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What to Do When Positive Affirmations Don't Work

Try these strategies to improve your self-esteem instead.

Key points

  • Positive affirmations do not work for everyone and may have a harmful effect on people with low self-esteem.
  • Social comparison is a major contributor to low self-esteem.
  • Learning to accept compliments may help improve one's self-esteem.
Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

"I have no self-esteem," Samantha sobbed after revealing perceived "bad decisions" she has made in life.

Samantha adorns her home, office, and cell phone with countless positive affirmations. These statements range from, "I am beautiful" to "My income is growing exponentially." They are seemingly ubiquitous in her world.

"Only positive energy," she agitatedly interjects as I encourage her to try something new. It didn't seem like these affirmations were working for her. I struggled with my own self-esteem in the past and they hadn't worked for me either. I recall once being ridiculed in college by a friend who found my secret list of affirmations that I would repeat to myself daily.

I use self-esteem to refer to how someone feels about their worth or value. Wood, Elaine Perunovic, and Lee (2009) found that positive affirmations did not help people with low self-esteem. In fact, they appeared to have a negative effect on them. Instead, they found that forced repetition of positive statements worked best for people who already had high self-esteem.

Some may find the above points to be heretical. I am not proposing that we eliminate positive affirmations. However, we should consider alternatives for improving self-esteem if they aren't working. Here are a few things to try:

1. Limit social comparisons.

Alfasi (2019) found that comparing ourselves to others—especially on social media—has a negative effect on our self-esteem. This is difficult to combat. However, I learned in my own therapy that it is okay to compare myself to others as long as I do it holistically. We tend to view people simplistically (I wish I had their height, looks, career, etc.), which causes us to ignore other undesirable aspects of their lives. Ask yourself, would I want to trade places with this person (keeping in mind both their strengths and limitations)?

To give a personal example, I used to compare myself to an acquaintance whom I believed had a better career than me at the time. This often made me feel inferior. However, using the above question, I recognized that there were other areas of their life that I did not desire (specifically their unhealthy relationship with alcohol and their tumultuous relationship with their family).

2. Start accepting compliments.

Kille, Eibach, Wood, and Holmes (2017) assert that people with low self-esteem have a hard time accepting positive feedback. If the praise contradicts our negative view of ourselves, we reject it. It is suggested that people develop a "concrete mindset," which allows them to accept compliments in isolation rather than filtering the feedback through the negative beliefs they have about themselves.

It can also help to have responses that you use to accept compliments rather than reject them. As an example: if someone tells me I am a good writer, I respond with, "Thanks, I appreciate it. I pride myself on continually practicing." The more we reject compliments, the more we reinforce the negative beliefs we have about ourselves (not to mention it also makes people feel rejected when their praise is dismissed).

3. Practice self-acceptance.

As with the case of Samantha, a large contributor to her low self-esteem stems from believing that she has made "bad" decisions. Further, this led her to believe she is a bad person. It is better for us to accept ourselves regardless of our behaviors. We don't want to continue making poor decisions but the point is that you can accept yourself even if you don't accept your past actions.

4. Cultivate positive relationships.

Research suggests that our self-esteem is largely influenced by people within our social circles (Harris & Orth, 2020). This starts with our parents and other family members. It extends to our friendships as well. Take time to nurture relationships where you feel respected, valued, and cared for.

5. Behave in ways that make you like yourself.

Do things that make you proud of yourself. This might mean engaging in charitable or other meaningful activities. Further, consider the things you value and behave in accordance with them. For instance, I value writing, so I make it a point to write a few hundred words daily.

6. List your achievements.

As I mentioned earlier, general positive statements may not be helpful for you unless you already have high self-esteem. Another alternative could entail writing out a list of past achievements. This provides you with a reminder that you have been successful before. Select achievements that make you feel good about yourself and review them often.

Finally, another strategy is to identify your strengths and use them. Dr. Tracy Marks, MD, a psychiatrist, has a nice video that explains this in greater detail. The key is to try engaging in activities where you can use your talents.

Content Pixie/Unsplash
Source: Content Pixie/Unsplash

The above is not an exhaustive list. However, it offers some potential alternatives outside of using positive affirmations.

What have you used to improve your self-esteem?

LinkedIn and Facebook image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock


Alfasi, Y. (2019). The grass is always greener on my Friends' profiles: The effect of Facebook social comparison on state self-esteem and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 147, 111-117.

Harris, M. A., & Orth, U. (2020). The link between self-esteem and social relationships: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 119(6), 1459.

Kille, D. R., Eibach, R. P., Wood, J. V., & Holmes, J. G. (2017). Who can't take a compliment? The role of construal level and self-esteem in accepting positive feedback from close others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 68, 40-49.

Wood, J. V., Elaine Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860-866.

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