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Affirmations: Do they work?

I remember a scene from a movie or series where a neurotic character, when she got nervous, repeated to herself, ‘I’m a wonderful person, I’m the perfect weight for my height’. This sentence sounded rather grotesque and gave the scene a comical expression. But seriously: this type of affirmation is recommended as a means to […]

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I remember a scene from a movie or series where a neurotic character, when she got nervous, repeated to herself, ‘I’m a wonderful person, I’m the perfect weight for my height’. This sentence sounded rather grotesque and gave the scene a comical expression. But seriously: this type of affirmation is recommended as a means to increase self-confidence by guide authors, trainers, and even psychologists. Some time ago, I attended a coaching workshop where I was encouraged to do some affirmations. But do they help?

The idea of using affirmation appeared in psychology in the 1920s; its precursor was the French psychologist, Emile Coue. He relied on the assumption that if people repeated the positive self-statements often enough, they would eventually believe them. These statements may refer to general competences (“I am a hard-working, talented person”), appearance (“I am attractive”), some specific skills (my friend used the childhood affirmation “I am a great football player”). They can also relate to our general value as people (“I am a valuable person, and I deserve to be loved”). The idea of regularly repeating such positive statements has become extremely popular in the new age movement – holistic healers enthusiastically recommend affirmations on various aspects of our lives. But affirmations have also entered the canon of techniques of “serious” personal development specialists, trainers and coaches; these are also used by psychologists. You can find hundreds of guides and at least some serious books on affirmations in bookstores. However, according to Canadian psychologist, Joanne Wood, no convincing scientific data has been collected since Emil Coue’s times to demonstrate the effectiveness of affirmations.

Meanwhile, in 2009, Wood, MD, and her colleagues published a description of research in the Journal of Psychological Science that presents affirmations in a negative light. Researchers have shown that the use of affirmations increases self-confidence, but only in people who had a lot of it at the start. In people who lack confidence, the effect of using self-statements was unfavorable – the participants had an even lower level of self-esteem, and their mood deteriorated further. It is probably because subjects with an initial low level of self-esteem experienced a considerable dissonance when they repeated statements that were so different from their actual opinion about themselves. In turn, this gave rise to frustration. Besides, when we repeat sentences such as “I am a great person worthy of love” we often unwittingly start looking for evidence to support this thesis – people with low self-esteem will automatically think about the reasons why they do not consider themselves great people worthy of love. Therefore, paradoxically, an attempt to focus on positive content may result in the search for negative examples. A similar mechanism was previously described by social psychologists: compliments from others, which seem to us excessively positive and unjustified, worsen our well-being, instead of improving it. Positive opinions are too far from our beliefs to be believable. Besides, when someone expresses a positive view on some of our characteristics, it provokes us to reflect on this sphere of our functioning – and in the case of people with low self-esteem, it involves remembering negative beliefs about this sphere. This, in turn, results in a deterioration of mood. 

Does this mean that affirmations should be excluded from the repertoire of self-development techniques? As usual in psychology, it depends. The research results described here, above all, show that psychological and developmental help are more complex areas than it might seem and one should distance oneself from the methods used. The human psyche is quite a complicated phenomenon, and it is difficult to expect that any techniques learned in the self-development course will be universally effective and useful. Representatives of some postmodern trends in psychology recommend not to focus on changing the content of beliefs, and not to try to “fix” negative beliefs about yourself, among others because such a strategy is ineffective and risky. Instead, these psychologists teach you how to develop your potential by accepting negative thoughts and beliefs. More traditionally-minded psychologists would argue that turning negative beliefs into positive, more constructive ones is important, but it is a long and arduous process. We cannot suddenly convince ourselves that we are hard-working, talented, and valuable people if we have never believed it before.

Wood, J., Perunovic, E., Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others Psychological Science, 20 (7), 860-866

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