Have Positive Affirmations Helped Your Self Esteem? If Not, Here’s Why

Many people use positive affirmations as a way to boost self-esteem. But they may actually do more harm than good. Here’s a research study that explains why.

In this 2009 study, Wood and her colleagues asked participants to write down any thoughts and feelings they had over a 4-minute period.  While they were writing, they also repeated “I am a lovable person” every 15 seconds, which was signaled by a tone. In a second experiment, they asked the participants to focus on how the statement “I am a lovable person” was true. The participants then completed tests of mood and self-esteem. There were three important findings:

1. The participants with low self-esteem had more negative thoughts when repeating “I am a lovable person” than those with high self-esteem.
2. The participants with low self-esteem who repeated “I am a lovable person” had lower scores on the tests of mood than those who didn’t repeat the statement, and their self-esteem scores had dropped.
3. The participants with high self-esteem who repeated “I am a lovable person” had more positive thoughts, higher scores on the tests of mood, and their self-esteem scores increased.

This study shows that, while positive affirmations are beneficial for people with high self-esteem, they can make people with low-self esteem feel worse rather than better.

If positive affirmations harm the very people they are supposed to help, what does work?

Directed abstraction - The "I am" technique

Thankfully, Peter Zunick and colleagues (2015) have developed a technique that works. It consists of stopping to think about how a success may have broader implications and how one’s personal qualities contributed to that success - this is the directed abstraction.

In one of their experiments, they asked participants who had low confidence in their public speaking abilities to give a fairly easy speech in front of a video camera. The participants then watched the video with the experimenter who made encouraging remarks about their ability.

They then did either a distracted abstraction task (“The speech went well because I am ....”) or were asked to describe HOW they delivered their speech. Following the directed abstraction task, the participants prepared and delivered a second speech on a much more difficult topic. The directed abstraction participants reported more confidence in their future public speaking ability than did the “HOW” group.

This study shows how taking a “win” and thinking about how one’s personal qualities contributed to that win can increase one’s self confidence. In effect, the first part of the sentence “This went well...” provides evidence for the second part “... because I am.” That’s why it works. It makes the “... because I am” part true and more easily believable. Positive affirmations are just wishes and have no evidence (at least in our minds) backing them.

What you can do to increase self-esteem:

1. Following a success, take a few minutes to think about the personal qualities that contributed to your success. You can do this by completing the statement: “This .... went well because I am ....” The operative words here are “... because I am.” For example, “The difficult conversation with my client went well today because I am empathic and good at calming clients’ fears.”
 2. You can help a friend or client with low self-esteem in a task do this.
3. You could even generalize to increase overall self-esteem by combining it with another technique from positive psychology: Every day, identify three things that went well that day and, for each one, complete the sentence: “This went well because I am ...”

What do you use to increase self esteem? How has it worked for you or your clients?

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