How to harness the power of self-affirmation

What are your values? Who are you? Such complex questions, and yet, few people spend enough time defining their sense of self. As a result, they answer with polite conversation ice-breakers, perhaps providing their name and their occupation. Beyond knowing yourself better, a strong sense of self has many benefits, including better performance and better mental health. That’s the power of self-affirmation.

The science of self-affirmation

In psychology, self-affirmation theory suggests that reflecting on our personal values, we are less likely to experience distress when confronted with information that threatens our sense of self. Self-affirmation consists of engaging in activities that promote our values, our beliefs, and the roles we consider integral to our personal identity. These activities help us to establish and assert our concept of self. 

Self-affirmation benefits our sense of self-integrity, as not only do we claim to uphold our personal values, but we aim to reflect our values in our actions as well. Creating specific affirmations is a method of reflecting upon our personal values, to reinforce ideas and behaviours that are important to us as individuals.

Furthermore, self-affirmations are a way to harness positive thinking, triggering a healthy defensive mechanism when facing an actual or perceived threat. Research suggests that self-affirmation can help “decrease stress, increase well being, improve academic performance and make people more open to behavior change.”

Practising self-affirmations can help diminish the impact of perceived threats in all aspects of your life. For instance, if you feel anxious about work, this can hinder your performance and growth. When your career appears not to be going well, your self-integrity comes under threat which can arouse a stress response and even self-defence mechanisms.

Psychologists from Stanford University and the University of California have found that timely affirmations can prevent this spiral of negative performance, as belief in your affirmations weakens the implications of the perceived threat. As part of the same study, a positive feedback loop of affirmations was shown to improve relationships, education, and health outcomes, too. Research also suggests that completing self-affirmation activities makes it easier to accept information that would otherwise feel threatening. 

Self-affirmation also offers protection against stress and negativity. Neuroplasticity is a rewiring process within the brain. Rewiring can have negative consequences, such as in the development of depression, or positive ones, for example when taking part in activities to slow the progression of dementia. 

Affirmations have a crucial influence on the reward systems within the brain. In 2016, a study established that healthy neuroplasticity can be reinforced with self-affirmation. Participants in the study who practised self-affirmations were better able to protect themselves against negative thoughts. Brain activity was found to be greater in the areas that allow us to recognise our own value and self-worth, providing more emotional protection than for those who did not practise self-affirmations.

It is important to note that self-affirmation theory is different to the New Age concept of affirmations. The New Age view that a positive mental attitude and “manifesting” our dreams will ensure success in life is not based on scientific evidence.

How to practice self-affirmation

The easiest way to practice self-affirmation is to write statements about yourself. Examples of affirmations include: “I am strong”, “I have the ability to succeed”, “I am the right candidate for this job.”

In creating self-affirmations, you reflect on your core values, giving a broader sense of who you are and what is imperative to your sense of self. It may sound cheesy, but, as we have seen, there is strong scientific evidence supporting the practice of self-affirmation.

Affirmations are usually written in the present tense to reinforce that the characteristics you value can be demonstrated or honed now. “I will be strong” suggests that you do not yet feel resilient, whereas stating “I am strong” expresses that this personal value is yours to claim now. 

But first, a word of caution. Writing affirmations is a good way to manage stressful situations and mitigate negative thoughts for many people. However, for people with low self-esteem or depression, studies suggest that self-affirmation can be harmful. Repeating a statement that you do not believe to be true can make you feel worse. In circumstances where self-affirmations could do harm, it is more appropriate to invest in support from a therapist or counsellor.

If you are ready to try self-affirmations, keep in mind that your affirmations need not be fixed. Over time you will revisit the affirmations to reinforce certain beliefs or to reflect a new life experience or change in your values.

Getting started

Writing your first affirmation can feel like a big hurdle to overcome, and encouraging neuroplastic change in your brain requires perseverance. Take the first step by keeping a diary for one week. Document your feelings as well as the occurrence of perceived threats or stressful situations. When you review your notes, list the areas in your life you would like to work on.

Begin your first affirmation with “I am” — remember that a present tense statement makes it easier to believe in your affirmation, aiding the positive feedback loop.

The self is composed of multiple domains and goals. Threats to the way you see yourself in various situations can threaten your perceived integrity. When writing your affirmations, you must therefore consider all aspects of your life. Psychologists suggest that you explore these facets in your affirmations:

  • Roles such as parent or student
  • Values including religion or humour
  • Group identities including belonging to a race, culture, or nation
  • Central beliefs which could be political or ideological
  • Goals for career, education, or health
  • Relationships with family and friends

Delving deeper into what is crucial to your sense of self may help you write your affirmations, thereby supporting your self-integrity. But what can you do if you are struggling to explore these different facets?

A popular technique is to review a values list. Instead of asserting personal values out of thin air, you can compare two values and choose one of them for yourself. The Allport-Vernon-Lindzey Scale is such a method of inducing self-affirmation. Participants answer questions to ascertain where their values lie, for example selecting whether mathematics or theology is more important to them. The process is thought to help choose the answer that feels more important, leading to self-affirmation.

Another method consists in ranking your values, which may have the added benefit of making us more attentive and emotionally receptive to our mistakes. A study published by the Association for Psychological Science explored such an approach to self-affirmation. Participants were asked to rank six values from most to least important, and then explain why their top-ranked value was so important. This self-affirmation task later improved participants’ performance in an unrelated test.

Creating your own list of values is a great first step. However, you must ensure that your affirmations are achievable and realistic, otherwise it is unlikely you will believe them. This is where the values essay comes into play.

As part of a study, participants wrote a values essay about a personal value. In the essay, they were asked to describe personal experiences of this value being important, and why it had made them feel good about themselves. This is a common way to induce belief in an affirmation. Any challenge to the belief later loses its threat as the view of oneself has been broadened. This ensures affirmations stand firm even in times of stress.

Overcome barriers to self-affirmation

If you still struggle to think of the values that are important to you, flip your negative thoughts and write their positive opposites. If you are wracked with anxiety before an interview, write down “I have all the skills required to succeed at this interview.” Repeat this affirmation until you believe it.

Harnessing positive thinking takes time, as the remodelling of neuroplasticity requires repetition and persistence. Read your affirmations out loud every day when you wake up and before you go to bed.

Do not be afraid to make adjustments. Start thinking about the behaviours and values that are important to you, and write affirmations that reflect your self-integrity to minimise stress and develop healthy defensive mechanisms. If your first attempt at writing self-affirmations is not quite right, you can remodel and adjust your statements as often as needed.

Practising self-affirmation has been proven to weaken the impact of perceived threats and protect against the detrimental effects of stress. This skill takes some focus and plenty of practice, but it is free to learn, can be implemented at any time, and does not require any specialist equipment.

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