Positive Affirmations: How They're Done

Positive affirmations can be very effective--as long as you know what to say and what not to say!. Robert Deutschman/Getty Images

The power of positive thinking can be expressed in many ways, and can be a fantastic tool for stress relief. When Christina Applegate, one of my personal heroes, was battling breast cancer, I recall reading about how she used positive thinking techniques to help relieve stress and aid her recovery. According to an article in Women’s Health, she posted positive affirmations around her house, which helped her to maintain her strength and positive outlook, and keep stress at bay.

The affirmations she chose reminded her to maintain an attitude of gratitude and optimism.

If affirmations have been found to be helpful by those facing extremely stressful situations like hers, they can be helpful for just about any level of stress.  This example of leaving notes around the house is such a simple way to maintain a positive attitude–leaving yourself little reminders of hopefulness to pull you out of rumination and pessimism, should it take hold. I whole-heartedly recommend this strategy, with one major caveat: make your affirmations realistic.

When I mention ‘realistic’ affirmations, I mean that positive affirmations should reflect views that you actually believe or could believe, even if only in your best moments, rather than views that you would like to someday believe. (For example, stating, ‘I am the perfect picture of patience’ may not be as realistic as, ‘I am becoming more patient every day’, for someone who faces a heavy load of stress and is working toward maintaining a peaceful attitude, but is not yet where they want to be with it.) The reason?

Unrealistic affirmations can actually sabotage your success!

In a telling study published in Psychological Science, researchers asked participants with high and low self-esteem to repeat positive self statements. One group simply repeated positive self-statements, one group also did this but focused only on how the statements were true, one group repeated positive self-statements and focused on how the statements were true and not true, and one group didn’t use any affirmations.

Of those who repeated the positive affirmations and focused on how they were true, and those who simply repeated the statements, both felt somewhat better afterward. However, those with low self-esteem (essentially, those who did not fully believe the positive statements they were making of themselves) felt somewhat better when focusing how the positive affirmations were true and not true, but felt worse when they were just repeating the affirmations or focusing only on how they were true.

Yes, this is a bit of data to take in, but the point is that repeating positive affirmations that you don’t actually believe can actually make you feel worse than doing nothing.  It certainly can make you feel worse than repeating positive affirmations that you do truly believe.  But it can also feel worse than merely focusing on the reality that you may not be ‘there’ yet in some ways, but are in others. So, when creating positive affirmations, it’s best to stick to your best thoughts and beliefs about yourself, but not to stretch too far into the realm of Things You Don’t Yet Really Believe About Yourself; just reach for the best-feeling thoughts you have access to, and as you progress with your affirmations, you’ll have access to a greater range of ‘better-feeling thoughts’.

What’s your take on positive affirmations? What has your experience been like? If you have had success with positive affirmations in the past, reuse those strategies and keep crafting and utilizing those positive affirmations--they really do work!  If you're new to positive affirmations, try using a few today.  Here are some ways to do so:

  • Post them around your house on post-its or little taped notes. Decorate your bathroom mirror, your fridge, your front door, your car visor, or any places that you frequent on a daily basis.  Change them up weekly so that you continue to notice them.
  • Use sticky notes on your computer screen, and post your affirmations there.  
  • Write in a gratitude journal every morning or evening, and write new affirmations each week.  Read over your old affirmations as you go.
  • Use affirmations as mantras for meditation.

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Source: Wood JV, Perunovic WQ, Lee JW. Positive self-statements: power for some, peril for others.Psychological Science, July, 2009.

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