What Are Affirmations and How Do They Help?
Updated: May 23
So maybe you've heard of self affirmations or maybe you haven't . If you are not familiar with them, the idea can seem sort of awkward at first. Telling yourself how incredibly awesome you are can seem bizarre, we get it. But understanding how and why positive affirmations became so popular may change your mind a little bit so let's take a look!
What are Positive Affirmations?
Fortunately, positive affirmations are almost as easy to define as they are to practice. Put simply, they are positive phrases or statements used to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts. Practicing positive affirmations can be extremely simple, and all you need to do is pick a phrase and repeat it to yourself. You may choose to use positive affirmations to motivate yourself, encourage positive changes in your life, or boost your self-esteem. If you frequently find yourself getting caught up in negative self-talk, positive affirmations can be used to combat these often subconscious patterns and replace them with more adaptive narratives.
Is There Science Behind Them?
Science, yes. Magic, no. Positive affirmations require regular practice if you want to make lasting, long-term changes to the ways that you think and feel. The good news is that the practice and popularity of positive affirmations are based on widely accepted and well-established psychological theory.
The Psychological Theory Behind Positive Affirmations
One of the key psychological theories behind positive affirmations is self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988). So, yes, there are empirical studies based on the idea that we can maintain our sense of self-integrity by telling ourselves (or affirming) what we believe in positive ways.
Very briefly, self-integrity relates to our global self-efficacy—our perceived ability to control moral outcomes and respond flexibly when our self-concept is threatened. So, we as humans are motivated to protect ourselves from these threats by maintaining our self-integrity.
Self-Identity and Self-Affirmation
Self-affirmation theory has three key ideas underpinning it. They are worth having in mind if we are to understand how positive affirmations work according to the theory.
First, through self-affirmation, we keep up a global narrative about ourselves. In this narrative, we are flexible, moral, and capable of adapting to different circumstances. This makes up our self-identity. Self-identity (which we’re seeking to maintain, as mentioned before) is not the same as having a rigid and strictly defined self-concept. Instead of viewing ourselves in one “fixed” way, say as a “student” or a “son”, our self-identity can be flexible. We can see ourselves as adopting a range of different identities and roles. This means we can define success in different ways, too. Why is this a good thing? Because it means we can view different aspects of ourselves as being positive and can adapt to different situations much better.
Secondly, self-affirmation theory argues that maintaining self-identity is not about being exceptional, perfect, or excellent. Rather, we just need to be competent and adequate in different areas that we personally value in order to be moral, flexible, and good.
Lastly, we maintain self-integrity by acting in ways that authentically merit acknowledgment and praise. In terms of positive affirmations, we don’t say something like “I am a responsible godmother” because we want to receive that praise. We say it because we want to deserve that praise for acting in ways that are consistent with that particular personal value.
A Look at the Research
The development of self-affirmation theory has led to neuroscientific research aimed at investigating whether we can see any changes in the brain when we self-affirm in positive ways. There is MRI evidence suggesting that certain neural pathways are increased when people practice self-affirmation tasks (Cascio et al., 2016). These results suggest that when we choose to practice positive affirmations, we’re better able to view “otherwise-threatening information as more self-relevant and valuable” (2015: 1979).
Benefits of Daily Affirmations
Now that we know more about the theories supporting positive affirmations, here are six examples of evidence from empirical studies that suggest that positive self-affirmation practices can be beneficial:
Self-affirmations have been shown to decrease health-deteriorating stress.
Self-affirmations have been used effectively in interventions that led people to increase their physical behavior.
They may help us to perceive otherwise “threatening” messages with less resistance, including interventions.
They can make us less likely to dismiss harmful health messages, responding instead with the intention to change for the better and to eat more fruit and vegetables.
They have been linked positively to academic achievement by mitigating GPA decline in students who feel left out at college.
Self-affirmation has been demonstrated to lower stress levels.
The Take Away
Positive affirmations can be a super refreshing way to use positive self-talk capable of reversing negative internal messages and motivating ourselves. Whether you’re seeking a means of coping with anxiety, want to get yourself pumped for something, or just want to be more optimistic in general, try coming up with your own affirmations or download some of our favorites below!
Do you have your own affirmations you’d like to share? Or, even better, how do you come up with your own affirmations? Share in the comments, we’d love to hear them!
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Cascio, C. N., O’donnell, M. B., Tinney, F. J., Lieberman, M. D., Taylor, S. E., Strecher, V. J., & Falk, E. B. (2015). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(4), 621-629.
Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 21(2), 261-302.