I’m sure you’ve met people who can’t fathom why anyone should be unhappy about anything, who are unrelentingly committed to thinking positively and the power of positive affirmations.
Positive affirmations, as you probably know, are examples of the self-talk or mantras we say to ourselves to affirm our beliefs about our identity and the world we live in. And they can be positive forces. But aside from the anecdotal evidence of “it just works,” what’s really going on in the mind with regards to affirmations?
Why Affirmations Work
There have been a number of studies that suggest positive affirmations can help us in a variety of ways. In 2013, the Carnegie Mellon University found that students who wrote about why certain values were important to them (self-affirmations) performed much better on tasks than those who didn’t.
And the University of Toronto found that “underperformance disappears when the low-power negotiator has an opportunity to self-affirm.” But how? That has yet to be determined, but we can look at the why.
A paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that affirmations reminded people about the positive support network around them, so they didn’t worry about their self-worth taking a hit from failing a challenge. So when you say to yourself, I am a happy person, you’re reminding yourself of all the reasons why you feel you’re a happy person.
Similarly, a 2016 brain-imaging study found that self-affirmations stimulated the reward areas of the brain, particularly when using future-based self-affirmations. What this suggests is that when we come up with our own self-affirmations, the most effective form would be: If I [verb], then [outcome].
Most psychologists agree on why we self-affirm. Self-affirmation rests on the idea of self-integrity. And self-integrity means that both our perceptions about the world and how the world actually is, are congruent with each other. We use our affirmations to ensure that our perceptions of the world are the same as what we think the world should be.
This manifests itself in three ways:
- How we view or define ourselves in the world—I am a good person.
- How we decide if we deserve something—I provide enough value to deserve an $80,000 salary.
- How we feel we should act to earn praise—I am a good person, therefore I should help others.
Now, I’ve only used positive examples, but should someone’s idea of self-integrity be negative, you can see how that might drastically affect their perception of the world.
Why Positive Affirmations Might Be Ruining Your Life
So far, I’ve only talked about self-affirmations, not positive affirmations or negative affirmations. It’s important to understand that when we start adding values—positive or negative—to affirmations, things can get tricky.
Due to an affirmation’s role in ensuring that our outer world accurately reflects our inner world, what do you think happens when our outer world doesn’t accurately reflect what’s going on inside our brains? Our self-esteem takes a hit and we engage in self-destructive behaviors.
One of the ways people use positive affirmations is to adapt their inner world to their outer world. A common example is when we’re trying to calm ourselves down. We tell ourselves, You’ve done this hundreds of times before, it’s normal.
Those in the positive-thinking industry reversed that idea, instead recommending people change their inner world first to change their outer world. And it works to some degree. If you truly believe you are worth $80,000 to an organization and they offered you $50,000, you would seek employment elsewhere and keep searching until you found a way to earn that salary. Thus ensuring your inner beliefs and outer reality are congruent with each other.
With that said, Joanna Wood, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, found that people with low self-esteem felt worse when asked to repeat this statement: I am a loveable person. Why? Because the statement was completely at odds with how they actually felt about themselves.
Many books on positive affirmations suggest that with enough repetition, we can change anything about ourselves. But if your core belief is at odds with the affirmation, you might be unintentionally nudging yourself to find reasons why you’ll never reach what your affirmations are focused on.
Similarly, Sophie Henshaw, DPsych, suggests that because positive affirmations target your conscious mind, they’re ineffective. She says “if what you are trying to affirm is incongruent with a deeply held negative belief, then all that results is an inner struggle.” That inner struggle often leads us to act in self-destructive ways.
Are Affirmations Worth It?
The short answer is no; the long answer is maybe. There are three things people need to know about positive affirmations:
- By thinking about positively changing our lives, we remind ourselves of the positive aspects of our lives.
- Affirmations should follow this structure: If I [verb], then [outcome].
- If your affirmations are at complete odds with what you believe to be true about yourself, you could be causing yourself to fall deeper into depression/anxiety/low self-esteem.