Affirmations – Helpful Or Harmful?
Award-winning film ‘The Help” introduces us to black maid Aibileen Clark, working for a rich white family in the time of America’s Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. She is trying to positively influence her little charge, Mae Mobley, her employers’ rather unloved and uncared for child. Aibileen offers Mae the following saying which they repeat together: ‘You is kind, you is smart, you is important.’ The implication here is that by repeating this positive statement or ‘affirmation’, the small child will take the ideas on board, believe them, and be a better person.
Aibileen clearly hopes that these words will perhaps go some way to make up for Mae’s emotionally withdrawn mother. But can this actually happen? Are daily affirmations of any value? Do they actually work? Or are they little more than fortune cookie wisdom, masquerading as words of genuine value?
What Are Affirmations?
Affirmations are positive motivational messages. They are small statements which you say to yourself, perhaps daily, or even repeatedly throughout the day, to help you achieve something, or feel better about yourself. You can use affirmations created by others or create your own, such as: “I am worthy of love.”
Many self-help writers encourage the use of daily affirmations to help people improve their lives. Louise Hay’s bestselling book, You Can Heal Your Life, begins each chapter with an affirmation. Chapter One, for example, begins by stating, “I rejoice in the knowledge that I have the power of my own mind to use in any way I choose.” The reader is urged to keep saying and writing the affirmations that are offered throughout Hay’s book.
The idea self-help teachers offer is that focusing on affirmations helps reduce negative thinking. It’s then proposed that these positive thoughts, such as “I am willing to change,” will yield fruit by daily repetition. But how do those who endorse daily affirmations believe that they work?
How Might Affirmations Work?
By: Purple Sherbet Photography
Here are four reasons put forward by self-help believers for how affirmations may work:
1. Affirmations may rewire our brain.
The philosophy is that affirmations can erase a previously negative script and replace it with something positive within our subconscious mind. This constant repetition is thought to affect the chemical pathways in our brain – essentially, we are rewiring our brain.
2. Affirmations may trick our brains into believing things that aren’t true.
If we keep feeding positive messages into our brains, even though they aren’t necessarily true at that point, we can begin to believe them. In this way, we become what our self-talk is. If we constantly think of ourselves as stupid and relay these messages to our brain then we will struggle to feel positive. If we keep “tricking” our brain with positive messages then this will have a positive impact.
3. An affirmation may motivate us and keep us focused.
If we continually repeat, “I am going to make my business a success,” by focusing our mind constantly on this we may well alter our behaviour accordingly. In this way, the affirmation works because it has triggered action in the person saying it.
4. An affirmation can serve as a reminder of our values.
In a world filled with negativity, it’s easy to lose track of positive thoughts. In this sense, an affirmation – constant reinforcement of a view – can keep our values to the fore.
What Does Science and Research Have to Say About Affirmations?
Science is not as blindly supportive of affirmations as the self-help industry, although results are varied and research is ongoing.
A study done at the University of Waterloo in Canada saw researchers asking participants to say “I am loveable”. They concluded that “repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”
The reason for this conclusion is that although those with high self-esteem felt slightly better after using an affirmation, those with low self-esteem felt worse. They researchers found that those with low moods felt better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts.
It appears that by repeating positive messages which a person with low self-esteem sees as so far from their truth, it actually reinforces their low self-esteem.
Does that mean positive affirmations are actually a danger? That was not the conclusion of the researchers who did the study at all. Instead, they felt that positive affirmations can help when they are part of a program of intervention, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or working with an expert coach.
And while cognitive therapies traditionally focused on manipulating the content of our thoughts, research is indicating that it may be more helpful to look to the Third Wave Cognitive Therapies that focus more on accepting our thoughts. This would include therapies like MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy). In such therapies, we are encouraged to accept all our thoughts, good and bad, positive or negative, rather than resist them. Instead we are advised to focus on positive behaviours.
A more recent study, however, found better news about affirmations. A paper published in 2013 covered research carried out at Carnegie Mellon University which showed that affirmations improved problem-solving and creativity in stressed out students.
It seems that people under high stress can do better problem-solving by taking a moment before a situation requiring good performance to think about something important and positive. This certainly makes affirmations quite useful to many.
Still Fancy a Try? How to Create a Personal Affirmation
Self-help teachers suggest the following steps to creating your own affirmation:
1) Use the first person.
Unlike our example of Aibileen and her little charge, an affirmation should really be about yourself. It is written in the first person and spoken in the first person: “I am smart, I am kind, I am important.” The reasoning behind this is that as you can only change yourself, and not other people, affirmations reflect this fact.
2) It must be personal.
Following from this, it needs to be a personal thing, about yourself or related to your own goals or aspirations: “I want to be a more effective public speaker.”
3) It needs to focus on the positive.
An affirmation needs to be positive, perhaps about a quality you’d like to cultivate, or a goal you’d like to achieve. No negative thoughts are allowed.
4) It can be on any topic.
An affirmation can be about anything, from being a better golfer, to looking more confident on a date. Remember, though, it must focus on your own behaviour or what you want.
5) The more specific the better.
An affirmation needs to focus on something specific, rather than a woolly sense of what you’d like to achieve.
6) You may, or may not, need to believe it.
There is controversy here. Some say you need to believe the affirmation, others say that belief is not necessary for the affirmation to be effective.
What Do You Think About Affirmations?
Some say that it doesn’t matter what the science and the research studies say. If daily affirmations aren’t doing any harm, and could be doing some good. isn’t that enough? The verdict is still out.
What do you think? Have you found that affirmations work for you? Or, have you found to the contrary, that they are of no value at all? Have you felt worse after using them? Share your experiences below, we’d love to hear!
© 2014 Ruth Nina Welsh – Be Your Own Counsellor & Coach