What if you could feel better about yourself and more empowered in your life simply by saying nice things about yourself?
That’s the idea behind positive affirmations, and a great deal of research suggests that people who practice positive self-talk might be onto something.
But while positive affirmations can help people feel more confident or able to successfully navigate trying times, they can sometimes have the opposite effect.
Before you start working with affirmations, read on to learn what positive affirmations are, how they can affect you (both positively and negatively), and how to formulate affirmations that are more likely to enhance your life.
What Are Positive Affirmations?
As the name suggests, positive affirmations are optimistic statements or phrases. They are most commonly used by a person to challenge negative or self-critical thoughts and/or to enhance feelings of self-esteem and personal empowerment.
People practice positive affirmations simply by reciting these statements at particular times during the day (such as first thing after waking up or right before going to bed) or when they’re in need of an emotional boost.
Positive affirmations hinge on a psychological theory dubbed “self-affirmation theory.” The theory goes that we maintain our sense of self-worth and identity by telling ourselves positive statements about our abilities or declarations of specific goals. In this context, positive affirmations can serve as an “emotional immune system” that helps us feel good and protects us from sliding down a rabbit hole of negative self-talk in the face of threats to our self-esteem (such as a breakup or a poor performance review at work).
Examples of positive affirmations include:
- I have clarity around my goals and I am actively advancing toward them.
- I am capable at my job and my confidence reflects this.
- I trust my inner wisdom and believe in myself.
How Do Positive Affirmations Affect You?
Research suggests positive affirmations can affect people’s brains in both positive and negative ways.
For instance, a 2015 study found that participants who used positive affirmations demonstrated increased activity in regions of the brain associated with self-processing and valuation, especially when the affirmations were future oriented. They were also more likely to adopt healthier behaviors than “un-affirmed” participants.
The same 2015 study also reviewed past research which suggested positive affirmations can:
- Reduce stress
- Improve academic performance
- Enhance overall wellbeing
- Encourage greater openness to behavioral changes
- Affirm one’s sense of self-worth
- Help people develop a broader perspective when it comes to how they view themselves
- Minimize the impact of negative emotions
- Remind people that they possess psychological resources
Still more research has found positive affirmations might yield additional positive benefits.
For instance, positive affirmations might help people in low positions of power at work calm their nerves and enhance their job performance in high-stakes situations. A 2013 study found that self-affirmation can improve a person’s problem-solving abilities when they’re stressed. And a 2014 study suggested that positive affirmations might motivate people to behave more compassionately toward others.
Even though there’s ample evidence that positive affirmations can yield positive results, this doesn’t necessarily hold true for everyone.
For instance, a 2008 study found that people with low self-esteem might feel worse after repeating positive self-statements, possibly because their brains immediately go to work contradicting those positive ideas with negative ones. The researchers concluded that positive affirmations might not work for everyone no matter how high or low a person’s self-esteem is. This means that if you experiment with positive affirmations, it’s important to pay attention to whether they actually make you feel any better.
How to Formulate Effective Positive Affirmations
Want to give positive affirmations a try? Implement the following guidelines to increase your chances of enjoying positive results.
Avoid the negativity trap
Per the research cited above, positive affirmations might fail if they leave room for negative self-talk to work its way in and contradict them. You can decrease the chances of this happening by strategically crafting your positive affirmations.
For example, rather than say something like “I’m a lovable person” (which may backfire if you start thinking of reasons why you’re not lovable), a better approach is to write about the things you value, such as your family or career.
Relate affirmations to your core values
A positive affirmation will only seem relevant to your psyche if it relates to your personal core values.
For instance, affirming “I make a lot of money” won’t make you feel great if wealth isn’t one of your core markers of success. On the flip side, saying “I am a kind and caring person” might have a positive effect if you greatly value compassion.
Emphasize personal attributes and successes
Instead of affirming something that you aren’t (which might cause your brain to focus on what it perceives as a lack in your character), try emphasizing great qualities you already have and accomplishments you’ve already achieved.
For instance, if you’ve enjoyed success in your career, you might say something like “I am confident and capable at work.” Or if your family is an important part of your life, you might affirm that “I am a loving and caring family member who builds and maintains strong relationships.”
Focus on the future
As noted in the section above, affirmations that focus on positive future events are most likely to activate regions in our brain associated with self-processing and valuation.
Put this research to work for you by crafting future-focused affirmations. For instance, if you’re just starting a meditation practice, you might affirm “I meditate regularly and feel more calm, balanced, and at ease.” For best results, make sure these future outcomes are actually achievable.
Once you craft some affirmations, plan to repeat them to yourself a few times every day. You might write them down in a journal in the morning, recite them while you’re in the shower, or meditate on these affirmations before going to bed at night. Feel free to modify these affirmations as you start to work with them.
Affirmations on their own might not lead to massive change. But when you pair positive affirmations with positive action, you’ll be well on your way to improving your life.