The self-help genre has popularized positivity as being the superpower of personal development.
We’ve been told we can overcome anything by just thinking positive. Motivational messages from Instagram gurus tell people who are suffering to simply change the way they are feeling as if it were as easy as changing the channel.
Are you suffering from negative thoughts and tired of being told to “just get over it”? Have you tried changing your thoughts without being able to control how you feel? If you’ve tried all of the feel-good self-help methods or advice of well-intentioned coaches and haven’t seen any results, this article will explain why.
Do positive affirmations work?
Positive affirmations do not work for persons trying to boost self-esteem, change negative thoughts, or escape from painful emotions. The evidence suggests positive affirmations only work in individuals who are already positive or high performing.
In this article, I take a closer look at the psychological literature on the effectiveness of positive affirmations.
I conducted a brief literature review using Google Scholar. I then sorted through the studies based on their major findings, showing when positive affirmations don’t work vs. when they do work.
After exploring when they work and when they don’t work, I provide a more effective alternative to positive affirmations.
Each study is hyperlinked in their title text if you’re interested in further exploration.
When Positive Affirmations Don’t Work
Affirmations don’t work when people need them the most.
According to Steven Hayes in A Liberated Mind:
“A recent study showed that positive affirmations like “I’m a good person!” work great as long as we don’t really need them. When we do need them, like when we start feeling bad about ourselves, such affirmations make us both feel and do worse! It’s a cruel joke.”
After tracking down the study cited above, I was able to confirm this finding. The study is titled, Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others, and the researchers state:
“Positive self-statements seemed to provide a boost only to people with high self-esteem—those who ordinarily feel good about themselves already—and that boost was small.”
Affirmations don’t work when trying to escape from negative thoughts.
Why is this the case? According to the previously cited study:
“…if people who believe that they are unlovable repeat, ‘‘I’m a lovable person,’’ they may dismiss this statement and perhaps even reinforce their conviction that
they are unlovable.”
If you don’t believe a positive statement about yourself, trying to convince yourself through positive affirmations is like arguing with your brain.
How does your brain respond to arguments? No different than anyone else.
Have you ever tried to change someone’s mind by arguing with them? How did that work out for you?
Let me guess… they immediately changed their mind after rationally weighing the merits of your argument.
More likely, they argued back even harder and more aggressively.
Just like everyone else, our mind doesn’t respond well to arguments. It digs its heels in and fights back. Trying to beat your mind into submission with relentless positivity will often backfire, further entrenching it in negativity.
Affirmations don’t work to improve your mood.
In another study titled When Self-Help Materials Help, the researchers found positive affirmations lowered the mood of individuals whose needs were not being met:
“…we found that participants experienced negative mood change after reading positive self-statements, if they have low level of need satisfaction.”
The researchers then compared reading positive statements to listening to them. Interestingly, they actually found a difference:
“…participants experienced a mood boost after listening to positive self-statements…”
They concluded that reading the positive statements caused participants to process it more deeply, causing them to reject it when not in alignment with their existing self-concept, whereas listening to positive statements allows for a more superficial level of processing.
Based on these mixed findings, the authors state:
These findings suggest that self-help materials with a focus on positive self-statements should be used with caution.”
Since positive affirmations don’t work the way we expect, we need to be careful about how we use them so they don’t backfire.
Let’s take a closer look at the research showing how positive affirmations can sometimes work in specific situations.
When Positive Affirmations Work
Affirmations can work if they facilitate social pressure.
In an article titled Social Standard Setting, the researchers had children watch videos teaching them positive affirmation techniques to overcome their fear of the dark. These affirmations seemed to help the children stay in a dark room longer than children who did not use these techniques.
Does this mean the affirmations worked?
The researchers then reran the experiment, with the children not knowing they were being observed as they learned these affirmation techniques. The improvements in coping with the dark immediately went away!
When learning these affirmation techniques in front of the researchers, the children performed better due to social pressure.
The researchers state:
The results are interpreted as showing that in this situation these therapies were effective due to specific social influence mechanisms. When public, the treatments appeared to set up social criteria for improved performance.
Therefore, the children weren’t performing better due to the content of the positive affirmations, themselves.
Although the affirmations were not the direct mechanism leading to improved performance, they were a secondary mechanism leading to social pressure that can improve performance.
Affirmations can work when focused on affirming your existing values.
Building on the results of the previously cited child study, I found another study that might offer further insight into how affirmations may work in relation to social pressure.
