus on positive future events are most likely to activate regions in our brain associated with self-processing and valuation. For example, if you’re just starting a meditation practice, you might affirm “I meditate regularly and I increasingly feel more calm, balanced, and at ease.” For best results, make sure these future outcomes are actually achievable and not so far fetched that their unlikely to be achieved — for example, “I’ll be a billionaire in 5 years.”
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. Be wary of easy formulas advanced by self-help gurus.
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