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Affirmations: When Do They Work, Why Do They Work, and When Do They Backfire?

Tian Dayton MA, PhD, TEP
Affirmations, long a staple of the recovery community, are recently coming under scrutiny by researchers seeking to understand how and why they work, or don’t work. Several new studies demonstrate that affirmations can actually help people manage stress responses and build resilience. Self-affirmation theory posits that one of the goals of the self is to protect one’s self-image when threatened and that one way to do this is through affirmation of valued sources of self-worth. “Studies have found that self-affirmation can buffer threats to the self in a variety of domains such as laboratory stressors and naturalistic academic stressors,” says J. David Creswell, the assistant professor of psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Melon (Creswell, Dutcher, Klein, Harris, & Levine, 2013). “High levels of acute and chronic stress,” according to David Creswell et al., “are known to impair problem-solving and creativity on a broad range of tasks” (2013).

Our sense of self is under constant construction, adaptation, and adjustment. The researchers on self-affirmation posit that people with a fairly flexible, nondefensive ego structure are better able to make use of any criticism that comes their way and learn by it rather than freeze up, get defensive or shut down. Defensiveness, researchers hypothesize, can also have a deleterious effect on subsequent relating. The upshot of this is that statements that affirm our sense of self and act as a buffer against perceived threats to the self, better allow us to remain flexible and present. We can make use of negative feedback without warding it off and we don’t alienate the people around us by fending off their well-meaning advice before even listening to it.

The Toronto Study  
“Although we know that self-affirmation reduces threat and improves performance, we know very little about why this happens. And we know almost nothing about the neural correlates of this effect,” says lead researcher Lisa Legault of Clarkson University as reported in an article in The APS journal Psychological Science (Legault, Al-Khindi, & Inzlicht, 2012).
Legault and her colleagues, Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto Scarborough and Timour Al-Khindi of Johns Hopkins University, posed several hypotheses. They theorized that because self-affirmation has been shown to make us more open to threats and unfavorable feedback, it should also make us more attentive and emotionally receptive to the errors that we make.
An error-related negativity, or ERN, essentially refers to a wave of electrical activity that occurs in the brain immediately after we make a mistake. The Legault study tested the ERN of participants when they got a test answer wrong using electroencephalography (EEG). Interestingly, participants who used self-affirmations made fewer errors of commission—pressing the button when they shouldn’t have—than did those in the nonaffirmation group. The researchers speculate that participants who were self-affirmed were more receptive to errors and better able to self-correct without being thrown off track. This allowed them to better correct for their mistakes. “These findings are important because they suggest one of the first ways in which the brain mediates the effects of self-affirmation,” according to Legault and her colleagues (2012).
While these findings help to demystify the mechanisms that underlie self-affirmation, they may also have important practical implications. According to Legault, “Practitioners who are interested in using self-affirmation as an intervention tactic in academic and social programming might be interested to know that the strategy produces measurable neurophysiological effects” (Legault et al., 2012).
Legault says that, ultimately, this research helps to show that “error-related distress, and our awareness thereof, can actually be a good thing.” What self-affirmation appears to do is strengthen our sense of self from within so that we’re better able to accommodate whatever is coming towards us from the outside. 

But when do affirmations backfire?

