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Do Positive Affirmations Work?

For decades, positive affirmations have been a tactic espoused by self-help gurus to help people make positive changes in their lives. The idea is simple: you spend a few minutes each day saying what you would like to be true as if it were already true. So for example, if you really want to quit drinking but you find yourself reaching for the whisky every time you feel stressed, your positive affirmation might be, “I remain calm and focused under stress with no need of alcohol.” Positive affirmations have been a fixture of pop-psychology for a long time, but do they actually work?


It depends on how you do it.

Anyone who has ever tried Stuart Smalley-style affirmations–i.e., “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, gosh darn it, people like me”–has probably noticed the hitch right away. These kinds of affirmations are always about something we want to change about ourselves, which means they conflict with what we already believe. If you feel like you’re fat and disgusting and you look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I’m fit and handsome,” it feels more like mockery than positivity. You reject it outright and end up feeling worse about yourself. This way of doing affirmations usually backfires. A similar tactic of visualizing yourself as you wish you were also tends to backfire because then you feel like you’ve already achieved your desired outcome and you aren’t as willing to work for it.


Focus on cues instead of facts.

Affirmations don’t work because you’re just stating something diametrically opposed to what you believe deep down to be true. A better approach is to affirmations that are more like cues to remind yourself what to focus on. AA has a trove of good affirmations such as “one day at a time” and “progress, not perfection.” If you’ve been through cognitive behavioral therapy, you may be aware of some cognitive distortions you often use. For example, if you’re in the habit of focusing on your mistakes while discounting the things you do well, you might create an affirmation to remind you to appreciate your wins today, no matter how small. These kinds of affirmations are operative in that they focus your efforts rather trying to change your beliefs by blunt force. 


Use self-affirmation.

You may have heard the term “self-affirmation,” which is different from positive affirmations. Self-affirmation is reinforcing something you already believe about yourself. Often, by acknowledging and appreciating our good qualities, we can expand on them and feel better about ourselves in general. There’s also research that shows affirming your deepest values can help reduce stress and improve your problem-solving under pressure. So for example, the self-affirmation, “I care deeply about my family and I want them to be happy,” assuming it’s true, can make you more resilient in the face of challenges.


Self-improvement is a worthy pursuit, but the nostrums of self-help gurus don’t always hold up to real-world use or scientific scrutiny. There is no shortcut to sobriety but recovery is possible with the right help. Tree House Recovery of Orange County, California is a unique holistic treatment program that helps men build better lives free from drugs and alcohol. Call us today at 855-202-2138 to learn more.

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