Positive affirmations are bad for you?
“I am bountiful, I am beautiful, I am bliss; I am, I am”
“What the hell is that?” I asked, disdain already dripping from every syllable. Some weird hippy song, full of whale song and wind instruments, had interrupted an otherwise enjoyable playlist.
“They’re positive affirmations” my girlfriend at the time informed me, “they make you feel better. You should try them!”
I did. For some reason ‘bountiful’, ‘beautiful’ and didn’t really resonate with me. Even the idea of repeating pleasing notions to myself, and hence making them true, seemed so seductively simple, so hopeful, that it just didn’t seem right. Sure, it is nice to say nice things about yourself, but there is something about the lonely solitude of reciting affirmations that made me wonder if they wouldn’t end up doing more harm than good.
Now, many years later, I’m firmly ensconced within the coaching industry, and I come into contact with many coaches who swear by the transformative power of positive affirmations. Strangely enough, these people are often the distinct opposite of what they affirm. Those who make public affirmations about wellness are usually morbidly obese or permanently sickly. Those who offer affirmations about being strong often seem minutes away from an emotional meltdown. You’ve probably noticed a similar trend on your Facebook timeline from friends who talk about ‘getting their life together’ or being ‘more careful about how I choose my friends from now on’. I’ve long wanted to crunch the numbers on the correlation between motivational tweets and the levels of motivation and success in the tweeter.
And now: Science!
It appears I wasn’t the only one with such reservations. Joanna Wood of the University of Waterloo conducted a study into the effect of ‘positive self-statements’ [Here’s a more readable link]. She got volunteers to fill in a survey which to assess the participants current levels of self-esteem, rating themselves from 1-10 on statements like “I feel that I have a number of good qualities”. She then divided them into two groups. The first group were to repeat positive statements like “I am a loveable person” and “I can do it!”; and the second were given a control condition and asked to write down their thoughts and feelings.
The results? After doing the affirmations, the people who started out with higher self esteem noticed virtually no effect.
People with lower self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves.
Why are they bad?
I suspect that affirmations are bad because people are encouraged to say these things in private. We verbalise our thoughts so other people can hear them. Saying them to yourself will make you feel quite ridiculous, a little bit like when someone caught you playing make believe as a kid.
Secondly, the person making the affirmation forms no social contract with those words. We love saying nice things about ourselves, but we say them out loud because we need them to be heard and believed by others. Provided you aren’t being boastful, they hear you, believe you, and recognise those qualities within you. This fuels a desire to further develop your skills and share your qualities, so there’s more to appreciate. Just chanting that you’ve already got them doesn’t do that.
And lastly, the repetition. Taking a moment before a big presentation to look at yourself in the mirror and say “You can do this. You know this stuff!” can be a helpful little pep-up; provided you can do it, and you do know this stuff. Going to the gym, and then appreciating the results in the mirror before going out and flirting with people can also be good, provided you have been to the gym and you do look good. But these are situations when you are occasionally affirming what you already know. It’s not helping you develop qualities and skills that you don’t. When you say “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”, and you say it every day, there will be some days in which that will be quite obviously untrue. Those are exactly the days you’re most likely to struggle, because not only is your life sucking at that moment, but you’re lying to yourself about it. That incongruence on those days is bound to cause far more distress than the mild benefit you receive on days when you believe the affirmation to be true.
Surely it’d be better to recognise our strengths, and our shortcomings, and accept them. Rather than telling yourself you’re getting better and better, actually work at improving yourself. Use the mirror for teeth brushing and pimple popping, and just get on with your life.