Are Affirmations Useless?

Its 150 years since the publication of what is now regarded as the first self help book – Samuel SmilesSelf Help“.  Still on sale today – and apparently a big seller in countries such as Japan and China.  selfhelp1But when first published it sold 20,000 copies in its first year, and by the time of Smiles death in 1902 had sold over 1/4 million copies. In the 19th Century it was only out sold by the Bible!

In a recent radio program it was said Smiles book was published on the same day as “On Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin.  I cannot find any other proof of that fact. Either way,  it could be that Smiles message “Heaven helps those who help themselves” was reassuring to a society held together by Christian beliefs.

But the underlying message from Smiles was that success came through dedication and hard work.  He didn’t appear to believe in the concept of “genius”, all those he portrayed in his case studies got there by hard graft and application. Interestingly, this is a central theme of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers.

The End of Self Help?

oprah1I write this as some have been predicting the end of self help, with a flurry of headlines such as  Sorry Oprah: Self-help books seldom helpful

As in my last post, regarding self confidence being  genetic, the reports are journalistic interpretations of some recently published research. The original article,”Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others”, published in Psychological Science has the following abstract:-

Two experiments showed that among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement (“I’m a lovable person”) or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement or who focused on how it was both true and not true.
… Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who “need” them the most.

The researchers argument being positive self statements, or affirmations,  don’t work is because they are being used to get someone to believe something that they don’t believe.  The research found that when used by people with high self esteem they did have a slight improvement in how they felt.

This is not the first time I have come across challenges to affirmations or positive thinking generally. It is overly simplistic to implore someone to “be postive”, as if just saying the words will bring about change.

In my main post on affirmations to date, Build Self Esteem with Affirmations, I reflect on my own use of affirmations, but also on some other negative effects.  Apart from the nonsense of the Law of Attraction, I wrote:-

Another argument against affirmations is they don’t engage your brain in problem solving, nor tap into our creativity and imagination. In other words they encourage a passive use of the brains massive power.

Affirmations can encourage bad thinking habits, by encouraging to much focus on the self.  I went over these in three posts earlier this year. For example an affirmation could be

“I always communicate in a clear and assertive manner”

Even if you are a good communicator, you are unlikely to always be clear and assertive. So such an affirmation is likely to lead to frustration and negative self talk when you fail to live up to this.

Write affirmations you can believe

Personally, in the above example, I would use “I am a good communicator”, as an affirmation. My negative automatic thoughts can readily recall and deliver memories of where I have messed up – fluffing my line in a school play 39 years ago being one of them! I will forever remember 15th March as “the Ides of March” as my one line (as soothsayer in Julius Caesar) was

“Beware the Ides of March” – I could never remember  “Ides”…..

toolsThere have been many other mess ups since – but I choose to remind myself of the positives.  Linked to the affirmation, I would list times I have done very well as a communicator.

Going back to the research, even though I now have what I think is healthy self esteem, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying “I’m a loveable person” (which was used for the experiment).  My affirmations are more reminders of what is good about my life:- “I have a wonderful family”

I see affirmations as a useful tool to help reinforce positive thinking.

But they don’t work as a stand alone method to change how you feel about yourself. You need to learn to challenge your negative thoughts, not assuming that every thought you have is a fact.

If your negative thoughts are being fed by underlying negative beliefs about yourself, then again take them apart and start questioning and challenging them.  Once you tease out a new belief that you have backed up with evidence, then its time to start using affirmations to reinforce and establish that belief.

Affirmations can be a useful tool – but they are not a magic wand that can miraculously transform your life with no other effort.

Top two photos by manunderstressnayrb7 on Flickr

Ray Davis July 13, 2009 at 5:01 pm


This is an outstanding article. I agree with you in your pragmatic approach to affirmations. They are, indeed, a wonderful tool, but only one among many. The hard part is discussing their value is that it really depends on who you are talking to and where they are in their journey.

The truth about affirmations lies somewhere between the “magic” supposed by “The Secret” and the ridicule the mentioned research has renewed in the mainstream media. I have been in contact with the lead researcher and she is surprised at the sweeping proclamations made by some based on her team’s research.

In my own journey, affirmations have been invaluable to my recovery from serious depression, growth, and success. It’s the reason I do what I do because I’m very interested in seeing these tools properly applied and used to their full potential.

