How to understand the power of positive affirmations

Positive Affirmations. It's a nice idea, but do they work? By saying 'I'm great' out loud, do you really start to believe it? Let Caroline Foran guide you through the method.

Our Wellness Expert, author of Owning It: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Living with Anxiety and The Confidence Kit: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Owning Your Fear, Caroline Foran discusses the pros and cons of positive affirmations, and how they can work even for the sceptics. 

Read Caroline's article: Why Are We So Afraid To Fail?

Read Caroline's article: What is Stoicism and Why Should We Embrace it in Daily Life?

Though I've written a book about confidence, and I'm all about self-love and self-care, I've always had an iffy relationship with positive affirmations. Sure they're a nice idea, but how often do we sit down and look at ourselves in the mirror and tell ourselves that we're gorgeous or that we're brilliant and strong and capable of anything? Sometimes it can feel a bit too forced, and therefore redundant. And given that my books have the words 'bullshit-free' in their titles, positive affirmations have always seemed counterintuitive to that. In my experience, we may start off with great intentions, waking up every day to a series of self-affirmations and feeling momentarily nice, only to phase them out in the same way we forget about our New Year's Resolutions.

A polarising concept

Is this just another thing that the wellness world (or bestselling book The Secret) tells us we should be doing? Or is it actually beneficial? Is there any science to it? Or is it waffle? In my research, it seems the act of practising positive affirmations is quite polarising, and whether it works or not really depends on the kind of person you are. If you're incredibly practical, down to Earth about your wellbeing and solution focused (which I would identify with), there may be no need. What they can do, however, is give you a moment to slow down and to be present and breathe, which is always a good thing.

There's plenty of science to back up the power of mindfulness and though I used to roll my eyes at that too, it can't be argued with. So for some people, positive affirmations may just be another way to be mindful and keep things interesting, while for me, I'm quite happy being mindful while reading a book or focusing on my breathing before I fall asleep.

woman eyes closed positioned towards window


Canadian researcher Dr Joanne Wood published a study in the Journal of Psychological Science which claimed that positive affirmations are beneficial for those who already enjoy healthy self-esteem and self-confidence. By saying, "I am strong and I am worthy of love", for example, they're just topping up what they already know. However, the research said they seem to backfire for those who need them most. In the experiment, participants with reported low self-esteem were asked to tell themselves this affirmation: "I am a lovable person." They then measured the participants' moods and 'self-regard'; how they felt about themselves. Unfortunately, the group with low-esteem felt worse after being made to recite the positive affirmation. On the other hand, people with reported high self-esteem felt better.

Good for some...

In that same study, the participants with low self-esteem were asked to speak negatively about themselves, listing negative thoughts they have about themselves. When doing this, they felt better. They were in better form thinking and speaking negatively than forcing the positive affirmations. As for why this happens, the researchers cite that for these individuals, saying "I am a lovable person" was just entirely at odds with how they felt about themselves, which lead to more internal conflict and feeling crappy.

This might all sound very doomsday, but I tend to agree. Forcing positivity has never worked for me. It's always helped to let the negative out first, work through that, dispute these negative thoughts or beliefs based on facts (which is a practice of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and then think about them in a more measured and realistic way. It's not about indulging the negative, but about addressing it, rather than plastering a big positive band-aid over all of that bad stuff.

women sitting turned away from cake and tea tableaux

When you've addressed the negatives, then the positives won't feel as forced. So for example, "okay, all of this stuff I might not love about myself, but what am I okay with?" Rather than saying "I am Beyonce levels of fierce", when you feel like an omelette dropped on the floor, go with something a bit more realistic and neutral. Then build up to something more empowering that doesn't make you feel bad about yourself.

You do you

Two years ago, I would not have been able to look in the mirror and say "I am going to be a bestselling author and I am a great writer and I am strong and capable of whatever I do" (or anything to that effect). It took time and experience to get to the point of saying, "hmm, maybe I'm capable of writing something good". And it took more time to get to the point of waking up in the morning and believing this about myself without it being forced. Now, with more confidence, I benefit from a little pep talk with myself. But I don't go overboard. I keep it as reality-based as possible.

If positive affirmations are making you feel bad, take it down a notch and work incrementally towards something you can believe about yourself. Try and even go to a past experience or event that was positive and remind yourself, by way of affirmation, how you felt about yourself in that scenario. That was based entirely on reality and therefore your negative mind can't argue with it. You win.


For more tips on how to own your fear, read The Confidence Kit, out now.

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