I am beautiful…I have all the energy I need for today…I am capable of great things…I am enough…I matter.
These are positive self-affirmations – statements intended to be repeated like mantras in order to boost one’s self-esteem and positive outlook. Repeating positive self-affirmations is as common in psychotherapy as croissants are in bakeries, and I know first hand. I’ve had a number of therapists over the years recommend this practice of repeating self-affirming phrases, and at times, I have taken their advice and incorporated this practice into my daily routine. I also love croissants.
But do positive self-affirmations really work? Can repeating positive phrases over and over have a positive effect on your life? Has it worked for me personally?
First, we have to be realistic and acknowledge positive self-affirmations are not magic prayers. You cannot skip your calculus class, never crack open the textbook, and expect to get an A+ on the final exam just by repeating “I am good at math.” Unless you are a true math genius, positive self-affirmations will not make up for a lack of responsibility on your part.
However, if you are a faithful student, but generally get stressed out about exams, a recent study showed that problem solving skills improve in high-stress situations when positive self-affirmations are utilized before the stressful event. This is promising news for those of us who are easily stressed by things like public speaking, interviews, exams, or work projects.
But what about less pragmatic applications? Are positive self-affirmations just as effective when dealing with our emotions and self-esteem as they are at helping us be more successful at work or school?
Unfortunately, some of the research here is less promising. Another study showed positive self-affirmations are slightly effective if a person already has high self-esteem, but self-affirmations can make someone with low self-esteem feel worse, simply because they create inner turmoil. For example, if a person firmly believes they are not creative, repeating the words “I am creative” is only going to leave them questioning their own reality.
Interestingly enough, this same research also indicates when people with low self-esteem are allowed to consider that the positive self-affirmation might not be true, they feel better. Meaning, allowing negative thoughts to be a part of the process can have a mood boosting effect on someone with low self-esteem, more than focusing solely on the positive.
Life coach, Carmen Isais, recommends a neutral approach in her article, “Why Positive Affirmations Don’t Work,” featured in The Huffington Post. She believes, similarly to the study, “by introducing neutral statements, and making certain these statements are reality-based, your brain will not have to deal with the confrontation and the triggering of bad feelings in order to maintain the status quo.”
The idea here is rather than jumping straight to positive thoughts when you are in a negative rut, you should start with neutral thoughts. Start with thoughts that are easier to digest, like “I accept myself just as I am,” instead of “I am remarkable.” These neutral thoughts begin at a place of self-acceptance instead of trying to wrangle your runaway brain into submission. They are the equivalent of dipping your toe in the water, which is sometimes exactly where we need to begin.
As I mentioned, I have practiced positive self-affirmations, but the key for me has been approaching them holistically. Whenever I have utilized self-affirmations in my own life, I have found them most effective when coupled with tangible actions and behaviors. One simple example would be repeating “I am strong” while working out. In this particular example, I am increasing my endorphin levels and taking care of my body, while reinforcing my self-esteem with a positive phrase. The action and chemical reaction coincide with the self-affirming thought.
If you are in a negative mindset, trying to think positive thoughts can feel like grasping at straws. But, if you consistently engage in actions that promote positive thinking, you are, in essence, creating new thoughts where there once were none. Creating positive thoughts can start with anything from playing with your dog to reading your favorite author, or even going to therapy.
Now, therapy is not always sunshine and smiles. In fact, more often than not, it is painful and teary. But it is where we begin to understand and accept ourselves as we are today, so that we can move toward positive changes tomorrow. This self-acceptance is also a key to self-affirmations being effective. As we learned earlier, we have to be allowed to look at both sides of the coin: the positive side and the reality that the positive side might not be our current truth.
For me, this holistic approach of combining positive self-affirmations with action and neutral self-acceptance has been integral to their success in my own life. Self-affirmations are not the be-all-end-all of self-help strategies. As I find with most of life, the path to healing is never that simple. Yet, there are maps and compasses and people who have gone before us on this path, and when combined, we are certainly more likely to get where we are trying to go.