While positive affirmations are used to bring change on many fronts, from money making, to weight loss, to public speaking, today I’m going to focus solely on positive self-statements, which are affirmations made about the self and are designed to boost positive self-feelings or self-esteem. For example, an individual with more negative self-views, or low self-esteem, might practice looking in a mirror and saying: “I am lovable” or “I am a good person worthy of love and affection.” These positive self-statements, if repeated over time, are presumed to convince the individual that the statements are true and by extension boost the individual’s self-esteem.
Although positive self-statements are encouraged by self-help books across the globe, there has been limited scientific research evaluating their efficacy in actually producing the boosts in self-esteem they are designed to achieve. In 2009, however, Dr. Joanne Wood, a researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada, tackled this question in a series of two studies (Wood, Perunovic, & Lee, 2009).
All participants spent four minutes writing about any thoughts or feelings they were currently experiencing. Participants in the positive self-statements condition additionally repeated the statement “I am lovable” every 15 seconds during the four minute period, while those in the no self-statements condition simply proceeded with the writing task. Afterward participants rated their mood and their state self-esteem – how they were feeling about themselves right at that moment.
As expected, in the no self-statements condition low self-esteem participants were in a worse mood than high self-esteem participants, and also had lower state self-esteem. Interestingly, however, in the positive self-statements condition, after repeatedly saying “I am lovable,” low self-esteem participants were in an even worse mood and had even lower state self-esteem than those participants in the no self-statements condition. The affirmation backfired! WHY?
Wood and colleagues actually anticipated this effect. They hypothesized that for low self-esteem participants, it might be difficult to only think positive self-thoughts. Trying to focus on why they are lovable, might instead bring up unfavorable thoughts, such as why they aren’t lovable. This in turn would make participants feel like they were not living up to the standards of the study, that they were a failure at the task of thinking positively. This failure would then lead participants to feel bad, and to think even worse thoughts about themselves.
To evaluate this hypothesis, Wood conducted a second study, in which participants were instructed to think about reasons why the statement “I am lovable” was both true and untrue. Here, if negative thoughts came up, participants would no longer feel like they were “failing” the task. Low self-esteem participants who were allowed to think about why they were both lovable and unlovable no longer showed that fall in mood and state self-esteem found in the previous study, though they didn't appear to show a boost in self-esteem either.
In sum, Wood and colleagues found that positive self-statements backfired for her low self-esteem participants. After repeating “I am lovable,” their mood and state self-esteem dropped. Presumably this is because negative thoughts continued to crop up. That they couldn't keep negative thoughts out then made participants feel like a failure. When the affirmation allowed for both positive and negative components participants didn't experience that drop.
appear in pop culture.
While this study showed that the positive self-statement, "I am lovable" did not boost self-esteem, are there other methods out there that have had better results? Can self-esteem change? How can we help people feel better about themselves? Next week, I’ll present a series of intervention studies that have had success. Stay tuned.
Have you used positive affirmations? Have they helped you to achieve goals or feel better about yourself? Do you have any other ideas why positive self-statements may backfire?
Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others Psychological Science, 20 (7), 860-866 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x