After an hour of doomscrolling on my phone, I switched gears to doomscroll on Netflix, instead. That’s when I stopped to watch a documentary (mockumentary?) on the power of affirmations.
I saw folks claiming to have transitioned from genuinely desperate situations—serious emotional, financial, or relationship troubles—into becoming happy, thriving individuals. They attributed the change in their lives to the affirmations they had started to say to themselves every day.
The subjects on the TV show provided testimonial after testimonial touting the immense power of affirmations. They went to great lengths to explain how once they started to say specific phrases to themselves out loud multiple times a day, their lives transitioned from awful to great.
I have a confession to make—my BS-meter is pretty strong. It took all my willpower (plus motor skills) to stop my eyes from lodging at the back of my head, thanks to some heavy-duty eye-rolling.
(Note: I’ve since learned eye-rolls are essentially a way of looking away, a natural physical limbic-system response when you see or read something you find distrustful. I also learned that you could roll or cross your eyes all you want without hurting them or going blind. Good to know.)
Anyway, as a proponent of measured skepticism, I had my doubts about the power of affirmations.
However, in my own attempt at being an open-minded and less-judgy person, I’ve since explored the philosophy behind affirmations. My goal was to see if there is any scientific basis to this new-agey self-help phenomenon and evaluate its efficacy in bringing forth real change.
This post is about what I discovered.
Types of Affirmations
There are essentially two-types of affirmations:
a) A traditional model of affirmations referred to as self-affirmations which focuses on principal elements of how you view yourself.
b) The new-agey positive, mantra-reciting process that’s typically what common parlance today refers to as affirmations.
That said, the underlying concept is similar in both. Essentially you are training your brain to believe in yourself in the face of self-doubt or even external setbacks.
Science and Affirmations
The critical question then (at least for the more skeptical of us) is whether these affirmations are rooted in science at all? Or is it all just hearsay and wishful thinking?
Thankfully, some research studies have proven that self-affirmations work.
Social psychologists, Cohen and Sherman, proposed that affirmations come in handy when our self-integrity is threatened and at stake.
For instance, let’s say people praise you for being a star contributor to your work team. You value your contribution and spend most of your waking hours diligently in the office. Your mantra is “I’m a star contributor on my team.”
Let’s then say you have additional competing responsibilities, such as caring for a sick family member. Now suddenly, you are unable to spend all your time at work. While you still get the job done, you worry that it’s not enough. Your idea of yourself as a “star contributor on your team” is under threat.
At times like these, affirmations help. You now define yourself as “a good worker and a good caregiver.” So, instead of letting the adverse situation derail you and make you feel like life’s unfair and reacting defensively (a negative reaction), affirmations broaden your perspective and make you feel good about yourself. This, in turn, translates to you truly being a better worker and a better caregiver because you’re now invested in those roles.
Also, the power of affirmations helps us take the longer and broader view of life, so short-term stressors are easier to handle.
Before we delve into whether the power of affirmations can change lives, it’s essential to set the context for what the affirmations genuinely are.
Definition of Affirmations
The new-age definition of affirmations, aka personal mantras, is that affirmations are simple-to-understand, positive statements that reflect your ideal, future-state values, and goals.
Effective affirmations have to check these boxes:
Positive, motivational statements
They have to be encouraging and positive statements without negativity.
For example, you may want to improve how you eat. Here are the wrong and right ways to frame that affirmation:
- I eat foods that stay for a minute on the lips, and a lifetime on the hips – Incorrect
- I make healthy food choices and enjoy the foods I eat - Correct
If you need to refer to the dictionary or write an essay to describe the affirmation, you’ve done it wrong. Start over and try again.
Good affirmations come in short sentences.
Reflect YOUR values and goals
Affirmations have to be things YOU believe in. This is not the time to plagiarize. If you are not really into a minimal lifestyle, don’t create affirmations about living in a sparsely-filled tent, however cool that may sound on paper.
