Published on: June 25, 2021
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
You may have heard about the power of affirmations. There has been much hype in both the self-help world and the media about the ways in which repeating positive statements to yourself can help with everything from physical healing and enhancing your self-esteem to improving relationships and achieving career success, and more.
Perhaps you are already using this simple technique – saying phrases to yourself throughout each day such as “I am in perfect health,” “I am calm and safe,” or “I attract more and more abundance into my life each day.”
ARE YOU SKEPTICAL OF THIS PRACTICE AND/OR BELIEVE THAT IT MAY FEEL ODD OR UNNATURAL?
Or perhaps you believe that it is a futile exercise to talk to yourself in this manner.
So, do affirmations actually work? The limited research on this topic suggests that affirmations may work for some, but not for others, with its efficacy depending on a variety of factors. In some instances, though, this technique may make individuals feel worse instead of better.
In this article, we will review some historical highlights about the roots of this popular technique, as well as some of the scientific research on this practice.
HISTORICAL HIGHLIGHTS: HOW DID AFFIRMATIONS BECOME SO POPULAR?
Émile Coué, a French pharmacist and self-trained therapist, has been called the “father of affirmations.” In the early 1900s, he was teaching clients and promoting to the public a technique he referred to as “conscious autosuggestion,” which he described as a form of self-hypnosis that involved using your imagination to affect your “moral and physical being.”
He is most well-known for his promotion of one particular positive statement:
EVERY DAY, IN EVERY WAY, I AM GETTING BETTER AND BETTER.
He claimed that this statement could help everyone, regardless of one’s condition or concern, if it was repeated quietly 20 times each morning and evening “in a natural way” and “with firm conviction.”
In his 1922 book, The Coué ‘Method’: Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion, Coué shared client case studies and claimed that conscious autosuggestion helped “cure” his clients of a wide range of conditions, including eczema, varicose veins, asthma, and gout.
Another prominent figure who promoted the use of affirmations was Paramahansa Yogananda, a well-known spiritual teacher and yogi from India. He began introducing the practice to American audiences during his first intercontinental speaking tour in 1924. He would often begin or conclude his inspirational services by leading a group affirmation of some kind, which involved collective chanting of a chosen phrase.
In his book, Scientific Healing Affirmations, he describes a practice of individual affirmations that he claimed could heal the mind and body. In particular, he said poetically that “[w]ords saturated with sincerity, conviction, faith, and intuition are like highly explosive vibration bombs, which, when set off, shatter the rocks of difficulties and create the change desired.”
Like Coué, Yogananda recommended practicing affirmations first thing in the morning and before going to sleep at night, though his recommended method differed.
SAY YOUR AFFIRMATION LOUDLY AT FIRST AND THEN GET QUIETER AND SPEAK MORE SLOWLY OVER TIME UNTIL YOU ARE JUST WHISPERING.
He provided numerous examples of different affirmations, which tended to have a spiritual emphasis, and were often comprised of multiple sentences (for example, “I am submerged in eternal light. It permeates every particle of my being. I am living in that light. The Divine Spirit fills me within and without.”).
More recently, author and speaker Louise Hay brought more attention to the concept of affirmations through her work, including her best-selling 1984 book, You Can Heal Your Life. In that book, Hay shared her philosophy and beliefs about healing oneself, noting (amongst other things) that “every thought we think is creating our future” and that thoughts can be consciously altered through frequent repetition of positive affirmations.
Her philosophy was based, in part, on her own life experiences and observations from working with clients. She promoted the practice of using different positive affirmations depending on what you wanted to change. Hay was a profuse writer of affirmation statements, with some appearing in her books and others captured on decks of cards with names like “Power Thought Cards” and “How to Love Yourself Cards.” She also has various affirmation statements on her website, including “I trust the process of life,” “I am loved and at peace,” and “Perfect health is my Divine right, and I claim it now.”
RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS: WHAT HAVE EXPERIMENTS SHOWN ABOUT AFFIRMATIONS?
Historical claims about the power of affirmations were not necessarily based on robust research, but instead often relied upon anecdotal evidence and/or spiritual belief. More recently, though, researchers have conducted experiments investigating affirmations as an independent practice (i.e. conducted alone, as opposed to being part of therapy sessions with a professional), in order to develop a better understanding of what does (and does not) work.
In a 2009 study conducted by Dr. Joanne Wood and colleagues (published in Psychological Science), the researchers set out to test their hypothesis that, rather than boost mood and enhance self-esteem, positive self-statements can be ineffective or even harmful. One of their experiments involved testing the effects of a specific positive self-statement, repeated often, for a short period of time (i.e. during the course of the experiment, as opposed to every morning and/or every night).
The researchers randomly assigned 68 university students to either a self-statement group or a “no-statement” group. Participants in both groups were asked to write down all of their thoughts and feelings during a four-minute period. Those in the self-statement group were also asked to simultaneously repeat to themselves “I am a lovable person” every time they heard a bell, which rang every 15 seconds (for a total of 16 times).
After the four-minute writing task, all participants completed three measures – two to assess mood and one to assess “state” self-esteem. Analyses revealed that when individuals with chronically low self-esteem repeated the positive self-statement, neither their feelings about themselves nor their moods improved. In fact, they got worse.
“Although this study was small, it matches other studies we’ve done, which together contradict the popular notion that thinking positively makes everyone feel better. Positive self-statements seemed to provide a boost only to those who already had high self-esteem, and that boost was small,” said Dr. Wood, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo.
“We suspected this would happen because of other research around a concept called ‘latitudes of acceptance,’ which suggests that messages consistent with your current attitude are more persuasive than ones that are inconsistent. In other words, if you try to tell yourself something that you don’t believe is true, like ‘I am lovable’ if you think you’re not, then that thought will meet internal resistance. You might begin to think of the ways that you’re not lovable. So, using affirmation statements that are inconsistent with your beliefs about yourself can backfire and cause you to feel worse about yourself, potentially making your original negative belief more firmly entrenched.”