Thank you for what you are doing to contribute to the dialogue.

Stay inspired!

Ray Davis,
Founder, The Affirmation Spot
.-= Ray Davis´s last blog ..Ocean Affirmation – The Affirmation Spot for Monday July 13, 2009 =-.

David July 13, 2009 at 7:04 pm

Ray, thanks for your kind words and very interesting comment. I can only “reaffirm” what you have said, and hope others add their opinions as affirmations are widely referred to within self help, but seldom discussed critically.

Find yourself with a smile... July 14, 2009 at 11:14 pm

Nice post, David.

I read research (and if I can find the link/reference, I’ll post it), that positive self talk can increase performance by up to %37.

According to this research, Negative self talk can drop it by the same amount.

This research, though, was looking at competitions and similar situations where the affirmations (positive self talk) was being used to ‘pump up’ just prior to competing/executing the skill.

It wasn’t being used to change beliefs (long term perceptions of self and the world).

I think affirmations could be of benefit even in changing beliefs… but they have to be much more skillfully used…

I would liken the use of affirmations to treading water. Bodies float. Normally there is no need to tread water in order to remain floating… if you add enough lead weights to the body… it must now tread water vigorously to remain afloat… which can be maintained for a while (just like the apparent skill increase after using affirmations), but eventually the body tires and the weights drag you back down.

If we want to change our limiting beliefs… we have to ‘cut loose our weights’… treading water isn’t a long term solution!

keep smiling,

.-= Find yourself with a smile…´s last blog ..Site Review: =-.

Albert July 15, 2009 at 6:38 am

Hi Dave,

I have read the same research. Although the research was conducted in a wrong way, with a sweeping statement that makes me slap my head “Duh”.. but it does highlighted one very important part.

Positive affirmation must be read and repeated with the correct emotions attached. While reading our affirmation, our state of mind, be it happy, bored, amazed or total disbelief will affect how our sub-conscious mind interpret the message we read! And this emotion attachment is missing from many people who are practicing this positive affirmation.

I guess this is the reason why thousands of people fail to achieve the desirable results from their positive affirmations. Even if they force themselves to believe in what they read, their emotion and state of mind will over-rule and interpret the affirmation as something negative to their sub-conscious mind.

Even a most undesirable person will have moments when they are lovable.. therefore, when they have written down the affirmation “I am a lovable person”, first they need to search their memory for moments that they feel lovable, remembering the feelings and the emotions at that point in time. Then every time they read their affirmation, recall the feelings and emotions, and truly believe in what they read. For those who totally cannot think of anything good, they can imagine and visualize themselves of being lovable. Something like daydreaming.. and remember that feels good feeling! And every time they read the affirmation, starts daydreaming!


Albert Lee
.-= Albert´s last blog ..Jim Rohn Tribute and Health Update =-.

Lisa Wallace July 18, 2009 at 4:00 am

I think these criticisms are valid–but that they don’t support an all out offensive against the use of affirmations.

What they show me is that it’s important to construct and to use affirmations in the right way, with reasonable expectations.

The problems seem to stem from poorly-conceived and structured affirmations, not to the idea of self-help in more general terms.
.-= Lisa Wallace´s last blog ..Feed the Grateful Coyote =-.

David July 18, 2009 at 10:02 am

Thank you all for your very informative comments
Ben – I think this reinforces the notion that affirmations are a useful tool, but not something that by themselves will facilitate major changes.

Albert – I’ve literally just been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point that looks at research into how the emotions of others can influence us, whatever the message being conveyed. So I would agree that the emotion conveyed when receiving an affirmation from ourselves is crucial.

Lisa – The word “expectation” is crucial. As I argued, affirmations can help reinforce and “affirm” rather than create something out of nothing.

Blogger July 24, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Still, thoughts form words and words become your reality. Many still believe in this.

Mitch August 8, 2009 at 6:52 pm

I sometimes think scientists need to have some reason to get more research money, and controversy sells. I tend to believe that affirmations do work, at least as far as keeping people moving forward and staying positive. And, if one really believes it, they will find a way to success. Now, it might not be the success they were shooting for, but any success is a step in the right direction.
.-= Mitch´s last blog ..Is Common Courtesy Dead? =-.

carol March 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I am trying to feel better but recently as I have tried affirmations I have overwhelming dark moods out of the blue. dark moods about things I didn’t do in the past, for ex. I just finished making a baby blanket for my daughter. my sister asked did you make a blanket for M, (that would have been 6 years ago) no I didn’t because her mother was better at doing this than I. I didn’t want to be embaressed. Now I feel terrible. I let other people’s remarks lead my life. I am on celexa. I want to be upbeat, I want to enjoy life, I want to feel — what, I don’t know.

