Positive affirmations, or self-affirmations, are meaningful, positive phrases or ‘prompts’ that we can use to change the way we think and feel.
If you’ve ever told yourself: “I’m a good person” or “You always do your best,” you’ll already be somewhat familiar with how they work!
What most people don’t realize, however, is that practicing positive self-affirmations can have a range of other benefits, besides helping us feel better in the moment.
Today, we’ll take a little look at the positive psychology behind the power of daily reminders and the science behind how they can set you up for success. You can boost your self-esteem, enhance your performance in the long run, and use positive reminders to grow!
Positive Reminders: Thoughts, Behaviors and Feelings
Reminding ourselves daily of our strengths, traits, talents, and values is one of the easiest ways to feel better in the moment. At the most basic level, this works by shifting our awareness from negative experiences to ‘what’s right’ about ourselves and the world around us.
It is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in its most fundamental form, and the mechanism by which simple reminders start to influence our actions and emotions.
Let’s take a closer look.
How Do They Work?
When we think about affirmations, we’re really referring to positive self-talk.
And, to understand how they shape our feelings and behaviors, here’s one of the most important things to know:
Self-affirmations can indeed be subconscious, but very often, we choose to make them. By deciding how we’ll think or act in response to challenging events(or almost anything, really), we do, in fact, have a degree of control over how we feel about those events.
In this respect, choosing your affirmations - or reminders - can be a little like deciding how you want to feel.
Positive Self-affirmations In Practice
Now that we know what self-affirmations are, as well as how they work, we can start to see how these effective little reminders can have a tangible impact on our lives.
And fortunately, the positive psychology literature is full of beautiful findings that link affirmations with both psychological and tangible benefits.
For example, we know that affirmations can play a positive role in helping us build self-esteem - but let’s use some examples to illustrate.
Affirmations and Self-Esteem
One of the key benefits of affirmations, authors Sherman and Hartson (2011) suggest, is that they may help us respond more purposefully and adaptively to threats. In this way, they can strengthen our sense of self-worth.
Consider a student who’s just failed an exam and whose self-confidence has naturally taken quite a hit. Our student has two primary choices about how they’ll act.
The first choice is to “protect” their self-esteem, blaming the exam itself for being unreasonably hard. While this might make them feel better, it spares them the hassle of striving for self-improvement (Major et al., 1998).
Their second option is to “self-affirm” instead, by reminding themselves of their other positive traits - that they’re dedicated, a hard-worker, and will only get stronger with every struggle. In doing so, they’re open to growth.
If the latter sounds like a less stressful way to bounce back, there’s even more good news.
According to research by Cohen and Sherman (2014), students who chose to self-affirm following academic setbacks have actually performed better as an outcome. In a classroom setting, more specifically, a low grade had less impact on affirmed students’ sense of belonging, and, in college, self-affirmed students were less ‘mentally stuck’ on past failures, leaving them with more mental resources for the present (Koole et al. 1999; Cook et al., 2012).
In a nutshell, and as Sherman and Hartson put it, affirmations can help resolve our inner“tension between self-protection and self-improvement” (2011, p.129). By freeing us from rumination and ‘mental conflict,’ we can better use our inner resources to focus on our futures.
By incorporating little positive reminders into our day, therefore, we can logically start to shape our path forward with our thoughts.
Positive Feedback and Personal Growth
So research does suggest that affirmations can play a potential role in helping us perform better, as well as giving us a feel-good boost to our self-esteem.
But as it turns out, our enhanced performance, as a result, might also have benefits of its very own. Because, by functioning better, we sometimes set off multiple positive feedback processes both within ourselves and as we interact with our environment.
Per Cohen and Sherman (2014), these are called “Cycles of Adaptive Potential,” and they’re a neat term for virtuous cycles of increasingly better performance.
Working in a loop, they describe how noting, feeling, or experiencing our accomplishments often motivates us to even higher levels.
On failing their exam, our example student self-affirms, reminding themselves that progress (and not an A+) is what matters. “I’m a fighter,” they decide to say.
Feeling more confident, they keep studying and try again. (Also, if you’ll recall, they’re not too busy ruminating on their failure.)
This time, they pass.
And by passing, they’ve just positively reinforced their behavior - both the perseverance and the act of positively self-affirming. (“Guess Iama fighter...and it pays off, so reminding myself was worth it!”)
Here, while it sounds clichéd, our student has learned more than one valuable lesson. Not only have they gained some sound academic knowledge, but they’ve also deepened their self-knowledge about what it takes to realize their potential.
How To Practice Self-Affirmations
Whether you want to self-motivate more effectively, or ‘bounce back’ a little better from challenges, practicing self-affirmations is as simple as choosing the messages that are most meaningful to you.
From here, it’s all about regular practice, strengthening your automatic positive thoughts, and building them into patterns. The more frequently you can remind yourself to self-affirm, the more natural it becomes, and the more long-term benefits you will start to see. It’s exactly where little external cues like elastic wristbands come in handy!
Catherine is an avid surfer, MBA, and Positive Psychology researcher and advocate. Working remotely around the world, her goal for 2021 is to catch the wave of her life.
She holds an MBA at the University of Bradford and a BSc in Organizational & Industrial Psychology from the University of Melbourne, including studies in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psych, personality, and social psychology, quantitative & qualitative research methods, positive psychology.
Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention.Annual Review of Psychology,65, 333-371.
Cook, J. E., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., & Cohen, G. L. (2012). Chronic threat and contingent belonging: protective benefits of values affirmation on identity development.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,102(3), 479-496.
Koole, S. L., Smeets, K., Van Knippenberg, A., & Dijksterhuis, A. (1999). The cessation of rumination through self-affirmation.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,77(1), 111-125.
Major, B., Spencer, S. J., Schmader, T., Wolfe, C., & Crocker, J. (1998). Coping with negative stereotypes about intellectual performance: The role of psychological disengagement.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 34–50.
Sherman, D. K., & Hartson, K. A. (2011). Reconciling self-protection with self-improvement.Handbook of Self-enhancement and Self-protection,128.