The Waterloo Study  
There are other researchers however, who question the validity and utility of self-affirmations. Canadian researcher Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who have recently published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, say that affirmations under some circumstances can backfire. “I focus on self-esteem differences in emotion regulation and close relationships,” says Wood. “My collaborators and I have found that people with high self-esteem are more likely than those with low self-esteem to try to improve their moods when they are sad, as well as to savor their moods when they are happy. Lows [people with low self-esteem] sometimes even try to dampen their happiness. Such differences in emotion regulation probably help to maintain self-esteem differences” (Wood, Perunovic, & Lee, 2009).
Wood and her team tested their hypothesis that thinking positive thoughts might make some people feel worse because it underscored a disconnect between these thoughts and their real feelings. Overall, the researchers found that people with high self-esteem felt better when they used positive affirmations because their positive self-image allowed them to actually use the statements to further feel good. However, for those with low self-esteem, thinking positive thoughts had negative consequences and this group felt slightly worse after being asked to say them.
The Carnegie Study   
Now back to the positive side of affirmations. J. David Cresswell of Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences says that “People under high stress can foster better problem-solving simply by taking a moment beforehand to think about something that is important to them. It’s an easy-to-use and portable strategy you can roll out before you enter that high-pressure performance situation” (Creswell et al., 2013).
Participants in the Carnegie study were randomly assigned to a self-affirmation condition and were asked to write a couple of sentences about why their number one ranked value—art, business, family or friends—was important; this is a standard self-affirmation exercise. All participants then had to complete a challenging and timed problem-solving task which required creativity in order to generate correct solutions. 
The results showed that participants who were under high levels of chronic stress during the past month had impaired problem-solving performance. In fact, they solved about 50 percent fewer problems in the task. Notably, this effect was qualified by whether participants had an opportunity to first complete the self-affirmation activity. Specifically, a brief self-affirmation was effective in eliminating the deleterious effects of chronic stress on problem-solving performance, such that chronically stressed self-affirmed participants performed under pressure at the same level as participants with low chronic stress levels. This finding affirms the way that the recovering community has long used affirmations to shore up their sense of self when facing the day along with, as Shakespeare would say, the “slings and arrows that flesh is heir to.” Recovering people have found that they are better able to handle stress and maintain a positive feeling about themselves when they use affirmations, all of which enhance both physical and emotional sobriety.
Some of the affirmative statements used in this study were:
  • I am a decent person worthy of personal happiness and well-being.
  • I am capable of having loving relationships in my life.
  • I am competent and worthy of respect.
  • I can manage conflict in a manner that leads towards understanding and resolution.
  • I am able to manage my moods in healthy, life-enhancing ways.
  • I have friends, people like me.
  • I deserve the success and sense of well-being that is coming my way.
  • I have tools to manage little stresses throughout my day without exploding, imploding or acting out.
  • I like life—it doesn’t have to be perfect and I don’t have to be perfect.
  • I enjoy the activities of my day.
  • I can breathe, relax, and preform under stress.
  • I actually enjoy manageable challenges.


My Experience with Affirmations  

I recognize several of the statements used in this sampling as coming directly from affirmations books that I have written over the past twenty-five years. I began using affirmations in my own life as a young mother. Inspired by my wish to be a better mom as quickly as possible, I decided to journal or write about things I wanted to change in myself. I found affirmations to work the most efficiently for me when I used them to shift a negative towards a positive. I started at the top of each page with a positive intention. The researchers might say I affirmed a “valued sense of self-worth,” which in this case was some aspect of being a good parent. After setting my mind towards change, I wrote about feelings that came up and blocked me from changing and then I found a new way of looking at those feelings or memories. After that moment, I made my affirmative statement for the day. I didn’t avoid the negative emotions that the Waterloo study might say related to low self-esteem, I felt them and allowed them to move towards something more positive; I processed them, which permits the reader to allow for them as well.
After six months of writing I had a huge pile of papers careening off the corner of my desk. I had felt so helped by my own process that I sent all six months to Peter Vegso and Gary Seidler at Health Communications to see if they thought anyone else might benefit. They published Affirmations for Parenting soon afterwards and on its heels Forgiving and Moving On, which became a best seller.  Just last month HCI published my most recent affirmations book, One Foot in Front of the Other. In this book I break the principals and steps of recovery down into digestible self-affirming bites. I like writing in the first person because I think it offers a more direct line to the inner world of the reader and makes ideas related to emotional and psychological health more easily metabolized. It also allows me to break down complex research findings and make them personally relevant and user friendly. 
Affirmations have remained an essential for those in recovery; who we are and how we do them is apparently what lets them work. As recovering people are generally highly motivated to make personal changes, we’re a great community for making use of this approach to healing. No wonder affirmations have been an essential part of daily self-care for so many of us.

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Creswell, J. D., Dutcher, J. M., Klein, W. M. P., Harris, P. R., & Levine, J. M. (2013). Self-affirmation improves problem-solving under stress. PLoS ONE, 8(5), e62593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062593. 
Legault, L., Al-Khindi, T., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Preserving integrity in the face of performance threat: Self-affirmation enhances neurophysiological responsiveness to errors. Psychological Science, 23(12), 1455–60. doi:10.1177/0956797612448483.
Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 183–242). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Williams, R. (2013) Do Self-Affirmations Work? A Revisit. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201305/do-self-affirmations-work-revisit 
Wood, J. V., Perunovic, E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860–6. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x.
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Tian Dayton, PhD, is the author of sixteen books, including The ACoA Trauma Syndrome; Emotional Sobriety; Trauma and Addiction; Forgiving and Moving On; and The Living Stage. In addition, Dr. Dayton has developed a model for using sociometry and psychodrama to resolve issues related to relationship trauma repair. She is a board-certified trainer in psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy and is the director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute.