The Shadow Side of Positive Affirmations

- March 16, 2022

Is changing your mindset and improving your outlook on life really as easy as repeating a specific sentence 50 or 100 times a day until you believe it? Positive affirmations aren’t a New Age fad. They’ve been promoted as a powerful self-help practice for over a century now and made some motivational speakers very rich. Some people who swear by positive affirmations based on their own experiences.

In fact, studies have indeed shown that they can work – however, not so much for people who’d actually need them most. And they’re also not as impactful as they’re made out to be. This blog post explains why positive affirmations can have a detrimental effect on your mental health if you’re struggling with anxiety and depression. It also introduces some healthier, more sustainable alternatives.

What Are Positive Affirmations?

Positive affirmation or self-affirmation is a technique where you repeat positive statements over and over again. The goal is to turn negative thoughts and beliefs into positive ones that bring about the desired change of mindset and behaviour in your life through frequent repetition of one or several phrases.

The idea is simple and not as new as you might think. It was first promoted by the French Émile Coué who presented his method of conscious autosuggestion at a psychological congress in 1916. His theory was that by repeating the sentence “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.” over and over and over again on a daily basis bypasses the human will (that is naturally resistant to change one’s self-image) through making a positive alternative to negative self-beliefs available. And he had great success with this among his patients. So did motivational speakers like Napoleon Hill, Anthony Robbins and the likes.

How Positive Affirmations are supposed to work and why they don’t

Are positive affirmations just empty words or do they really work? Self-affirmations are said to be effective because they encourage us to focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. They’re supposed to be self-praising and self-comforting.

However, many people who practice them don’t realize that they are actually encouraging themselves to ignore or even deny their emotions. In some cases that creates even bigger problems than the ones, they’re trying to solve.

Let’s take a look at the theory behind positive affirmations first, though. Coué’s argued that the vaguer or let’s say all-encompassing a positive affirmation was the less negative associations would arise.

Therefore, the mind would put up less resistance to changing the self-image. Whereas the conscious autosuggestions as suggested by Coué worked well for some, it really didn’t for others. Eventually, self-help gurus and motivational speakers evolved the method and promoted the opposite approach: The more specific the positive affirmation the higher the chances of it tricking the subconscious and leading to the desired change.

The criteria for a positive affirmation with high success potential are as follows:

  • Written in the 1st person (“I am…”)
  • Written in the present tense (pretending whatever you want is already yours/happening)
  • Written in the positive (“I enjoy making healthy choices for myself.” rather than “I don’t enjoy the taste of chocolate any longer.”)
  • The statement should have an emotional charge (“I feel alive when I stretch and move.” rather than “I move my body every day.”)

Our brain is much more complex than that, though. And a sustainable change of one’s mood and mindset isn’t as simple as the promoters of positive affirmations would like you to believe.

The negative or limiting beliefs people are trying to counter with self-affirmations mostly revolve around topics like wealth, success, beauty, happiness and health. The former are usually deeply embedded in your unconscious, whereas the positive affirmations only really operate on a superficial level.

It’s basically like slapping on a band-aid for a wound that reaches to your core. If you have felt not good enough and unworthy of success or happiness most or even all your life, saying “I am abundant and attract wealth wherever I go and whatever I do.” won’t do the trick to change that. The best-case scenario would be that it leads to a temporary relief – until life throws you a curveball that reinforces once again what you’ve always “known”.

It is much more likely that when you repeat a phrase that goes against a core belief you have held about yourself for years or even decades your brain will downright reject it. If the new belief you’re trying to suggest to yourself is not in alignment with your convictions and how you feel about yourself, it will cause a conflict within you that could turn into a full-blown inner war – with undesired results that can be detrimental to your mental health.

How Positive Affirmations can do you a Huge Disservice

Roughly 70% of our inner dialogue is negative, explains Sherry Benton, a professor emeritus of psychology from the University of Florida, to in an article with the title “Positive Affirmations Are Basically Bullshit” – and it’s been that way for thousands of years because somehow it works for us as a species.

So, expecting ourselves to have a constant stream of positive thoughts and feeling mostly awesome is not only a delusional goal but can also backfire. Because “the more we judge our thinking, the worse it gets,” says Benton.

