The Psychology of Affirmations: Do They Really Work?

‘I love and approve of myself’ ‘I make the right choices every time’

‘I am a unique child of this world’ ‘I breathe in calmness and breathe out nervousness’

Affirmations.  What do you reckon?  Do you love them? Live by them? Are you suspicious of them? Maybe rolling your eyes in despair at their very woo-ness?

Affirmations have always intrigued me.  Intuitively (to me at least) they feel like self-deception.  The human psyche is a complex, multi-layered, widely influenced and often intractable beast.  Repeating ‘I love and approve of myself’ every morning in the hope of managing uncomfortable feelings, thinking positively and changing my life for the better seems simplistic at best.  But maybe that’s just me.

I know that affirmations are wildly popular, among psychologists too.  We love the idea that by putting positive thoughts out there into the universe – and into our own minds – we can make ourselves happier and the world a better place. 

Self development gurus like Louise Hay have made a fortune from it.

But can I really change my deep beliefs about myself by repeating simple positive statements?

Well yes, but no.

Changing the way we think about ourselves and what happens in our world is the basis of cognitive therapy. Throw in some homework to practice more helpful thinking and track how we behave in everyday life and you’ve got CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy); the most researched and effective form of talking therapy for anxiety and depression, among other things.

CBT is designed to help us manage our self-talk; the voice in our heads that often dictates our moods. By changing the way we talk to ourselves we can change our moods, our behaviour and change our lives.

Positive affirmations are a form of positive self-talk but according to the research, they’re not enough.  It turns out that positive affirmations only help if we’re already feeling pretty positive.

If your self-esteem is low, or you are depressed or anxious, positive affirmations may make you feel worse. 

Me*: ‘I am a unique and lovable person.’

Me: ‘Oh F*** off! You’re a hopeless loser and you know you are.’

Me: Sigh. ‘Okay, you’re right. I know but it was worth a try.’

Positive affirmations also only work if you come up with them yourself, so those lists of ‘The Only 100 Positive Affirmations You Will Ever Need’ probably won’t do squat.

There is one clever thing you can do to increase the likelihood of your positive affirmations making a difference though.  Don’t use statements.  Ask questions. 

A positive affirmation that you don’t truly believe creates inner conflict and makes you feel worse.  When we ask ourselves questions, however, we’re challenging ourselves to come up with a better answer.  Questions pique our curiosity and make us think a little more about what we’re telling ourselves.

So instead of ‘I am a unique and lovable person,’ try ‘Am I a unique and loveable person?’ Of course you might be tempted to say, ‘No of course I’m not’ and wander off feeling no better.  But maybe you’re up for the challenge.

‘Am I unique?’

‘Well, technically yes I am.’

‘Am I loveable?’

‘I don’t feel very lovable right now but I know my kids love me and I guess hubby does too…. And so does my sister…..And my girlfriends…..And then there’s the cat….’

Now that’s something to be positive about.

Do you use positive affirmations?  Do they work for you?

 *Not really me. 

An #IBOT post