We’re willing to bet that, even if they don’t makeup part of your personal New Age toolkit for self-improvement, you’re at least familiar with the concept of positive affirmations. Championed by athletes and entrepreneurs alike, positive affirmations are the punchy one-liners said to be behind many a success story. And, in recent years, they’ve gone mainstream.
How mainstream? At the time of writing, the #positiveaffirmations hashtag has over 2million posts on Instagram. Basically, even if you haven’t intentionally taken part, you’ve likely inadvertently read an affirmation dressed up in pretty graphics for a social post, while scrolling. Over in the celeb-sphere, fans abound. Jennifer Lopez reportedly spends 15 minutes a day on hers, Oprah Winfrey is vocal about the place of affirmations in her self-care routine.
So, why the uptick over the past year, specifically? For one, the pandemic could be partly responsible. Research has found that periods of high stress correlate with a surge in ‘magical thinking’ – believing that unrelated events are causally connected, with supernatural forces affecting outcomes. Some would argue that horoscopes and manifesting – other practices that have spiked in popularity over the past shaky 12 months – can be attributed to these practices.
Research from Tel Aviv University, for example, has found that exposing people to high-stress conditions causes them to report a greater urge to ‘knock on wood’, and to ‘knock’ more times when asked questions designed to elicit the ritual, versus those exposed to a low-stress environment.
That's not to say, though, that affirmations don't have a place in your arsenal – or that they don't have the power to alter your perceptions and, subsequently, real-world outcomes. So, what's the evidence to back them up? Should everyone use them? And what might be some beneficial statements to try?
What actually are positive affirmations?
‘Positive affirmations are brief phrases which, when repeated frequently, are meant to encourage positive, happy feelings, thoughts, and attitudes, and challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts that the person is experiencing,’ says Dr Stacey Schell, a Registered Clinical Psychologist. ‘For example, if you’re thinking about how you’re likely going to fail at some task, you might use a positive affirmation to challenge those thoughts.’
Positive affirmations tend to be concise (so they’re easy to repeat without getting tongue-tied), definitive, and spoken in the first person (I am…, I can…, I have…, for instance).
‘Used regularly, especially when you are trying to make change or reach a goal, positive affirmations can really help to boost confidence, create space for you to allow a change to take place or support you when self-doubt sets in,’ says Mindset Coach Wendy O’Beirne, otherwise known as The Completion Coach.
How do positive affirmations work?
In a nutshell, thoughts influence feelings, and feelings influence behaviour. So, if you entertain a constant, nagging thought that you aren’t capable of getting promoted, for example, you’re likely to see that sentiment reflected in your behaviour. Think: applying less effort, procrastinating, self-sabotaging, and so on.
It’s believed that positive affirmations work by helping you reframe negative or limiting thoughts to, over time, change the narrative with the intention of manifesting and actioning the affirmation into reality.
‘Our language matters, and what we think about ourselves directly impacts our behaviour,’ says O’Beirne. ‘If you are someone who consistently says to yourself “I am rubbish at public speaking, I hate it,” then that thought will trigger a feeling and you will dread any opportunity to speak in front of people.’
O’Beirne calls these kinds of thoughts negative affirmations; where you repeat thoughts about yourself that cause you to have lower self-confidence or less belief in your abilities. ‘When we interrupt old thought patterns with positive affirmations we are looking to rewire our neural pathways.’ So, that someone who struggles with public speaking might, instead, say something like “I am worth being heard,” to restructure the original belief.'
What does science say about positive affirmations?
Actually, science co-signs the power of positive affirmations in certain instances. But, there’s a caveat: they aren’t everybody’s antidote.
‘Positive affirmations can be helpful for some people, have little effect for others, while for some individuals they might actually leave them feeling worse,’ says Dr Schell. ‘One factor that has been shown to play a role is the person’s self-esteem.
'Those with high self-esteem have been found to show at least a small improvement in mood and self-esteem when they repeated positive affirmations. However, those with low self-esteem actually showed a decrease in their mood and self-esteem as a result of the same task.’
This suggests that whilst affirmations generally work well for anybody who feels relatively positive about themselves, somewhat unfairly, the very people who could, in theory, benefit most from a self-esteem boost are also most at risk of positive affirmations backfiring.
‘There are a few other reasons that someone might find positive affirmations to be unhelpful,’ says Dr Schell. ‘As humans, we tend to reject messages that are too different in comparison to what we currently believe, and these messages can actually cause us to believe our original position more strongly.