Stan Pontiere November 17, 2010 at 5:33 am

I have done substantial personal research and have followed much of the scientific research into affirmations and visualization and have concluded that these tools can be highly effective if used properly. Unfortunately, most gurus teach end-results affirmations and visualization which can have a highly negative effect. However, the use of process affirmations and visualization and clearing affirmations are highly effective. These tools encourage action as opposed to the traditional approach which inhibits action. Harv Ekers work with what he calls declarations are just another name for process affirmations and they can be highly effective.

David November 17, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Thanks for your informative comment. I’ve never read Harv Eker and this has given me a very good reason to do so. I do feel affirmations have a place if used sensibly and I will look up more on the different types you describe.

Bruce March 26, 2011 at 4:49 pm

I am reading Brooks’ book “The Social Animal” . He points out research that we tend to inflate our beliefs – if we believe we are good, we tend to think we are much better than we are and conversely, if we think we are bad we think we are much worse than we really are. This appears to be a genetic mechanism and has some use in survival. For us now, it appears that Epistomological Modesty or acknowledging how little we know or can know is a good attitude that acknowledges there is more than one way to solve a problem and that we just have to be good enough. It takes away the pressure to be “great” or the best. Affirming that I am good enough to solve my problems successfully may be the affirmation more of us need to repeat confident or not.

William Moore November 17, 2011 at 3:38 am

Oh, Balderdash and Horse Pucky!
Where affirmations fail is when the person using them is not employing them effectively. To be effective and to work (even for one who has low self-esteem) an affirmation must be repeated with FEELING, and preferably while also conjuring up sounds as well as imagery.

They must be stated in the positive, be personal (not about someone else) and be in the present tense, to over-ride old automatic negative thoughts and negative self-talk thoughts. So it’s PPP and with feeling, since “feckless feelings forment the failure you forecast” here!

Aside: when cartoon character “Bart Simpson” writes on the chalkboard “I will not misbehave” he is actually programming “I misbehave” and so he does. The subconscious does not comprehend the future tense (will) nor the negative (not), each cancels out and all’s left is “I misbehave.”

There is a famous story about Warren Spahn, an American baseball pitcher whose coach told him at a crucial point in a game: “whaddever ya do, don’t throw ‘im a low, inside pitch.” Spahn had to think about its opposite ( “throw a high outside [home plate] pitch”) but too late! His subconscious mind like a neon marquee had processed “low, inside” and that’s what his muscle memory responded with when pitching the ball. The batter hit the ball perfectly “out of the park” and thus scoring several runs with his own “home run.” So, Spahn lost this crucial, outcome-determinative World Series game. (To put it in context for England, image telling your best batsman during a Test Match, ” whatever you do, don’t do LBW!” What do you think will happen? That’s just not Cricket but it’s life. ) To his last days, Spahn said: “why would anyone want to motivate themself, or anyone else, with the reverse of an idea?” That’s why you tell your children “remember to…” (never “don’t forget..”)

Words like always and never may be too perfectionistic rather than guide excellence. Affirm: “I like myself! I can do it! I’m responsible” and the mind will comply. Affirm: “I reinforce my successes and correct for errors” and the mind follows the command.

Musa December 8, 2011 at 1:18 pm

If from the on set you do not want to change how you think about yourself, as in if you don’t really want to change, then no amount of self help techniques can help you.

It is no point pull in one direction while you are head strong in pulling in the other.

You will not go any where resulting in you blaming self help tools for their inefficiency.

Lovely update.

Thank you.

– Musa

dane March 10, 2012 at 7:24 pm

This is all true, great article. I suppose I am lucky person because they work for me, sometimes after few moments if I use them for uneasiness, like “I am calm”… Also articles like this I see not only as tool from which you can absorb some knowledge, but as one big basic affirmation, because they create and maintain my belief that affirmations do work. So, Thank You!

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