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The Efficacy of Positive Affirmations

written by Ray Williams July 15, 2020
The Efficacy of Positive Affirmations

“I am successful.” “I am a wonderful person.” “I will find love again.” There are many other similar phrases that students, the broken-hearted, and unfulfilled employees may repeat to themselves over and over again, hoping to change their lives. Self-help books and programs through the ages from Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of  Positive Thinking all the way to The Secret have encouraged people with low self-esteem to make positive self-statements or affirmations. Many therapists, counselors, and coaches suggest their clients and patients use positive affirmations to help them with issues of self-esteem, negative thinking, and pessimism. A debate now exists among researchers and psychologists regarding the efficacy of positive affirmations in relation to one’s performance and well being.

The Case for Positive Affirmations

Self-affirmation theory is a psychological theory that focuses on how individuals adapt to information or experiences that are threatening to their self-concept.

Scientists have been studying the efficacy of positive affirmations and their impact on people’s health and well-being.

It has been suggested by the scientist and behavioral care providers that self-affirmation reminds people of important aspects of the self, enabling them to view events from a reasonable, considered, and rational viewpoint (Sherman DK et al, 2011). By enhancing the psychological resources of self-integrity, self-affirmation reduces defensive responses to threatening information and events, leading to positive outcomes in various areas such as psychological and physical health, education, prejudice, discrimination , and social conflicts (Sherman DK et al, 2006).

Does self-affirmation have any impact on ill-health? For one study (Taber JA et al, 2016), 326 cancer survivors reported that participants with higher optimism reported better health, greater happiness and hopefulness, a lower likelihood of cognitive impairment, and concluded that given the malleability of self-affirmation, the findings are important avenues.

In another study, participants received either an insulting evaluation or a neutral evaluation from an ostensible peer. The researchers predicted that both neutral and insulting evaluations would increase cardiovascular activity and that insulted participants would exhibit relatively greater increases. Furthermore, consistent with the self-affirmation theory, it was also predicted that thinking and writing about a core personal value after being evaluated would facilitate cardiovascular recovery.

(Psychology Today)

The Case Against Positive Affirmations

Control your thoughts and you create your reality. A positive mindset begets positive end results. These popular tenets are espoused by the likes of Louise Hay, Napoleon Hill, Anthony Robbins, and countless other self-help gurus. The problem is, they don’t actually work.

Consider the last time you really wanted something to happen…It could be a dream job, an ideal relationship, or even a parking space in the city. Having learned from the best, you used positive affirmations in the ways suggested. You wrote your desired outcome on a card, kept it on your person at all times, and repeated the phrase over and over in your head. The end results of your efforts were probably not the ones you were looking for.

Having failed, you might have berated yourself. You didn’t do the affirmations correctly, you were somehow undeserving, or even: ‘it was meant to be.’

The reason positive affirmations don’t work is that they target the conscious level of your mind but not the unconscious. If what you are trying to affirm is incongruent with a deeply held negative belief, then all that results is an inner struggle.

The subconscious mind cannot differentiate between negative and positive or between what is real and imagined. For example, if we want to be successful, we cannot say things like, ‘I don’t want to be a failure.’ The subconscious mind will act upon the word ‘failure,’ ignoring the word ‘don’t,’ and actualizing the undesired result. We must choose what we share with our subconscious mind carefully, and that is why positive affirmations are so critical.

The subconscious mind is most open to helpful and beneficial suggestions while we are in the ‘alpha’ brainwave state — our most relaxed state of mind. The alpha wave frequency is often achieved in a meditative state or just before falling asleep, creating an optimal time to receive positive affirmations. Music designed to create the alpha wave state or technology known as brainwave entrainment can also help if you are not an avid meditator. (Psych Central)

Scientific American argues that positive thinking can be negative.

A 2007 study by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener, and Michigan State University psychologist Richard Lucas reinforces Peterson’s concerns. Using analyses from several large international samples, they found that although extremely happy people are the most successful in close interpersonal relationships and volunteer work, moderately happy people are more successful than extremely happy people financially and educationally and are also more politically active. Admittedly, Oishi and his colleagues measured happiness rather than optimism per se, although the two tend to be fairly closely associated. Still, their findings raise the possibility that although a realistically positive attitude toward the world often helps us to achieve certain life goals, a Pollyanna-ish attitude may have its costs — perhaps because it fosters complacency.

So What Should You Do?

So what can we learn from all this? First, just engaging in positive affirmations by themselves can do harm to people with low self-esteem, and sometimes give little benefit for those with high-esteem, if those affirmations are not part of a comprehensive program of self-growth, preferably with a knowledgeable professional. And second, the traditional cognitive psychotherapeutic approach of trying to change people’s negative thinking through logical processes may actually be counterproductive, compared to an approach that has people accept their thoughts, not resist them.  Engaging in positive behaviors rather than just making affirmations will have a much greater impact and better results.

In an article, Dr. Sophie Henshaw references a study by Drs. Senay, Albarracín, and Noguchi, published in the journal Psychological Science, “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense,” she outlines the research study in which four groups of participants were asked to solve anagrams. Before completing the task, the researchers told them that they were interested in handwriting practices and asked them to write 20 times on a sheet of paper either: “I will,” “Will I,” “I” or “Will.” The group that wrote “Will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as any of the other groups.

From this and similar studies the researchers conducted, they found that asking ourselves is far more powerful than telling ourselves something when we wish to create successful end results.

Sophie goes on to say that that questions can lead to action in ways statements may not. If you’re finding that making statements isn’t working because you don’t believe them, or they’re too easy to ignore, try turning your statements into questions, and see if that does a better job for you.

So, if affirmations don’t work, what does? The good news is that there is a simple method you can use, apply immediately, and have instant and excellent results.

Declarative self-talk is about making self-statements, either positive (e.g., affirmations) or negative (e.g., core beliefs). In contrast, interrogative self-talk is about asking questions.

From this and similar studies the researchers conducted, they found that asking ourselves is far more powerful than telling ourselves something when we wish to create successful end results. Questions are powerful because they probe for answers. They remind us of the resources we do have, and they activate our curiosity. All that is required is a simple tweak.

Let’s say you are about to give a presentation, and you’re feeling nervous about it. You may find yourself declaring: ‘I’m terrible at presentations; they never go well for me.’ Alternatively, you may give yourself a positive pep talk: ‘I am delivering a great presentation that inspires my audience.’

Both are declarative statements that apply a kind of external pressure to the self and shut down the possibility of accessing the inner resources and creativity needed for success.

However, tweak the above statements so they become questions: ‘Am I terrible at presentations? Have they ever gone well for me?’ Or: ‘Will I deliver a great presentation that inspires my audience?’ Potential answers may be: ‘I get shy and nervous and people switch off when I talk. However, in my last presentation, I made a point that people found interesting, and I really had their attention. How could I expand on that?’ Or: ‘The last presentation that I did went well. What did I do that worked, and how could I do more of that?’

This powerful strategy works better than affirmations because it acknowledges your negative thoughts and feelings and reduces the need to fight them. You start to become an ally to your unconscious mind, which in turn will elicit its cooperation. And the unconscious mind is fantastic at coming up with creative stuff.

Eliciting your curiosity and creativity using this method will put an end to that draining inner struggle, which in turn will reduce the tension in your body and help you relax. It won’t cost you anything, and it will position you to reap excellent end results. (Psych Cental)

Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Asia.

Copyright: Neither this article nor a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

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