My Theory on Why Positive Affirmations Don't Hold Up to Science

A photo of a footbridge surrounded by lush, green trees. We are looking down the bridge, it has a large puddle of water on it that reflects the trees and sky and a woman is sitting behind the puddle, cross-legged.
Photo by Raychan.

I just came across some research from 2017 about how positive affirmations actually don't work for people who are depressed or have low self-esteem.

As someone who wrote a book that is, in large part, all about how I used affirmations and gratitude to stop hating myself and start liking myself, I have something to say about that!

First of all, I don't dispute the science. I'm no fool! (I mean, I haven't actually read the study, I have only read about the study, so it's possible the research is deeply flawed. But assuming it was a decently-executed study, that's not the issue here.)

The researchers found that when you use generic positive affirmations like "I am a loveable person" it can have one of two effects: if you are already confident, it will make you feel better about yourself; if you have low self-esteem, however, it makes you feel EVEN WORSE.

They also found that people with low self-esteem's moods improved after they were allowed to list negative things about themselves.

The theory is that stating something you believe to be false, like that you are a loveable person, leaves you feeling worse because in your mind you've just lied to yourself and reminded yourself that you're "actually" unloveable.

Here is my counter-theory:

Part of the problem is the generic affirmations. 

Of course, it's not going to be useful to just use something general like, "I am a loveable person," when your brain is sooooo dang good at finding all the evidence you are not. It's got nothing to back it up! A weak statement like that is going to crumble under the huge pile on of dark messages from your expertly self-hating brain.

I found it much more useful to find specific examples of other people loving me and then reminding myself that people don't tend to go out of their way to express love they don't feel. So if people love me, I have to be loveable.

It had to be specific and it had to be based on something that actually happened.

Another part of the problem is that it's a long game.

None of this worked right away. It's a matter of slowly building up new mental pathways while challenging the old ones.

Part of this means that of COURSE, it doesn't feel great at first. I would remind myself that a friend smiled the instant they saw me on the street, which is a sign that they must like me, and then listen to the barrage of "yeah, right" and "she was pretending," and blah blah blah from my brain and feel just as bad or worse as I tried to stay strong in the belief that she really was happy to see me.

Over time, however, those specific, experiential reminders that I was a worthy human added up and I started to believe them. It isn't an instant trick to feel good, it's a tool to train yourself to see the good stuff.

The final part is recognizing complexity.

This part almost agrees with the researchers.

Almost immediately after I published my book, I went through a huge breakup (let me tell you, trying to talk about loving yourself in the aftermath of someone deciding not to love you anymore is rough). That's when I realized how beneficial it can be to allow balance in my affirmations.

During that time, I would allow myself to freely write about how terrible I felt or whatever bad things had happened that day. I would write about my heartbreak and loneliness and then I would write "And yet," and write some of those specific, experiential, fact-based positive things.

Letting the negative exist helped make some space for the positive to live alongside it. It's like giving the growling guard dog a steak so you can slip past. If I were writing my book now, I would probably have written a whole chapter about this. 

This fits with the researchers' finding that people with low self-esteem felt better after they were able to think about their negative traits, except that they ended there and I am sneaking in some self-love afterwards.

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