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How Do Affirmations Really Work?

We should feel proud as a professional community; the addiction field has impacted the entire mental health field by being among the first to incorporate yoga, meditation, exercise, journaling, guided imagery, and good nutrition into the treatment of the whole person. Researchers routinely “prove” what we have already learned through clinical trial and error: that these simple approaches are effective and life changing. Even our gratitude lists are now becoming evidence based! Furthermore, research is starting to take a deeper look at the power of affirmations in shoring up that ephemeral thing we call a “sense of self.” 


What positive affirmations appear to do is allow the self to feel strengthened, which helps us perform better in tasks that benefit from a relaxed and attentive state of mind. Affirmations strengthen our ability to use attention and creative thinking to solve the problem or task at hand. They act as a buffer against threats to our sense of self and our ability to meet the demands of the moment. 


Self-affirmation theory posits that the goal of the self is to protect our self-image when it is threatened. One way to do this is through affirmation of valued sources of self-worth. New studies headed by J. David Creswell—the assistant professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Melon—demonstrate that affirmations can actually help us manage our stress responses and build resilience (Creswell, Dutcher, Klein, Harris, & Levine, 2013). 


Another benefit of strengthening the sense of self through positive affirmation is that those of us with a fairly flexible, nondefensive ego structure are better able to make use of any criticism that comes our way and learn by it rather than freeze up, get defensive or shut down. Defensiveness, researchers suggest, can also have a deleterious effect on subsequent relating. The upshot of this is that statements that affirm a sense of self, and act as a buffer against perceived threats to the self, allow us to remain flexible and present. We can make use of negative feedback without warding it off and we don’t have to alienate the people around us by fending off their well-meaning advice before we even listen to it (Sherman & Cohen, 2006).


Cresswell and his team caught my attention by claiming that self-affirmation, something near and dear to the hearts of many in recovery, can protect against the “damaging effects of stress on problem-solving performance” (2013). These new studies examine the effect of self-affirmation on actual problem-solving performance under pressure. Their work suggests that a brief self-affirmation activity at the beginning of a school term can boost academic grade-point averages in underperforming kids throughout the semester. “Understanding that self-affirmation—the process of identifying and focusing on one’s most important values—boosts stressed individuals’ problem-solving abilities will help guide future research and the development of educational interventions” says Cresswell (2013). 


A Protective Factor  


Living in the trenches of addiction and codependency (high stress to be sure!) can make us curiously open minded. Having to shore up a sense of self in situations where our sense of self is under a constant barrage of attack can inspire us to reach for anything—even nonaddictive things—to feel better, fast! We become very willing to give what seems to be helping us a good try. Affirmations, it turns out, do just what we thought they did when we advise clients to look at themselves in the mirror each morning and tell themselves they are “good, worthy, and capable people.” They shore us up when we’re under stress, whether that stress is suiting up and showing up for life while coping with the strains of addiction and recovery or solving math problems in a testing environment. In addition, affirmations buffer us from a feeling of impending harm. 


According to Cresswell and colleagues, 


High levels of acute and chronic stress are known to impair problem-solving and creativity on a broad range of tasks. But despite this evidence, we know little about protective factors for mitigating the deleterious effects of stress on problem-solving. Building on previous research showing that self-affirmation can buffer stress, we tested whether an experimental manipulation of self-affirmation improves problem-solving performance in chronically stressed participants (2013). 


Affirmations allow the self to function with greater adaptability, spontaneity, and strength in the moment. Hopefully we also get a positive, self-fulfilling prophecy going rather than a negative one. 


But When Do Affirmations Backfire?  


Affirmations need to feel real in order to feel effective. 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, found that if affirmations are done in a way that blocks out any awareness of negative emotions, they can actually make people with low self-esteem feel worse than if they said no affirmation at all (Wood, Elaine Perunovic, & Lee, 2009). For example, when someone is asked to repeat the phrase “I am a lovable person,” it can make them feel less lovable if it doesn’t go along with what they already think of themselves. When the researchers asked participants in their low self-esteem group to repeat positive self-affirmations, they felt worse than before, while those in the high self-esteem group felt only marginally better, though they did feel better. 


Though we definitely need to take into account cultural variability and the structure of the test, this research does suggest that we cannot just ramrod ourselves into a happy state of mind. Apparently the tacit pressure to block out negative thoughts can actually have a deleterious effect—it can make us feel even more preoccupied with those pesky, little, downcast thoughts that drag at the corners of our minds. The researchers found that those in the low self-esteem group actually did better when they felt free to entertain negative as well as positive feelings (Wood et al., 2009).


Mindful living is also being incorporated into the culture at large and the world of recovery. Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now, encourages a kind of “presence” in the moment that does allow for the negative, or what he refers to as the “pain body” to emerge (2004). He advises simply that we allow it to be, that we don’t give pain or negativity our energy and focus but that we accept it and give it space. In giving it space we relieve ourselves from a host of subsequent thoughts about pain and we allow contrasting thoughts to simply emerge into the moment and pass through our consciousness as we witness or observe them.


So what seems to work is to head towards the positive while giving the negative a little breathing room. 


My Personal Experience with Affirmations  


I have written several affirmations books over the years, most recently One Foot in Front of the Other. In fact, Forgiving and Moving On has been my best seller to date, edging close to a million copies. When I began writing affirmations I always included the struggle along with the positive. I wrote in the first person style about the struggles that I faced just being an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACoA) and that my clients faced in recovery from addiction, codependency, and childhood trauma. 


I opened each affirmation with the direction I wanted to head in, like “Today will . . .” Then the body of the affirmation was about processing all of the negative feelings that came up in me or in my clients when I considered heading in this positive direction. I then made an affirmative statement for at the end of each affirmation that I could hold in my hand and mind throughout the day—a psychological goal post so to speak. Also, I always added a quote that I found inspiring; a quote that let me know that someone very interesting had struggled with these thoughts and issues before me and appeared to have made some progress.


I am thrilled with all of this research into an area that has been so much a part of my writing life. I am also pleased to see that, in culling through the various studies, the style I have used over the years proves to be a useful one. In One Foot in Front Of the Other I’ve integrated program basics and wisdom with neuropsychological findings into a user friendly “I” format. The idea is to line out the process of recovery and a new design for living in a manner that can be easily metabolized each morning, one that can help to set a tone for the day and that makes personal growth feel attainable and desirable. It is a little companion to let the reader know there are those who have been there.



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. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.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. 
Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 183–242. 
Tolle, E. (2004). The power of now. Novato, CA: New World Library. 
Williams, R. B. (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., Elaine Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860–6.
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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.