Why Affirmations Don't Always Work & What To Do Instead: An Optimism Expert Explains

Photo: Jack Sorokin

"I love myself."

"I am successful and abundant.”

“I am in a perfect relationship.”

These are the kinds of statements or affirmations that many self-help books, life coaches, and inspirational Instagram accounts encourage people to repeat to themselves over and over again, hoping to help them manifest better lives. Positive affirmations have been around for a long time—long before "the Law of Attraction" and the popular book The Secret. In fact, a French pharmacist in the 1800s popularized this therapeutic model with the development of something he called optimistic autosuggestions. But now, a growing body of research suggests that affirmations can cause some individuals more harm than good.

So, who are positive affirmations beneficial for? Individuals who already have high self-esteem and just need a little bit of "Monday Motivation” to get through the week or when they're working toward a goal certainly benefit from them. But a study out of the University of Waterloo published in the Journal of Psychological Science found that for those who struggle with low self-esteem, positive affirmations can backfire.

As a follow-up to the study, psychologists asked the participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves. Interestingly, they found that those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts about themselves than when they were asked to focus exclusively on positive thoughts.

A closer look at negative thought patterns.

By assigning a blanket positive affirmation such as, "I love myself" or "I am lovable" to someone with a deep core belief that they are unlovable is entirely incongruent to what they actually believe, which can in turn 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. For example, if you believe that there is no way you could win a tournament, you probably wouldn’t be too motivated to train or practice for it.

Furthermore, our brains are trained to find evidence to keep proving what we already believe to be even truer. For example, if someone truly believes they are unlovable, jumping to the idea of loving themselves is too big of a leap and too difficult to actually believe—the brain automatically starts to come up with all the reasons why the statement is untrue, which then leads to all kinds of conflict, self-judgment, and negative emotions.

What to do instead.

If you hold negative beliefs about yourself, affirmations can work for you—but they're best paired with help from a licensed professional who can get you on an effective cognitive behavioral therapy path to help you change your thought patterns.

It's also important to work on getting neutral before getting positive. Throwing out the negative thoughts that you believe to be true or hitting yourself over the head with positive statements that feel too far from reality are not the best way to get started. Neutral statements are actually the best starting point. So instead of jumping headfirst into a glass-half-full perspective, stay neutral and realistic. Instead of "I am unlovable," try "I am working on myself."

Next, try the 7/10 rule. Once you are ready to go positive, make sure your affirmation is believable. If you can come up with a positive affirmation, make sure you can rate it with a 7 or above on a 1-to-10 believability scale, 10 being the most believable and 1 being the least. Instead of saying "I am lovable," try finding something you really love about yourself, for example, "I love that I am a loyal friend." If this gets a 7 or above on your scale, then use this and affirm away! These believable affirmations will help you find more and more evidence that is similar and moves you toward a new core belief that actually lasts.

So the next time someone asks you to say "I am perfect" in front of a mirror 10 times every morning, stop and ask yourself if this truly feels right, and remind yourself that this one-size-fits-all, overly positive (and unrealistic!) statement may actually do the exact opposite of what you intend it to.

Want more ways to turn your negative thoughts around? Here's how to use meditation to change your mind.

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