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Do Affirmations Actually Work?

My first brush with affirmations was in the movie ‘The Help’, when Aibileen Clark (played by Viola Davis) recites to the girl she cares for “You is Kind, You is Smart, You is Important” and has the little girl say it back to her in confirmation. On the surface this ritual between the two characters was emotional and touching, however on a deeper level this was indeed the practice of positive affirmations.

Affirmations have been around since the dawn of time, often created by philosophers, spiritual leaders or Politicians. However, they have become increasingly popular in recent years since the inception of Pinterest boards and the surge of self-care and positive thinking. Skeptics of the power of affirmations (myself at times included) may find these simple approaches too good to be true. You’re telling me that by looking myself in the mirror and telling myself I am worthy; I’m going to feel better? Indeed, it is one of life’s miracles because research has confirmed such seemingly silly tactics are actually effective and life-changing!

Understanding the science behind affirmations is what helped me believe in their power and it’s surprisingly, quite simple. Positive affirmations work by affirming the self so that it feels strengthened. Even if the self only feels strengthened temporarily, it still helps us perform better on tasks that benefit from a relaxed and attentive state of mind. These tasks can be creative thinking or problem solving tasks where we can often lose focus as threats to our sense of self weaken our ability to meet the demands of the moment. For example, a student who has practiced positive affirmations and begins a math test will feel that their self-image is less threatened by the anxiety of not knowing an answer, thus allowing them to focus on the problem at hand rather than the defense of their sense of self. Studies have actually shown an increase in grade-point averages in underperforming kids throughout the semester by conducting a brief self-affirmation activity at the beginning of a school term.

In addition to helping us perform better on tasks at school or at work, positive affirmations help us navigate emotional tasks with a clearer mind as well. By having a more strengthened sense of self, people develop a more non-defensive ego structure, opening them up to being better able to make use of criticism. Just like the kid taking a math test who feels the equations that are difficult are threatening his sense of self, we often feel the same sense of attack when being offered negative feedback. The buffer that positive affirmations can offer allow us to be in a place to receive the negative feedback, as we are less inclined to feel it undermines our entire sense of self.

Now that we know talking to ourselves in the mirror is backed by science, shall we give it a try? There are exhaustive lists of affirmations on the internet to help you get inspiration, but some of the best affirmations are ones that you write yourself and are tied to meaning or doubts you have about your self. As we know, in a way positive affirmations trick our mind into believing in ourselves even if we aren’t quite there yet. In order for this to be most effective, practicing positive affirmations should be done as a daily ritual. Spending time in the morning, or before bed either writing out or vocally reciting your chosen affirmations is best practice. Other ways of keeping your affirmations top of mind can be writing it out on a sticky note and keeping it in a place where you will see it every day, for example on your desk at work, or as the background of your phone. It’s important to note, only passively seeing your affirmations won't do the trick, it's necessary to actively take time to connect with them too.

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