Reflect the ideal state
Affirmations are typically not about the process but describe the result. Your affirmation describes the ideal future-state, but the language is altered to indicate the present state.
- I’m going to be a millionaire – Incorrect
- I’m a millionaire – Correct
You have to remember your grammar lessons here—simple present tense works best instead of present-continuous or future tense. It’s not about becoming or going to become; instead, you are.
Yes, that’s the thing about affirmations. They may sound quite delusional, but that’s the point—to let your mind know that your goals, lofty though they may sound, are actually achievable.
Research indicates that people who already have high self-esteem do well with present tense affirmations but those with low self-esteem struggle because they realize the cognitive dissonance between their reality and what they are telling themselves. But, because affirmations are themselves aimed at increasing self-confidence, self-esteem should improve even in self-doubting individuals over time.
Examples of Affirmations
In addition to the examples already listed above, here are some more examples of affirmations.
- I’m unique, and I accept myself as I am
- I’m a morning person
- I control my future
- I exercise regularly
- I’m a fun person to hang out with
Notice how the affirmations are usually about oneself. That’s important to remember. You cannot make affirmations on behalf of someone else.
A decent affirmation is to say, “I’m a fun person to hang out with.”
On the contrary, “My friends will give up anything to hang out with me” isn’t an affirmation. It borders on psychosis.
The Purpose of Affirmations
Why bother with affirmations at all? Glad you asked.
Simply put, affirmations help curb negative thought patterns. The power of affirmations lies in removing self-doubt and helps to restore your self-esteem.
When everything seems to be turning to custard, affirmations help provide perspective. If you had a lousy year in business, affirming that you are a millionaire provides context that the short-term setbacks you encountered won’t matter in the long term.
Affirmations – How-To
Now that we know what makes a good affirmation, here are the steps from self-help gurus and life coaches to implement your affirmations.
- Take time to evaluate your goals and priorities and come up with a shortlist of key affirmations. Focus on quality over quantity
- Write out and repeat the affirmations multiple times a day to yourself. The whole point is to drill this into your brain, so you start to believe the affirmation as the truth. The advice is to write the affirmations down and repeat them 3 to 5 times a day for at least five minutes each time.
- This kind of subliminal messaging sent works subconsciously to help your brain remember and focus on what truly matters to you.
- Say the affirmations out loud to yourself. The reasoning behind the verbalizing of these affirmations is that the more of your senses are involved (ears, mouth), the more power these affirmations will have.
Also, I have to say there’s a difference between repeating out loud and repeating loudly. YOU need to hear your affirmations. Your neighbor five houses down your street does not need to listen to them. Just sayin’. But if you’re the spectacle-creating kind, all power to you. You do you!
- If you’re truly committed to change, you could start seeing positive results in about 2-3 months. You will need to repeat affirmations much longer if you seek long-lasting behavioral changes. For some, affirmations are a life-long project.
Other Key Considerations
Affirmations aid personal growth, but by themselves, they won’t cause magic. Simply telling yourself you’re a millionaire a hundred times a day while sitting on the couch and doing squat-all isn’t going to make you a millionaire. Affirmations need to be in concert with your actions.
Scientifically, affirmations work as interventions—by providing a positive feedback loop and cutting out self-defense and negative self-talk. The power of affirmations is that it is one more tool in the mental-health toolbox that helps keep your self-confidence up and acts as a support mechanism to prop you up should you fall and need crutches.
Affirmations can help supplement other leading research in personal development, such as Carol Dweck’s research on adopting a Growth Mindset instead of a Fixed Mindset.
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure – Mark Twain
Admittedly, I reacted to affirmations like a teacher hearing the “dog-ate-my-homework” excuse from a child who fails to turn in her homework. Maybe the dog did, but come on, really?
I have now convinced myself that there is some benefit to having daily affirmations. They are almost like mission statements that act as guideposts when life gets messy, as it often does.
Affirmations help you believe in yourself. Face it, ultimately, if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.