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Why Positive Affirmations Can Do More Harm Than Good

For one thing, try saying, "I can," not "I am."

Key points

  • Using positive affirmations is not a one-size-fits all approach to better mental health.
  • Learning only about the potential benefits of using affirmations can lead to judging oneself and others.
  • Values affirmations and growth mindset interventions may be particularly helpful types of affirmations.

I am confident. I am successful. I am strong. These phrases are examples of positive affirmations: statements that people repeat to themselves with the goal of improving their mood and boosting self-esteem. But beware—while positive affirmations can be a powerful tool when used correctly, if used without understanding them, they may do as much harm as good.

Overall, studies on positive affirmations have shown mixed results. While some studies suggest that positive affirmations can improve mood and self-esteem, other studies have shown that they have no effect or may even decrease mood and self-esteem, particularly for people with low self-esteem to begin with. These types of negative impacts have also been seen in people who are critical of the way they look. For example, repeating affirmations like “I love my body” has been found to lead to lower body satisfaction.

A possible explanation for these findings is that people who are struggling with self-esteem may find it challenging to believe the positive statements they are repeating to themselves. Making these types of statements could even emphasize the distance between their ideal and current views of themselves—a concept known as self-discrepancy theory.

Another concern with using affirmations is that it can lead people to adopt an “it’s all in your head” attitude and fault people for feeling down or for having diagnosable depression. Studies have found that—especially when people are just told about the benefits of affirmations without the caveats—they are more likely to blame people for having worse mental health.

How to Get the Most Out of Affirmations

So how and when can affirmations be used safely and effectively?

While positive affirmations have a mixed bag of results, values affirmations generally have found beneficial effects. These typically involve two steps:

  1. Identify 1-3 values that have personal significance. Examples could include “being a good friend,” “standing for social justice,” or “taking care of my physical health.” These are different for every person.
  2. Write about why one of your values is meaningful to you. Take the time to journal and affirm your value and explore how you can express it.

Values affirmations may be particularly helpful in stressful contexts, such as improving the academic achievement of students operating under the stress of social identity threat. These types of affirmations have been shown to improve both the psychological and the physiological effects of stress—value-based affirmation exercises have been shown to reduce cortisol levels, one of the primary stress hormones.

It’s also important to note that affirmations are shaped by culture and vary depending on differences in cultural norms in addition to contextual factors. Therefore, affirmations that might be less impactful for one individual or within a given culture or situation may be more impactful for others and vice versa.

Other Self-Statements That Work

In a related concept to affirmations, research has found that adopting statements that promote a growth mindset can help improve mental health. Coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, the idea is that there is almost always room for growth and change.

Studies have found that when people make trait generalizations like “I am smart” (which sounds a lot like positive affirmations), they struggle more in the face of setbacks. Alternatively, when people adopt more of a growth mindset like “I can learn new things” and “I can change,” they tend to bounce back from challenges more easily and have fewer mental health concerns in the face of stressful life events.

In sum, affirmations, like the rest of mental health tools and approaches, are not one-size-fits-all. While they may be helpful for some people, for others, they may be unhelpful or even harmful.

If you are using affirmations as part of your mental health toolbox, be mindful of the types of affirmations you are using and how it affects you. Remember, there are different ways to improve self-esteem, and when in doubt, seeking professional help may be the best option.

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