positive_affirmation

Positive affirmations don't work!

…all of the time. Forgive the title, I’m experimenting with controversial post titles. More on that another day.

Today the topic is self-help again, and if you’ve read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I take a skeptical attitude towards the self-help industry. A quick inspection of the self-help section of a bookstore will explain why – some of these books are just plain ridiculous.

As I mentioned in the self-help industry and the self-help book reader’s guide, my main problem with this industry is the fact that the authors feel they have the right to make outrageous claims that they can’t back up with solid evidence. Sometimes they’ll give a few anecdotes of times their advice worked – as if that’s supposed to mean something – but often, all you get is pure unsubstantiated opinion, in-between layers of hyperbole.

So take positive affirmations, for example. You might think “Do you really need evidence? Isn’t it just so obviously true?” The answers are yes you do really need evidence and, no, it’s not obviously true. Just because something is highly ingrained into our modern parlance doesn’t make it true. How a woman carries her baby during pregnancy does not predict the sex of the child. Walking under a ladder isn’t unlucky. No one ever went blind from, well, you know.

But sometimes these ideas make such pure, unadulterated, intuitive sense, that you can’t help getting swept along. This theory goes like this: If you want to feel happy with yourself and where you’re going, you have to program your mind to think that way. The way to do this, is through affirmation – you repeat, sometimes in your head, sometimes out loud, a positive statement, over and over again. Eventually, your subconscious mind takes this as truth, and you start to feel the way you’ve been affirming.

The classic affirmation is “every day in every way I’m getting better and better,” but you could try “I am extremely happy,” “I am loved by everyone,” “I am always confident”, or whatever.

It makes sense doesn’t it? Say positive things to yourself, feel positive. Keep saying them, keep feeling positive. Sort of a priming effect. So simple. So neat and tidy. And everyone else believes it. Don’t tell me it’s not true!

Some research in this area says that it isn’t…at least not always. A study last year had two groups of people complete a different task each. One did a free-writing exercise for a few minutes, the other said a positive affirmation (“I am a loveable person”) several times each minute for the same time period. Then, measures of mood and self-esteem were taken.

positive_affirmation
They certainly do their affirmations… (Credit)

What happened? For people with high self-esteem, it worked – the high self-esteem people in the affirmation group did end up in a better mood than the free-writing group. But the people with low self-esteem actually ended up in a *worse* mood than the free-writing control group!

The suggestion is that saying the positive statements only served to highlight, by contrast, just how poor an opinion the low self-esteem people had of themselves.

This research is not conclusive, of course. There’s more work to be done to discover the individual differences that make a certain technique work for some and not for others – there may be more things interacting with affirmations than just self-esteem.

So should you do positive affirmations? This one study says that if you’re already high in self-esteem, this might be a useful mood booster. If you’re not, don’t bother.

However, as always in science the results only support the findings under the exact conditions under which the study was conducted, and there were a few limitations to this one, for example:

  • Only one affirmation was tested: different affirmations may work for low self-esteem people
  • We are not sure what would happen to low self-esteem people after a longer intervention than 4 minutes (could be better, could be even worse)

But for me, the key point of all this is that the affirmation tested was lifted directly from a self-help book. The author promoted a one-size fits all solution, which was not found to be the case in this study.

I’m not trying to promote a negative attitude towards the self-help industry – as fun as that would be. If this study says anything, it just says that it’s unwise to accept something because it seems to ‘make sense.’ Sometimes the truth is a little more complicated.

Reference:

Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science

19 thoughts on “Positive affirmations don't work!

  1. I think the problem with affirmations is that we can tell ourselves something for five minutes every day, but if we spend the rest of the day having thoughts that run contrary to our affirmation, then there really isn’t any point. Also, people who don’t actually believe what they’re affirming often have the habit of telling themselves “yeah, right” just as they are doing it. It’s no wonder they feel worse!

  2. Interesting piece about the reliability of positive affirmations. I deliver a lot of courses and I use positive psychology techniques to enhance what I deliver. I’m careful not to do the whole ‘I am great’ thing. What I do though is to get the group to consider how they can be congruent with the material they are presenting. Often though before they’ve even started presenting my observations have lead me to believe that their mental state going in to the training makes a profound difference to the effectiveness of their delivery. So I get them to do an exercise similar to the ’3 good things that happened to me today’ exercise. The difference in the group from when they first present to when they present having done this exercise is vast.

    So mostly, I’m in agreement with your post. Positive affirmations have their place but as practitioners we have to be careful we understand what their purpose is. Personally I’m more drawn to using positive psychology techniques which have proven tested methods of improving one’s self esteem, belief and confidence.

  3. Well that makes sense – you can’t affirm stuff you don’t really believe is possible. But I think you could start out say for example: I’m open to believing that i could be lovable. Once that sets in you could move a step closer. I think that could work.

