Do Affirmations Work?
By C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
Both digital and print literature are filled with encouragement to use the practice of "affirmations" for self-improvement in a wide variety of applications. And there are many commercial products that claim to help you improve yourself through such affirmations. Reactions range from "Oh, wow, I've discovered the magic answer" to "What a crock!"
As a psychologist, I've often been asked about the validity of the practice and its actual usefulness. Usually, I've gone into its long history of its use and effectiveness, generally beginning its modern practice with Emile Coué's famous affirmation (or as he called it, autosuggestion) "Day by day in every way I am getting better and better." (The use of affirmations is much older than that, but for most purposes, I just quote the uses from developments in the field of psychology from about the late 1800's and forward.)
I've been asked about how affirmations apply to career development, marital problems, sports performance, depression, anxiety and numerous other possible functions. But the great majority of people simply want to know this:
Do Affirmations Work?
Yes. Without question.
Affirmations are simply repetitive phrases of positive self-talk. They work to support, inspire, motivate and re-program.
Many psychologist have written about and taught the value of positive self-talk. And the dangers of negative self-talk. Indeed, negative self-talk is one of the proofs that affirmations work: anyone who has dealt with someone stuck in a negativity downslide filled with complaints, harsh judgements of other, suspicions and self-pity knows the power of self-talk to program a perfectly miserable life.
Here are some key concepts about using affirmations:
1. First, some of the power of affirmations lies in the practice of repeating them regularly. The most powerful educational practice is repetition. You learn well and remember that which is repeated.
2. Using affirmations causes a fundamental shift of focus. It is not possible to long maintain two conflicting ideas. Eventually you must adopt one or the other. You will adopt the one most frequently presented. Choose what you think about repetitively and the thought will become a natural pattern for you.
3. Remember that the affirmation should be believable. If it is not in the realm of credibility in the first place, you won't repeat it and you won't adopt it, because the conflict with reality (your reality) is so great that you will constantly generate objections to it. For some idea or attitude development, you must gradually "shape" the affirmations. For example, someone who is unemployed and broke wouldn't start with "I attract the riches of the universe!" He would do better saying "With creativity and determination, I can find a way to succeed." And (if it is true) "I have people who love me and will help me get through this." People who don't succeed in the use of affirmations are usually those who try to tell themselves things that aren't true or believable or useful.
4. Affirmations don't have to be self-generated. If you are having trouble affirming your desired changes or believing yourself, have someone you trust and believe affirm for you. Some people call this "passing affirmations." Or, conversely, if your friend or loved one is having trouble with affirming him/herself out of negativity, affirm for them. Of course that works. What do you think happens in churches or at political rallies? In psychologist's offices? Just be sure to use true, believable affirmations based directly on the recipient's life and needs. And don't use pep talks and slogans. Affirmations can be passed face-to-face, in notes and cards, in emails, by phone, by video chat, in audio recordings, video recordings -- whatever other contact methods occur to you. You can also get some ready-made, generally applicable affirmations from professional and non-professional producers of such materials.
You'll find countless free and commercial offerings of "affirmations" products on the internet. Some are useful. Some are a crock. The pointers above should help you judge the difference. And to figure out how to make your own.