Why Affirmations Might Hurt More Than They Help

I think we’ve all heard the advice to “think positive” and be more self-affirming.  I’ve heard of writing positive affirmations on the bathroom mirror so you see them each time you look there.  In theory, this should help us think better about ourselves and therefore feel happier, right?

The problem is that writing something down or saying it over and over doesn’t make us believe it!  In fact, trying to tell ourselves we are beautiful or valuable, etc. when we don’t feel that way can create a lot of dissonance within us; it feels inauthentic; we are telling ourselves something we don’t really believe and that creates an awkward state in our brains.  Then our minds do this other thing – we shame ourselves for not being as positive as we “should” be.  Not only do we NOT feel beautiful, valuable, etc. but now we feel bad that we don’t feel that way and we’re reminded how vast the gap between how we do feel about ourselves and how we should feel about ourselves really is, which makes us feel even worse.

So continue with the negative self-talk?  No!  Thinking more positively about ourselves is a worthy goal, but there may be better ways to achieve it that actually result in improved long-term self-awareness and acceptance.  Here are some healthier alternatives to the positive affirmation model:

  1. Acknowledge how you really feel without judging yourself for feeling that way.  By naming how you’re really feeling and not trying to push that feeling away, you actually . . .

    • Soothe the brain.  Think about when you feel truly understood by someone.  Well, when you acknowledge and accept your own feelings, you are doing that for yourself and studies support the soothing effect this has on the brain.  So by accepting the feeling (even if it’s negative), you actually make it more likely that that feeling with soften or pass!

    • Create a sense of authenticity both within yourself and when you communicate with others who may want to support you.  When how we feel and how we want to present ourselves isn’t congruent, it usually comes across somehow.  We either overcompensate, act irritable, or we seem distant to others.  Then others experience us as perfect, fake, or hard to get-to-know. But if we learn to accept our own feelings, we’re more likely to show those true feelings to others in a balanced way, and that makes us feel more knowable.  When we are authentic with others and they still like and support us, we feel accepted.  It’s a great cycle.

  2. Recognize that just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean it’s true or that others believe the same thing about you.

  3. Learn the difference between having a belief and acting on it.  This is where the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) philosophy of “Both/And” can be helpful.  We tend to think in either/or terms, but if we think in terms of both/and, then we can tell ourselves “I don’t feel confident about my ability AND I’m going to give it a shot anyway.”

  4. Think in smaller increments than positive affirmation proponents usually do.  It can be disheartening to try to tell yourself you’re awesome when you believe you’re a complete failure.  But, you might be able to remind yourself of two things you did well each day, or you might be able to acknowledge that you have both negative and positive qualities.  Rather than rushing to tell yourself something positive that you don’t yet believe, you’ll feel more authentic and congruent if you increase the positive self-talk slowly, moving from something like “I’ll never get this stuff down” to “I have a ways to go but my boss seemed happy with my work today.”

If you find that you feel negatively about yourself almost all the time or in most areas of your life, you may want to explore this with a licensed counselor who can help you learn how this pattern began and how you might be able to change it.