Affirmations work—or do they?

Lots of people—maybe millions of people—use affirmations, or have used them, or plan to. I’m in that number, and my results have been mixed. Turns out I’m not alone.

What this research shows is that affirmations do work, sometimes, and what makes the difference is how well the affirmations we choose align with our sense of self. The subjects were a small sample of 249 college students.  Most of them used affirmations, using them most frequently during stressful times.  The subjects were tested to evaluate their sense of self-esteem both before and after using the affirmation “I am a lovable person.”  Those starting out with higher self esteem reported feeling better about themselves after using the affirmation.

Those with low self esteem felt worse.  In other words, some inner bullshit detector was activated by the difference between the statement and their own sense of what was true for them, and the difference not only negated the effect of the affirmation, it focused their attention on the negative (“I am not a lovable person”).

I welcomed this finding, because now I have a context for evaluating affirmations for myself. I can pay attention to my bullshit detector, and choose accordingly.  If I have a sense that the affirmation is true, or potentially true, for me, I can use it.  If not . . . .

In another study, a survey of 5000 people on the subject of happiness, out of ten proven habits for happy people, self-acceptance was key. Of the ten habits, it was also the one people were least likely to practice. The article describing the study includes these suggestions for increasing self-acceptance:

  • Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small
  • Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you
  • Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you’re feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are.

Personally I see mindfulness meditation as a clear path to self-acceptance, and for anyone who’s interested in the topic, I highly recommend Tara Brach’s books, podcasts, and website as an introduction.

Another kind of affirmation I read about on PsyBlog (one of my favorite psychology sites) has been shown to increase willpower, a notoriously unstable commodity. And we could all use more of that!  Lack of willpower is associated with addiction (I’m including food in this category), and underachievement in other areas.

The practice that’s been shown to renew willpower is simple: take a moment to focus on core values.

Being able to call up willpower on demand is a pretty useful trick.  I’m going to use this when I’m fighting a craving for something that I really don’t need or want. Or when I’m procrastinating, choosing some online time-waster instead of some other task I need to do.

Next time you recognize that your willpower is failing, try this: Stop and think about the things that are deeply meaningful to you.  So, that could be any spiritual beliefs, connections with family, projects that bring you great satisfaction, or any activities that you’re proud of.  Then when you bring your thoughts back to the craving, you may find your willpower is once again stronger than the craving.

Of course, recognizing when you need to stop and think before you react is key to making this kind of affirmation work.

Whatever tools you are using to build self-acceptance, hypnosis and self-hypnosis can support you, by helping to integrate the attributes and the behaviors you want more of in your life.

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