'Thus, if we hold a very negative belief about ourselves, we are likely to reject a positive affirmation that lies on the opposite end of the spectrum from that negative belief.’
Positive affirmations can also, in some instances, bring our personal pain points into sharper focus, forcing us to wrack our brains for instances that prove the affirmation untrue. ‘So, if someone is struggling with feeling unlikeable, for example, repeating “I am likeable” over and over could cause them to recall all of the events that led them to believe that they are unlikeable,’ Dr Schell explains.
How do you practice positive affirmations?
When it comes to practicing positive affirmations, you make your own rules. That said, experts recommend setting the scene to get yourself in the right frame of mind.
‘Your energy has to match the belief or outcome you are manifesting,’ says Mindset Coach Joel Burgess. ‘If you want more confidence, for example, put some powerful music on, stand tall, dance, power walk, shadowbox – whatever you need to do to.’
O’Beirne encourages her clients to create habits and rituals around their positive affirmation practice to help them keep up the consistency. ‘This may sound bonkers, but I am well known for asking all of my clients to do their affirmations when they go to the loo,’ she says. ‘Firstly, there is almost always a mirror in the loo,’ so you can look yourself dead in the face when you challenge negative thoughts, ‘and, secondly, you are likely to go first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and throughout the day. This means you get into the habit of adjusting your mindset at regular points during the day.’
She advises speaking positive affirmations in front of a mirror, whilst making eye contact with yourself. ‘Smile after making positive affirmations. A smile helps the brain accept the affirmation without trying to challenge it so much.’
The magic happens, according to Burgess, when you can successfully convince yourself that your positive affirmations are current – or soon-to-be – truths. ‘Act as if the thing you are affirming is your reality – like you’ve already achieved whatever it is you desire,’ he says.
Though, it’s also ok if you aren’t quite there yet. Instead of asking yourself to believe a positive affirmation right off the bat, O’Beirne advises keeping it really simple and judgment-free. It’s just a sentence you speak – no strings.
If you want your positive affirmations to have any hope of working, though, the key is in consistency. ‘You can't expect to say positive affirmations occasionally and for them to materialise suddenly,’ says Burgess. ‘They need to be repeated often – you have to flood your mind with the thoughts and beliefs you want, particularly right before you sleep and as soon as you wake up, as these are the times when your subconscious mind is most receptive.’
What are some examples of positive affirmations?
‘Affirmations are very personal, so I would first encourage people to understand what limiting beliefs currently hold them back and what beliefs they would like to have in their place,’ says Burgess. ‘Changing these limiting beliefs to empowering beliefs through affirmations will be what makes the most significant difference.
‘For example, if your limiting belief is "I am too old to start a business,” try "I can become and achieve anything I put my mind to.” Or, if it's "I am not enough,” try "I accept and love the person that I am and who I am becoming.”’
O’Beirne advises easing in with some starter affirmations and building up to more specific and direct statements as your confidence grows.
Try beginning with:
I am learning to love myself
I am capable of anything I choose to do
Every day, in every way, I am getting stronger
I trust that I am on the right path and I show up daily for myself
I am worth listening to, my voice matters
I am braver than I think I am
I am learning to handle my money and do so with ease
And building up to:
I love myself
I trust myself
I am enough
I am smashing my performance [working towards my goal] and seeing clear change
Every day, in every way, I receive more abundance
I am abundant
And, what if positive affirmations make you feel… worse?
If you find that affirmations are not working for you, or you are conscious that your self-esteem is a bad place, you could try opting for realistic, balanced self-statements instead, which ‘tend to be less of a stretch from what we currently believe, and rather than feeling invalidating, they can actually validate our current experience while also shifting us toward a more balanced way of seeing things,' says Dr Schell.
'I love myself' for 'there are a few things I like about myself'
'I am loveable' for 'I might feel unlikeable, and there are at least a few people who I know do like me'
'This obstacle is a learning opportunity' for 'This is so hard, I wish it wasn’t happening and perhaps there is something to be learned from this'
'Everything works out for the best' for 'I am working to accept outcomes that I can’t control or change, even if I dislike them'
Cut through the noise and get practical, expert advice, home workouts, easy nutrition and more direct to your inbox. Sign up to the WOMEN'S HEALTH NEWSLETTER
You Might Also Like