The Science Behind Affirmations And Why They Can Actually Be Harmful

Aug 06, 2022

The science behind affirmations and why they can actually be harmful

(Photo by cottonbro)

You've probably heard about the "power of affirmations." Repeating positive phrases to yourself was popularized by a book from the early 50s. That book is called The Power of Positive Thinking. While this book has been heavily criticized by academics, it sold well and is still referenced today. 

Since then dozens of similar publications have come out that keep this idea alive and well. They also promote repeating, aloud or in your head, positive or loving phrases. They assert that this can help to "drown out" or cause you to ignore negative self-talk. 

So… do they work?

For years the effectiveness of affirmations have been sort of generally accepted. Like we said above, tons of books have been sold and people often post affirmations online. Sometimes implying that by simply saying these positive things, you will get what you want. But what effect do they really have on us? 

A study tested whether these repeated phrases can actually change your opinion of yourself. If they can get you on the path to treating yourself with love.[180]

It was found that those with a positive opinion of themselves get little to no benefit. And those with less positive feelings about themselves can actually feel worse. You read that right, affirmations can actually make some people feel worse. This is because of something called, "latitudes of acceptance." 

How acceptance relates to affirmations

Latitudes of Acceptance is an idea that came from a study about something called Social Judgment Theory. Which sought to explain how people categorize how they feel about things. And the ways that these feelings influence their choices. 

What they found was that the more that you identify with something, the more likely you are to accept or reject new information about it.[181] If you have a favorite movie and someone criticizes it, you might have strong feelings about that. Whereas, someone can trash a movie that you don't care about all day long and it probably wouldn't bother you. 

This idea comes into play with affirmations and your inner voice. Some people's inner voice tells them mean and untrue things. Like that they make a lot of mistakes or that people don't like them. Some people have intense negative feelings about themselves because of it. They may even reject positive feedback because their inner voice argues that it can't be true. 

So someone may tell them, "Good job on that presentation earlier." But their negative inner voice disagrees and makes them question themselves. So every time they hear positivity, their inner voice is there in the background. Telling them the opposite and turning that joy into pain.

Changing a negative to a positive

If you have a negative self-image, no amount of repeating positive mantras will help you. They will only cause your inner voice to reaffirm your negative opinion. You cannot drown out an idea and make the opposite true without real intervention. 

As an example, imagine someone trying to convince you that they are a great person. But all they ever do is tell you how great they are, they never do anything to prove it to you. Changing your opinion of yourself is the same as changing someone else's opinion of you. Telling them that you are great doesn't do it, you have to prove it with actions. 

This is how you can learn how to defend against that negative inner voice. By showing yourself love with your actions. Your feelings can also let you know if you are letting negative self-talk get the better of you. Do you find that you are feeling tense, attacked, or depressed? Take a step back and pay attention to how you are interpreting the situation. Is there another way to look at what is happening? Are people doing things to you intentionally or are they just going about their day? 

Dispute negative self-talk as soon as you recognize it going on. If you tell yourself something that you know is not true then argue that point.[176] It's okay to stand up for yourself to yourself. And when you learn to be aware of this negative self-talk then you can push back right away. When it is no longer running freely in the background, it will lose its hold on you.  

Turning positives into pride

Of course, recognizing and disagreeing with the negative voice is only half of it. You will also want to place emphasis on a "reward system." Whenever you do something to take care of yourself you should give yourself credit. Such as eating a healthy meal, working out, cleaning your living space or standing up for yourself. 

Tell yourself how proud you are of yourself. Find a few specific things that you improved on or overcame. Thinking about it is important, but some people can also benefit from a physical cue that they did a good job. Like going out to a movie or on a nice hike. Anytime that you put in effort to care for yourself, it's a win. Whether your reward is how you treat yourself in your mind or if you want to add in some indulgence, you deserve it.

Affirmations seek to replace negative opinions with positive— but generic and empty — phrases. Celebrating your specific wins and effort will have more meaning. The idea of reinforcing positive self-image will work much better if the evidence is clear to you. If you believe in yourself, it's much easier to argue that fact if your inner voice pipes up to disagree.[180]

It will take time and effort, but you can learn to alter your self-talk and treat yourself with love. When you start to recognize and give yourself credit for your value then the scales can start to tip. Just because you hear a harsh and hurtful inner voice does not mean that you cannot prove it wrong.

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