December 6, 2021

Do Positive Affirmations Work? What Experts Say

A psychologist explains what affirmations can do for your mental state

happy postive thinking woman

Is there anything to the old adage, “If you can believe it, you can achieve it”? Positive affirmations are a self-help strategy that puts that saying into practice. These daily sayings can help you overcome self-doubt, self-sabotage and fear.

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Psychologist Lauren Alexander, PhD, explains how daily positive affirmations can help you face the world with a belief in yourself and your abilities.

What are positive affirmations?

Positive affirmations are phrases you can say, either aloud or in your head, to affirm yourself and build yourself up — especially in the midst of difficult situations. They’re a way of helping overcome negative thoughts that can sometimes take over and make you doubt yourself.

“We live in a society where it’s easy to get bogged down with lots of negativity,” Dr. Alexander says. Positive affirmations are a way to help shuttle out some of that negativity, in terms of the things that we say to ourselves.”

How to choose a positive affirmation

There’s no one-size-fits-all affirmation, so you’ll have to figure out which feels right to you. “It could be something positive about a certain quality or a good choice you’ve made, or just something affirming of your self-worth,” Dr. Alexander says.

Avoid toxic positivity

Employing positive affirmations doesn’t mean talking yourself into denying the difficulties of your life or the world around you.

“Standing in front of the mirror and saying, ‘You’re awesome’ and ‘You’re beautiful,’ can feel very inauthentic,” Dr. Alexander says. And honestly? “Good vibes only” isn’t realistic or all that helpful.

Instead, identify positive affirmations that acknowledge the reality of your current situation but call on your own ability to push through and to thrive.

Acknowledge hardship

Positive affirmations should be tailored to the issues and concerns you’re facing, Dr. Alexander says. “I advocate for affirmations that acknowledge the difficulty you’re going through but also remind you of times when you’ve been successful.”

Examples of positive affirmations include:

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  • “My feelings make me uncomfortable right now, but I can accept them.”
  • “I am strong enough to handle what’s happening to me right now.”
  • “This situation is difficult, but I have the skills and abilities to deal with it.”
  • “I can ride this out and not let it get to me.”
  • “I’ve survived other situations like this, and I’ll survive this one, too.”

Remember: Denial isn’t a healthy coping strategy. If you simply proceed through hard times as though your feelings don’t exist, they’ll still lurk beneath the surface, weighing you down. Affirmations like these make space for your feelings while also calling on your ability to get through them.

“Affirmations acknowledge that what’s going on right now isn’t ideal but that you can get through it like you’ve gotten through other difficult things,” Dr. Alexander says.

How to get the most out of positive affirmations

Dr. Alexander shares tips for choosing the right affirmations for you and boosting the likelihood that they’ll help you.

1. Practice being positive

Like anything else, positive affirmations take work. If you’re not used to saying them and don’t do so on a regular basis, they probably won’t make much of a difference in a moment of need.

“If we want to start to make less room for the negative thoughts, we have to intentionally practice positive thoughts,” Dr. Alexander says.

She explains that according to a psychology concept called “survival of the busiest,” the thoughts we think the most are the ones that take root in our brains. It requires practice, then, to push back on our usual way of thinking.

2. Put your skepticism on hold

Let’s be real: It can feel kind of weird to stand in the mirror and say nice things to yourself, but try to resist the temptation to give up.

“If you’re typically a negative thinker, it’s not realistic to expect to become a positive thinker overnight,” Dr. Alexander says. Be patient and give it some time to sink in and feel normal.

3. Say them aloud or to yourself

Whether you say your positive affirmations aloud or just mentally repeat them to yourself is up to you, but the former is probably the best way to start. “Sometimes hearing things out loud is more impactful than saying them in your mind,” Dr. Alexander says.

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She shares ideas for when and how to say your affirmations:

  • Write your positive affirmations on notecards or sticky notes and post them throughout your home.
  • Leave them on your nightstand so you look at them when you wake up and before you go to bed.
  • Keep your affirmations in an app on your phone so you can access them throughout the day.
  • Set a timer to remind yourself to look at or repeat your affirmations at the same time every day.

Pair your affirmations with action

Positive thinking is one of the first steps toward positive action — but positive thinking alone won’t do the trick.

Think of it this way: If someone said they were going to give you a million dollars, would you believe them? You’d probably be pretty skeptical, right up until you saw that check hit your bank account. The same is true of positive thinking.

“I always tell people that changing their thinking is super important but that what’s really convincing to us, as humans, is when we see a change in behavior,” Dr. Alexander says,

If you believe you’re unlikable, for example, work up to smiling at a couple of strangers during the day and then, eventually, to inviting a colleague to grab coffee on a break.

“You have to give yourself the chance to have interactions that prove your negative thinking wrong,” Dr. Alexander says. “When you end up seeing that what you assumed would happen didn’t bear out, that helps reinforce your new style of thinking.”

When positive affirmations don’t work

Positive affirmations might help you persevere and keep faith in yourself through a difficult time, but if you can’t seem to shake persistent feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem, it may be time to speak with a mental health professional who can help you learn to cope.

“Life can certainly be miserable at times, and we can’t always change the stressors accounting for that misery,” Dr. Alexander says. “But our way of thinking during those miserable times can either stagnate us or help us move forward.”

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