  4. Yes, pointless self-affirmation can make people numb to the value of inner communications. For example, many people ignore the relevance of the world of their inner child, perhaps because it is just too upsetting or scary to pierce the veil of outer reality.

    Our perceptions, expectations and limits of relationships are developed and created by the lens through which our child had viewed these experiences around us.

    Developing a loving soothing voice within requires work and daily practice so that over time the extremes of the day to day become less anxiety provoking, more moderate. But just telling yourself everything’s OK — “I’m great” — doesn’t get the job done.

  5. Interesting article. You are right, it is difficult to “prove” via scientific methods whether affirmations do work, in all circumstances, for all kinds of people, and for every affirmation. But one thing is certain – simply saying them is not going to cut it for sure. A positive mindset is needed, which can slowly lead to belief, and this belief makes the repetition task that much easier over a period of time. And a good self confidence and self esteem definitely help with this initial positive mindset. Thanks for the article.
    .-= Prashant | Happiness Affirmations´s last blog ..Teenage Girls Self Esteem, Article On Teen Self Esteem =-.

  6. Thanks for the comments guys!

    Kenji,

    That’s an awesome point. But the amount of mental energy it takes to keep full control over your thoughts for a whole day, even a whole our, I think is beyond most people. Not in a bad way, it’s just really hard! That’s why therapies like CBT take so long to take effect, perhaps – they are very much like hard work.

    Sukh,

    Thanks! I really like the way you test things out and observe the results, instead of blindly believing what you read. Good for you! The 3 good things exercise is an interesting one. It’s not an affirmation in the sense that it’s not attempting to create a state that doesn’t yet exist, it’s just a change of focus towards some good things that have already happened. And things that have actually happened that day, not this reframing “find a positive thing in slipping on the ice and hurting my ankle” stuff. I think that’s why they class it more as a gratitude exercise than anything.

    I can imagine that the anxiety of being just about to give a presentation brings out some negative thoughts, I’ll definitely try this the next time I have to give a speech of some sort.

    Claudia,

    You might be on to something there, links in with what Sukh says above about the affirmations needing to be congruent.

    Katrina,

    Yes exactly, these things take time. Doesn’t help that positive affirmations usually come packaged with the words “instantly”, “today” and the like.

    Prashant,

    Thank you! But it’s a bit of a chicken and the egg thing if a positive mindset is needed for the exercise to work, but the exercise is needed to bring a positive mindset!

  7. This worked for me. I studied Toltec belief system. Not a religion, but a way of life. My best author for source information was Don MiquelRuiz. Bought his books used on Amazion for about $10 each and that included shipping.

    He learned English very late in life and sometimes reading his material can be tedious… 3rd grade level. This is not an insult, just my intellect aspires to very fine writing. But I have practiced for 5 years, have taught it to my children and grand children and it literly changed my life. Fear, anger, blame, jealousy, greed, hatred…. all have melted away. (No I am not a saint and I am not perfect.) But my life and the lives of others around me are much better through this belief system. It taught me to really recognize where emotions are really coming from. That releived me of a lot of guilt and self persecution. It also taught me how to respond to those who do not know or do not want to know the Toltec belief system. That is their loss and I hope for their sake they find an affirmative plan that brings them true love and happiness. There are other authors, and only one other do I enjoy and receive a level of inspiration, Ruiz’s student, Dr Susan Gregg. Her flow of writing (English is her first language) is thouroughly enjoyable. HOWEVER, Ruiz should be the first step, as she takes up after his basic books. I have read them all several times. NO ONE is paying me to sell their books. I do know that they saved my mental and spiritual piece of mind. Positive mindset is possible. I learned that and much more through these books. I was at the bottom of depression and low self esteme. If you hurt bad enough, you will try anything. I suggest you jump start to a source that really works. Best wishes and my hope that you can benefit as I have. I consider my Toltec belief system to be the foundation of every minite of every day. It has blessed me and has ridden me of past emotional injuries that nothing else could accomplish.
    Sincerely, Alice (Sorry if I spelled incorrectly. High IQ does not mean one was taught phonics and spelling.)

  8. Hi Alice,

    Many thanks for reading and responding. I had not come across Miguel Ruiz before now. I had a quick look on Google, but I’d have to say that from what I saw, I’d put his stuff in with any other self-help guru – but of course that would mean I’m judging a book by its cover and I understand we’re not supposed to do that!

    Sounds like you’ve had some great results from his work though, which is fantastic. Does he recommend the use of self-affirmations in his books?

    Warren

  9. As Jim Rohn says, “affirm the truth.”

    Regardless, I don’t think any respectable self help book promotes that 4 minutes of affirmations will do anything. The self help industry as a whole has a lot of problems, but what industry doesn’t? Heck, look at the science in this study being abused! “Positive affirmations don’t work!”… in select circumstances for all people provided the length of time is 4 minutes. ;)
    .-= Life Change Blogger´s last blog ..Added a Joyce Meyer Quote page =-.