Dr. Wood’s research has received much worldwide attention since it was published. Her team’s findings about the potential downside to positive thinking were a surprise to many people, but not all. As the public began hearing about her research findings in the news, some reached out to Dr. Wood directly to share their personal stories about how they had tried to follow the instructions in self-help books to change their lives through the use of positive affirmations but got frustrated or depressed when the practice was unsuccessful.
“I was pleased to hear that our research findings reassured people that there is nothing wrong with them if they found that positive self-statements didn’t work,” said Dr. Wood.
THE PUBLIC NEEDS TO BE AWARE THAT ALTHOUGH POSITIVE SELF-STATEMENTS MAY BE BENEFICIAL SOMETIMES, THEY ARE NOT A ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL TOOL, AS MANY SELF-HELP BOOKS SUGGEST.
A different group of researchers – Dr. Ioana Cristea and colleagues – also conducted an experiment to test the effects of self-statements on mood and self-esteem, using a study design that expanded on the research of Dr. Wood and colleagues. The research team sought to examine whether the type of positive self-statement used might affect the findings. To do this, the researchers divided participants into four groups, each using a different type of statement:
Dr. Cristea’s research team also considered whether the events immediately preceding the use of a positive self-statement might affect the outcome. Since positive affirmations are often recommended as a tool for coping with stressful experiences, the experiment was designed to include an uncomfortable scenario before participants completed a four-minute writing exercise, in which participants recorded their thoughts and feelings while using their assigned self-statements every time they heard a bell (following the same pattern as in Dr. Wood’s experiment – every 15 seconds, for a total of 16 times).
In this study, 90 university students were randomly assigned to one of the above-noted groups, and all participants completed measures of mood and self-esteem at the beginning of the experiment. Then, the participants all completed an activity intended to threaten their self-esteem: writing a letter to university administration asking for the termination of scholarships for socially disadvantaged students (i.e. an act of unfounded lack of compassion).
Next, they all completed the four-minute writing exercise, with each of the four groups thinking about their assigned self-statement when the bell rang. Finally, all participants repeated the self-esteem and mood evaluations at the end of the experiment.
The results were published in March 2014 in Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies. Overall, both of the positive self-statements led to higher state self-esteem and less negative emotions compared to the negative self-statement, after the challenging situation.
THE UNCONDITIONAL SELF-ACCEPTANCE STATEMENT DID NOT PROVIDE ANY IMMEDIATE BENEFIT FOR STATE SELF-ESTEEM OR MOOD.
Interestingly, among individuals with high trait self-esteem, repeating a positive or negative self-statement appeared to make little difference. For those with relatively low trait self-esteem, though, the global positive self-statement was more effective at reducing negative emotions than the specific positive self-statement (perhaps because the specific statement may have sounded exaggerated to some participants).
These findings suggest a potentially more complex and somewhat different picture compared to what was reported in the study conducted by Dr. Wood and colleagues. It could be that in a neutral situation (like the one in Dr. Wood’s experiment), positive self-statements are not useful for people with low trait self-esteem, but that in stressful circumstances (like the one in Dr. Cristea’s experiment), people with low trait self-esteem can benefit from positive self-statements.
However, it is important to keep in mind that Dr. Wood’s research was comparing a positive self-statement to no self-statement at all, while Dr. Cristea’s research was comparing positive versus negative self-statements, so the findings from the two studies are not directly comparable. It should also be noted that both of these studies involved a small number of participants who represented just one population group (university students) and tested only limited types of positive self-statements used in a particular way.
Accordingly, more research is needed in order to determine what types of affirmation might (or might not) work – particularly well-designed, robust studies – before conclusions and recommendations can be confidently made regarding the efficacy of this technique.
SO, SHOULD I GIVE AFFIRMATIONS A TRY?
Clearly, there is much more to be learned about affirmations, since the research conducted to date merely scratches the surface. Affirmations, like most inner experiences, are challenging to study scientifically. What happens inside a person’s head is difficult to observe and control by a researcher.
Moreover, there are so many potential variables that could impact whether or how an affirmation works. For example, what are the best phrases to use? Does it make a difference how many times you use the affirmation in a day, or when you use it, or for how many days? Does it make a difference if you say the phrase silently or out loud? Does it matter if you say the words quickly or slowly? Is it important to visualize or evoke particular feelings while you are thinking of the words? Do affirmations work better for some people than others, or for different purposes better than others?
ALTHOUGH YOU CAN FIND VARIOUS RECOMMENDATIONS FOR DIFFERENT “FORMULAS” FOR SUCCESSFUL AFFIRMATIONS IN THE SELF-HELP LITERATURE, THOSE RECOMMENDATIONS ARE NOT NECESSARILY EVIDENCE BASED.
Given that positive affirmations have shown some promise in the early research (and there are ample examples of anecdotal enthusiasm about the practice), it might be worth giving them a try if they appeal to you. They offer the possibility of a free and simple tool to potentially help improve many aspects of your life. Most people engage in some form of silent self-talk anyway, whether they are aware of it or not, so the use of affirmations can be considered an extension of that – but doing so in a conscious and positive way.
You may want to experiment with incorporating positive affirmations into your daily routine; just be sure to pay attention to how they make you feel. If they make you feel worse instead of better, try adjusting something about your practice or discontinue it altogether. Also, keep in mind that although there is much hype around the use of affirmations, there is no guarantee that this practice will result in instant healing or success, and the reality is that it may not work for everyone.
Source: Mind Over Matter V12
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