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Do Affirmations Work?

mindset practiceup Feb 21, 2021

Have you ever placed little yellow sticky notes around your house telling yourself that you’re beautiful, attractive, successful, wealthy, or that people like you?  If you have, you’re not alone.  The idea of positive affirmations has been around for a long time with numerous self-help books and gurus promoting them as a way of improving your life.

But do they work?  Is there any research on them?

It turns out there is.

According to the scientific literature, not only do affirmations not work, they may actually be harmful to some people and make them feel even worse about themselves, not better. 

One particular research paper looked at positive self-statements, such as “I am a loveable person”, in people with low or high self-esteem.  Researchers discovered that for those individuals who already had high self-esteem, positive self-statements provided a mental pick-me-up, but for those with low self-esteem, positive self-statements made people feel worse about themselves and had a negative effect. 

Based on these findings the authors of this paper suggested that positive self-statements tend to “backfire” on some people, especially on those that need them the most.

Positive self-affirmations seem to work better when you’re telling the truth or referencing something that resembles reality.  For example, to say “I’m a lovable person”, in someone with already high self-esteem is probably true to them, and repeating how lovable they are is merely reminding themselves of something they already believe in the first place. 

But for someone who doesn’t like themselves very much, saying “I’m a lovable person”, doesn’t match their internal reality. They are going to need more than a yellow sticky note to convince themselves otherwise. 

Saying you’re wealthy, successful, respected, and lovable, if you aren’t those things, probably won’t help much and may even have a negative effect.  Even worse, other scientific evidence demonstrates that spending time imagining your fantasy life ends up sapping your energy to actually pursue it. 

Obviously, this is a complex issue, we are complex organisms, and it is not as easy as simply saying affirmations are good or bad.  Based on the scientific evidence, if you’re a high self-esteem person, affirmations might offer a little boost.  If you’re someone that doesn’t feel great about yourself and your life, positive affirmations might backfire and have a negative effect. 

Further information on this topic and SO much more is available to Clinician's Code members. Learn more and apply here to build confidence, cut overwhelm, and become successful in Functional Medicine. 


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