I love and respect my body.
People enjoy being around me.
I can succeed at anything I put my mind to.
Many self-help gurus from the public speaking circuit to the bookselling market gush about the effectiveness of positive affirmations like these, statements you tell yourself about your own worth that is supposed to bolster your confidence. Repeat such positive affirmations to yourself, often and regularly, and eventually, your brain will get the message, such gurus say.
Ray Williams’ Psychology Today article explains the basis for claims that positive affirmations work: “Some proponents of affirmations claim that, when practiced deliberately and regularly, they reinforce a chemical pathway in the brain, making the connection between two neurons stronger, and therefore more likely to conduct the same message again.”
But do positive affirmations really work? To many people, they tend to sound too easy; how could just telling yourself something over and over make any significant difference? Nothing in life is that easy, is it?
Well, recent research shows that the answer to that question is a classic “yes and no” situation. Let’s look at 2 particular studies that demonstrate this point:
- A Carnegie Mellon study from 2013 investigated participants’ problem-solving skills after they repeated positive affirmations to themselves. Encouragingly, the study showed that people who did the positive affirmations, even when they were people with chronic stress, were able to perform as well as people with low levels of stress. Since problem-solving is one of the major areas of life that’s affected by stress, this finding is significant and sounds like a positive review for the benefits of positive affirmations.
- A 2009 University of Waterloo study, however, found different results. In this study, researchers asked participants to repeat to themselves the positive affirmation, “I am a lovable person.” When they measured the feelings of participants afterward, the participants with high self-esteem did in fact feel better, but the participants with low self-esteem actually felt worse than they did before the positive affirmations.
So, with mixed results like these, how can we answer the question, “Do positive affirmations actually work?”
The research shows we can answer it in a couple of ways:
- They might work better with short-term, high-stress situations, like a particular individual problem, than as a long-term solution to negative beliefs individuals hold about themselves.
- They clearly seem to work better with individuals who already have high self-esteem to start with. As many professionals and non-professionals alike will attest, if you have low self-esteem, then positive affirmative statements feel like When you already believe something negative about yourself, telling yourself the opposite doesn’t feel like a helpful solution; it just feels like a lie, and your emotions get even more upset trying to resolve that discrepancy between what you really believe and what you’re temporarily saying.
Don’t despair if you’ve got low self-esteem that positive affirmations probably won’t work for you. There are other ways to help yourself!
Seek out therapy, but make sure it’s the kind you feel is best suited for you.
Clearly, people with low self-esteem have to deal with the negative beliefs they already have about themselves before they can move on to any positive beliefs. But what’s the best way to deal with them? Different mental health professionals would give you different answers: Some believe that cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on actually changing your negative thoughts so that you see change in your life, is the best way to go, but others believe the acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness, which focus on acceptance and recognition of negative feelings rather than changing them, is a better choice for low self-esteem. The choice is yours; you get to decide which type of therapy you think might be better for you.
Try an altered version of positive affirmations.
Suzanne Gelb’s blog post gives some excellent suggestions for tweaking self-affirmations if you’ve got low self-esteem in ways that are still encouraging but feel more honest. She provides the following examples:
- “I am frustrated by my eating habits, but I am learning to treat myself with the respect I deserve. I am learning to do better.”
- “I am sad about the fact that I’m still single, but I am learning how to relate with men in a more open, brave, and vulnerable way. I am learning to do better.”
Try a question rather than a statement as a positive affirmation.
Sophie Henshaw suggests yet another tweak on the classic self-affirmation model. She encourages people to ask themselves questions rather than make statements, because “[questions] remind us of the resources we do have and they activate our curiosity.” So, for instance, if you’re about to go in for a job interview, you might think to yourself, “I always do badly at these. I don’t know why I’m even trying.” But at that moment, you can ask yourself a question like, “Is it a sure thing that I’ll fail, though?” This question will lead to an exploration of the possibilities that your negative thought closed down, possibilities like, “Well I must not always be bad at these because I’ve had two jobs before” or “Friends say they find me easy to talk to, though, so what do I do in those conversations that I could do in this situation?”
So, at the end of the day, the verdict on positive affirmations is mixed: depending on what kind of person you are before you start them, they may or may not prove noticeably helpful to you. But even if they don’t, there are always other ways for you to work on building up that self-esteem, and that’s something that’s always worth the effort.
Whether you’ve tried positive affirmations or not, if self-esteem is a concern in your life, call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult. We can help you feel better about yourself.