There’s also the fact that life just sucks sometimes. It can be hard and we might even perceive it as unfair or even cruel in certain instances. And because we are all just human, we sometimes feel unloveable, resentful, angry, greedy, or ugly. At the end of the day, it is all about the stories we tell ourselves.

The events that triggered the story that has you feeling a certain way are real. The story you make up in your attempt to make sense of it all might not be (entirely) true but your feelings are 100% valid – all of them.

If your main strategy is to retort to positive affirmations to rid yourself of thoughts and emotions that are more difficult you are minimizing or even denying yourself the authentic experience you are having. You are harming yourself when you try to force yourself to believe a statement that just doesn’t feel true. Ultimately, it will lead to a disconnection from yourself. You learn that you can’t trust yourself.

Furthermore, it creates stress and tension in your body if you are desperately trying to shut those distressing thoughts and emotions down – and it’s a fight you can’t win but that will eat up a lot of your energy.

Especially if you lack confidence or are prone to anxiety and/or depression, a declarative statement like “I am attracting and deserving of wealth and abundance.” may trigger a self-defeating spiral. You will argue with yourself (because your negative belief is fighting for survival) and possibly judge yourself more or less harshly for it.

This could become a full-blown inner war and you might end up feeling worse than when you started.

A study with the title “Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others” has shown that “among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement or focused on how it was true felt better than those who did not, but to a limited degree. Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who “need” them the most.”

What is healthier than positive affirmations?

  • Self-exploration
    First, it helps to understand why you hold a certain negative belief and challenge it by asking yourself questions rather than making statements. This has proven to be far more powerful than positive affirmations as it turns your mind into an ally, encourages it to cooperate rather than going to war with it. When you meet yourself with curiosity and compassion, your brain focuses on problem-solving and your own resources. This reduces the stress and tension in your body and you become open to new possibilities. You can do so on your own (e.g. through a practice like journaling) or with the help of a coach or therapist.
  • Self-acceptance and self-compassion
    You are human. Beautifully imperfect – like each and every single one of us. We all have flaws. We all struggle. We all have things we feel shame around. Honour all your feelings. This includes acknowledging your negative thoughts and emotions. Accept that they are there. Forgive yourself for being human and start treating yourself with the same kindness you’d treat a small child or your best friend. You will see how stopping to beat yourself up frees up major emotional resources.
  • Goal setting
    You are determined to change something in your life? Start by setting a realistic goal and break it down into baby steps. You can use the energy you save from not beating yourself up (quite as much) any longer into achieving them. Acknowledge small improvements. It’s about the choices we make on a daily basis that end up defining who we become.
  • Check-in
    When you find yourself stuck in self-loathing, it can be most helpful to ask a trusted loved one for a reality check. Sometimes, we are way too (negatively) biased and critical when we look at ourselves. We tend to be our own biggest blind spot. Therefore, getting a second opinion, a fresh perspective from someone who cares about us but will also tell us the truth when we need to hear it is highly recommended.
  • Start a gratitude journal
    You can read more about the many positive effects of this in our blog post “How writing a daily gratitude list will change your life.”
  • Mindfulness and meditation
    Being human is not about eliminating negative thoughts and feelings. It can’t be because it is impossible. Instead, it’s about feeling it all. Allowing it all. Mindfulness practices and meditation keep us grounded in the present moment. They teach us to not cling to the past or get hung up on the future. We learn to observe the world and ourselves without judgement. We start noticing the constant narrative that our monkey mind layers over every single experience and detach from it insofar that we stop believing it’s the only and entire truth there is. Mindfulness and meditation teach radical acceptance of what is – in an honest and genuine way – and then working from and with the state of heart and mind, we find ourselves in.

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At New Life Portugal we have made it our mission to support everyone who is ready to embark on a journey to sustainable wellbeing. Our program can be tailored to your individual needs. They all offer mindfulness and meditation as well as yoga and healthy eating at their core while you enjoy the many benefits of a supportive community and allow you to soak up the tranquillity and beauty of the surrounding Serra da Estrela national park.

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