Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

Why Affirmations Don’t Work (& What You Can Do Instead)


Given you’re reading this blog, you’re probably interested in self-development. Maybe you read a few different self-improvement blogs, or you have a few personal and professional development books on your bookcase.

Me too.

I love self-development. Love it.

I’m signed up to multiple blogs, and if you’ve seen my books page, or visited my Goodreads profile (come and make friends with me!), you’ll know I consume books in the genre.

There’s a lot of great stuff out there.

But in the plethora of information, not every idea, tip or source is a good one.

One of the psychology blogs I read is the excellent British Psychological Society Research Digest.

They trawl hundreds of up-to-date studies each month and share them with their readers. A month or so ago, they shared ’10 of the Most Counter-Intuitive Psychology Findings Ever Published.’ Number one had the rather inflammatory title:

Self-Help Mantras Do More Harm than Good

It caught my attention.

But as a friend and reader asked when I shared it, what does it mean? And if it’s true, what can you do instead to get a little closer to your dreams?

Affirmations have been a staple of the self-improvement genre since the 1950s (google gives 14 million hits for the search term). A definition from Wiki: ‘a carefully formatted statement (present tense, positive, personal and specific) that should be repeated to one’s self and written down frequently’. Certainly, the self-help literature enjoys telling us to ‘think positively.’ For one to succeed, one must visualise attaining the object of success.

Studies like the one mentioned above challenge that view. They suggest that not only are positive visualisation and affirmations ineffective, but for many of us, they do the opposite of what’s intended.

For example, the study that drove the headline mentioned above looked at how effective affirmations were at boosting mood and self-esteem.

But in the study, when a person with low self-esteem repeated the phrase “I’m a loveable person” both their mood and their feelings about themselves got worse.

Did affirmations work for anyone?

Well, yes…the study showed that “positive self-statements seemed to provide a boost only to people with high self-esteem—those who ordinarily feel good about themselves already—and that boost was small.”

So what’s happening here? Why aren’t they working?

Perhaps it’s because when those people who already believed the opposite (that they’re not loveable, in this instance) repeated the affirmation, their brain responded with arguments as to why they’re actually not.

So, you tell yourself that you’re loveable, and a tiny voice (or sometimes a shout) inside you automatically says ‘No! You’re wrong! And here’s why!”

Are Positive Visualisations Any Better?

Another study focused on positive visualisations, a close cousin of affirmations.

Participants here visualised positive fantasies of success, imagining they already had what they wanted.

When they did, their bodies responded by triggering a physiological relaxation response. This was equivalent to them feeling as if they’d already reached the goal (for example, their blood pressure lowered and their heart rate decreased). In the study, those who visualised their goals attained far fewer goals than the control group, and in addition, felt less energetic – and this was backed by physiological tests.

So Are We Binning Affirmations and Visualisation?

Well, not exactly. But rather than imagining the outcome – the results of whatever you want to achieve – the evidence suggests that focusing on the events that led up to the outcome is the way to achieve your goals. It’s essentially a sort of imaginary problem solving.

This technique suits those of us who are naturally more pessimistic – those of us planning for every contingency in our minds.

In another study people who simulated how the events leading up to a goal unfolded did better in every way than those who focused on visualising the outcome. Their mood was better; they were more likely to have taken specific actions to solve their problems; they were more likely to have sought support and advice from others; and they were more likely to report they had learned and grown in the time period. Wow.

A more fancy name is given to the technique by two of the researchers in the area, who call it Critical Visualisation.  They suggest considering realistic obstacles, setbacks, and other potential negatives, including the possibility of failure.

Is There Any Time When It’s Helpful To Fantasise? To dream of winning the Nobel prize, being blogger of the year, or the next Marie Forleo?

Well, yes.

When you need to relax.

If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, and you need to calm down, then positive visualisations can ‘deny the fire more fuel’. They can help to relax you.

Just don’t rely on them to get you to where you want to be.

If you want to try affirmations, go for something moderately positive, relating to very specific attributes that you’re already a little bit on board with. So try ‘I select good gifts for people’ rather than ‘I’m a generous and loving person.’

Try This At Home, Kids

If you’re working towards an ambitious goal, try Critical Visualisation.

Imagine you’ve achieved your goal (briefly).

Now, step back. How did you get to that point? What, exactly, happened between then and now? What actions did you take? What did you say? What did you do? What problems arose? How did you deal with them? Where were you? Who were you with? Go into as much detail as possible.

For example; perhaps you want to be a successful author. Perhaps the first is to write a manuscript. Imagine you’ve done it. How did you do it? What did you do when problems arose? When you had writers’ block? When you were tired and didn’t want to write? When life got in the way? When your friend criticised your writing? Make the detail rich, and consider every angle.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this slightly controversial post. Do you use affirmations or visualisation? How, exactly? Has it been effective for you?

Share with me in the comments below. 

4 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Christina January 29, 2015, 5:20 pm

    Thank you for this post. It was very thought-provoking and I am grateful for the recommendations. Fantastic Ellen!!

    • Ellen January 30, 2015, 1:28 am

      Thanks so much Christina, I really appreciate your comment and feedback. Have a lovely week!

  • W.H.D. February 28, 2016, 2:19 am

    This is great if you already know every single step you need to take to reach a specific goal. If I was struggling to feel positively about a career goal, it might be what I need.

    Imagining that I like myself and asking myself what I did to get there isn’t any more helpful than chanting Louise Hay’s variations on “I like myself”, though.

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