The study is titled The Impact of Self-Affirmation on Health-Behavior Change: A Meta-Analysis. The researchers found that affirmations focused on your existing values can lead to increased acceptance of positive health information and change in healthy behaviors:
“Self-affirmation inductions—such as questionnaires or writing exercises that remind participants of their important personal values—may have the potential to reduce defensive resistance to health-risk information.”
The researchers concluded:
“…deploying self-affirmation inductions alongside persuasive health information has positive effects, promoting message acceptance, intentions to change, and subsequent behavior.”
There is an element of social pressure involved here since the affirmations may increase the social pressure to remain consistent with one’s values and self-definition when subsequently receiving health information.
Beyond the social pressure, the study also shows how people strive to remain consistent with their own values and self-definitions.
In a counseling setting, this is perhaps the closest I come to using affirmations. Having someone clearly state their values is helpful by giving them a sense of direction, in addition to increasing motivation for change.
Although this might look a lot like affirmation, I would argue that it’s very different than the ineffective positive affirmation approaches described in the previous studies.
Reminding yourself of your core values in a statement such as, “I value authenticity,” is very different than trying to convince yourself of a specific identity you don’t currently hold.
Affirmations can help improve performance for athletes.
In a study titled, The Effects of Overt Head Movements on Physical Performance After Positive Versus Negative Self-Talk, the researchers found that combining positive affirmations with head-nodding improved performance among athletes:
“…positive self-statements led to better performance than negative self-statements
in 2 out of 3 physical tasks… self-statements are significantly more impactful on physical performance in the headnodding condition than in the head-shaking condition.”
So do affirmations work?
Recall the studies cited at the beginning of this article. Affirmations only work for those who don’t necessarily need them. They can be effective for persons with higher self-esteem and persons whose needs are already met.
Therefore, positive affirmations may work for athletes since they are likely already high performing. The affirmations are confirming their existing reality rather than trying to convince them of something they don’t believe.
Affirmations can work if focused on effort rather than competence.
Another study looked at the effect of affirmations on children with negative beliefs regarding their math abilities.
Titled, Effort Self-Talk Benefits the Mathematics Performance of Children With Negative Competence Beliefs, the study compared affirmations focused on ability, “I am very good at this!” with affirmations focused on effort, “I will do my very best!”. The study concluded:
“…effort self-talk benefited the performance of children holding negative competence beliefs: It severed the association between negative competence beliefs and poor performance. By internally asserting that they will deliver effort, children with negative competence beliefs can optimize their achievement in school.
This study confirms the idea that trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe is not effective.
Rather than affirming a false reality, it is far more effective to affirm the fact that you will give the task your best effort.
This is a simple distinction between what you can control and what you cannot control.
We can control the amount of effort we put into a task, but we can’t immediately control how we think and feel about a task.
A Better Way to Cope with Negative Thoughts
Although affirmations can work, they only seem to work in particular situations. In my work as an addiction counselor, I don’t use positive affirmations because they are generally ineffective.
Persons suffering from addiction are often using a substance or behavior to cope with underlying pain or unmet needs. As seen in the literature, using positive affirmations to cope with these underlying issues often backfires.
Instead of using affirmations, there is a better way to deal with difficult thoughts and painful emotions.
If affirmations have not been working for you, it might be helpful to consider trying a strategy called acceptance and defusion.
Acceptance and defusion techniques come from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a therapeutic approach supported by over 330 clinical trials.
As described in my previous article on How to Stop Living in Your Head, you can use the following to more effectively cope with unhelpful forms of worry:
- Accept what you can’t control
- Step back from your thoughts
- Focus on the present moment
- Remove limiting self-definitions
- Live by your core values
- Take action toward what matters
Take a look at the full article if you are interested in exploring each of these areas in-depth, in addition to learning some practical exercises designed to gain a healthy perspective.
Positive affirmations don’t work for those trying to escape from negative thoughts or painful emotions. In fact, affirmations can often make the situation worse by reminding an individual they are not living up to the affirmation.
Like trying to change someone else’s mind by arguing with them, we can’t change our own that way either. Insisting we are happy and successful does not make us feel more happy or successful if we don’t already feel that way.
Affirmations can work to improve mood and performance among individuals who are already high functioning, such as athletes.
Specific types of affirmations can also work, including affirming your existing values or affirming the fact that you will give your best effort.
In general, a more effective approach to dealing with negative thoughts or difficult emotions includes accepting what you can’t control and taking a step back from your thoughts, as described in detail in my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head.