  10. Affirmations – Positive or Negative are part of the overall complex of internal communications that go on constantly within your being. NLP is the field that specializes in characterizing these communication patterns and establishing protocols to change them, with minimal effort.

    My take would be that affirmations are part of the overall equation, but must be combined with motivation, goal setting and effort. “Taming Your Gremlin” by Rick Carson is one of my favorites in this interesting topic.

    MikeR
    .-= MikeR´s last blog ..Can You Make Candy? =-.

    1. Mike,

      Yes definitely – if you’re talking about making a change or personal development, it would probably be better to use multiple techniques rather than focusing on one thing. Studies like this are trying to establish what happens with a particular technique under particular conditions with particular people, so the findings are just one piece of a big puzzle, and it can take many years to figure out how all the pieces fit together.

      Warren

  11. Positive and negative belief are beyond any doubt makes our self-esteem, self-acceptanse, etc. Of course that afirmations don’t make belief in 4 minutes and just repeating, no …

    Positive Afirmation (x times) -> Positive Belief ? Yes I also think is not that simple! This “secret” guys and similar have really exagerated this!

    This is what I do:

    1 – Find negative belief:

    Example: “I’m a idiot, I am a failure.”

    2 – Debunk the negative belief with the reason and evidence. The more the better.

    Example: “Who tha hell told me I was an idiot, Why ? How did s/he concluded that, wasn’t it because envy… or because I made a simple mistake I did .. Why do I believe that? You know … everyone can make a mistake .. This is an obviuos exageration … bla bla bla”

    3 – Then create or find a positive belief oposite to the negative. Make a case with the negative and demostrate the positive is better with the reason and evidence.

    Example: “I’m a human being, I make mistakes as everyone. People will try to molest me to discharge their stress in a selfish maner, that’s why they put on me this ridiculous exagerated labels that had nothing to do with reality. In fact I’ve made a lot of great things, I can remmember .. Etc etc etc”

    4 – Then conclude that positive belief with a positive afirmation. This would be like a summary of step 3.

    “I’m a human being! I’ve a lot of potential! Dispites some mistakes we all do. I’m up to the challange. I can succed with what I propose to miself, I’ve and I’will again get better and better. You know .. What the hell! … I’m successful, I’m a machine!” (if you get emotional with this the better!)

    “I’m lovable, I can share feelings and a lot of people can have great time around me.”

    Etc, etc, etc

    Work with this self talk, repeat them with a lot of emotion so you remember. If feeling doubt again repeat steps 2 and 3 to re-gain trust in the afirmations. When getting stronger try to develop more positive afirmations in necesity, improve and get better at it.

    Everytime the negative afirmation you debunked comes in times of insecurity, you can remmember “WTF? I’ve proven this this to be wrong… The truth is: ”

    So the positive afirmation can be powerfull but the strength of it comes not only of repetition but how entitled you feel to say it, you add for that reasoning behind it. Then you believe it.

    I apologize for my writing if someone feels it’s not good enought, english is not my natural language.

    1. Leomar – I agree that these things take more work than the very brief experiment that the researchers conducted. We wouldn’t expect a CBT exercise to work after just 4 minutes, why do we hold affirmations to a higher standard? Possibly it’s because some people really do claim that these things have an instant effect, and also because we’d want to test them at different time periods, so we get a better idea of how long it is best to do them for.

      Your English is very good!

  12. I think the individuals in the study with low self-esteem only felt worse after writing positive affirmations because it made them reflect on their lives and maybe confront a few things that they’re not happy about.

    There was a point in my life where I wasn’t happy about the way things were going and positive affirmations really helped become a much happier, healthy person.
    .-= Diane´s last blog ..5 Super Simple Weight Loss Tips =-.

  13. I love the way people talk shit I love the way science sets up tests that make no sense because they have little or no understanding of the said understanding.
    Of course positive and negative affermations work and of course being in a state of love and confidence while affirming your affirmation will ingrain the affirmation that much stronger. Of course getting negative Nigel to chant I’m positive for five mins a day for five days isn’t going to change anything in nigels life as he’s probably sitting there thinking WTF. If a person lives a positive life practices meditation and all round well being then he knows the power of he’s own mind he / she will understand the magic power of the words that they use not only in their own mind but the energy and vibration of the words they use with other people. Moulding the energy within and out is all this thing we call life is about. Successful people boften do this without even knowing that they are doing it uncussesfull people are doing the same in reverse, we all self talk all day long so of course affirmations work we are all living proof, just look around yourselfs, at your family your health your wealth

    1. You’re talking from a point of view where you’ve already decided what’s true.

      In science, you’re not supposed to do that, and you only know what you’ve tested for. As as said, we don’t know what the results would be if this study had carried on for longer. Maybe then the affirmations would have had a positive effect. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t.

      Personally I think they would start to have a positive effect, but that’s just my opinion.

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