Silly Self Help Tactic (Mostly) Debunked: Positive Affirmations

Remember when your mom/support group leader/therapist/super confident self help guru/The Secret told you that you should practice doing positive self-affirmations to make you better at that one thing you suck at? Turns out that doesn’t really work…


A 2009 study by the University of Waterloo has actually demonstrated scientifically that positive self affirmations do very little good and may actually be hurting your mood.

Have you ever found yourself repeating these types messages in your head?

  • I am an attractive person.
  • I am relaxed and manage my stress.
  • I am in control of my finances and career.
  • I am a good student/wife/husband/employee/lover!
  • I have healthy, respectful relationships.
  • Or do you repost and re-share ‘positive message’ photo memes on Facebook or social media?

What the Canadian study found was that unless you have high self esteem already about the areas of your life you are mentally affirming, doing self affirmations actually puts you in a negative mood. Which makes sense because:

  • Your logical faculty knows these affirmations aren’t really true.
  • You are essentially lying to yourself. Lying is morally reprehensible so positive (yet false) affirmations will upset your conscience.

Actionable: The study found that if you have high self esteem in the areas of affirmations, which I assume means they are ACTUALLY true (unless you are particularly adept at self delusion) they do improve your mood marginally, so positive self affirmations do work if you already feel confident about what is being affirmed.

‘Motivational’ Photo Memes: The absurd popularity of motivational photo memes on social media is surely a reflection of positive self help pop culture. People posting these simplistic memes are doing so because they want to be percieved as positive, confident people. So in the light of the Canadian study, in addition to simply being a waste of time, posting positive photo memes may actually be hurting your mood.

Clinical psychologists have long been critical of the positive self help movement. The conclusion the study reached was that positive self affirmations may hurt those who need them the most and use them out of a place of desperation. Always nice to see common sense prevailing in the murky and sometimes uncertain world of psychology.

Positive self-statements: power for some, peril for others.Wood JV, Perunovic WQ, Lee JW.

Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, 200 University Ave., Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1.

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Abstract: Positive self-statements are widely believed to boost mood and self-esteem, yet their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. We examined the contrary prediction that positive self-statements can be ineffective or even harmful. A survey study confirmed that people often use positive self-statements and believe them to be effective. 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. 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.


Originally published at www.limitlessmindset.com.

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