Why Affirmations Don’t Always Work + What to do Instead
“I love myself.”
“The universe is on my side.”
“I am successful and abundant.”
Above are some examples of statements or affirmations that various self-help books, life coaches, and inspirational Instagram accounts encourage people to repeat to themselves on a daily basis. This is in the hope of helping them manifest better lives and optimism.
Positive affirmations have been around for a long time. Long before the internet and self-help books. Today, research suggests that affirmations can cause some individuals more harm than good. In reality, affirmations only help those who already have high self-esteem.
Those who benefit from affirmations feel good in their own skin but are just looking for a little motivation to get through their week or when they are working towards a goal. However, a study out of the University of Waterloo that was published in the Journal of Psychological Science found that affirmations do not have the same effect on those who suffer from low self-esteem.
Interestingly enough, the psychologists asked the participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves as a follow up to the study. The result was that those with low self-esteem found themselves in a better mood when they were able to have negative thoughts about themselves than when they were asked to focus exclusively on positive thoughts.
Let’s take a closer look at negative thought patterns.
When a person with the deep core belief that they are unlovable is encouraged to tell themselves “I love myself” or “I am lovable” is asking them to go against what they fully believe as truth. This can lead to confusion, disbelief, anger, shame, guilt, and sadness. What we know about the brain is that it is an incredibly efficient organ that works by responding to our current beliefs and our anticipatory beliefs about our future.
Furthermore, our brains are hardwired to find evidence to keep proving what we already believe. For example, if someone truly believes they are unlovable, attempting to switch their belief that they love themselves is too drastic of a leap. The brain will then automatically begin to come up with every reason why the statement is untrue, which then leads to conflict, self-judgment, and negative emotions.
The above is not to say that affirmations absolutely cannot work for someone with negative thoughts about themselves. Affirmations can work— however, they must be paired with aid from a licensed professional who understands how to word it in a way that does not bring up negative emotions.
Furthermore, It’s important to recognize that becoming a more positive person does not happen overnight. First, you must become neutral before becoming fully positive. It’s not black and white. Throwing out the negative thoughts that you believe to be true is not the only way and hitting yourself over the head with positive statements that feel too far from reality is not the only way either. To start, instead of jumping headfirst into positivity that you don’t agree with, stay neutral and realistic. Instead of “I am unlovable,” try “I am working on myself.” Feels better, right?
Once you find yourself in a neutral state of feeling about who you are, you are ready to go positive. However, still take it slow and make sure your affirmation is something you believe. Instead of saying “I am lovable,” try finding something you really love about yourself. For example, “I love that I am a loyal friend.” These believable affirmations will help your brain to find more and more evidence. And that a more positive outlook on yourself is truer than the negative outlook. This will move you toward a new core belief that actually lasts.
There is no need to tell yourself, you are great the way you are. Take it slow and have patience. Do what truly feels right, and remind yourself that these one-size-fits-all. Overly positive and unrealistic statements may actually do the exact opposite of what you intend it to. Do what’s best for you!