Self-affirmation may bring to mind the image of Stuart Smalley looking in the mirror and saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.” While that is a great example of positive affirmation, self-affirmation is something entirely different. Supported by quite a bit of evidence, self-affirmation is simply the practice of reminding yourself about your most important values. A positive affirmation may go something like “I don’t need alcohol to feel good.” Conversely, a self-affirmation is more along the lines of, “My family’s happiness is extremely important to me.” Studies show two powerful effects resulting from consistent self-affirmation practices.
Self-Affirmation Makes You Less Defensive
Defensiveness is a common barrier to addiction treatment and recovery. Most people struggle to come to terms with the reality that they have a substance use issue and it’s also hard for them to ask for help. During treatment, increased resistance is common. Often, people believe that they’re “not like everyone else in the program,” and that they don’t need help or can manage their recovery on their own. Reluctance to confront challenges in recovery only slows progress.
Research shows that self-affirmation reduces defensiveness about these kinds of issues. Resistance is often about protecting your identity and sense of self. The idea that you might have an anxiety disorder, for example, might threaten your self-image. However, affirming your core values gives you a sort of anchor point. Recognizing these values as being important to your identity allows you to be more open to dealing with the peripheral issues around your behavior. Awareness around your values of family and loved ones as part of your identity, for example, creates a willingness to work on issues that may threaten these values.
Self-Affirmation Helps You Make Better Decisions
Self-affirmation makes you more willing to confront challenges to your identity, therefore helping you make better decisions about your life and health. Two main reasons for this exist. One is that you are more willing to accept negative information and consider it as part of your decision-making process. For example, one study showed a group of women receiving information that linked alcohol and breast cancer. Half the group had done a self-affirmation exercise and the other had not. The group that had not practiced self-affirmation later avoided even looking at words on a list related to breast cancer. It’s hard to make good decisions when you selectively ignore important information.
Second, a reason that makes changing behaviors difficult is that those behaviors are often closely linked to identity. For example, if you see yourself as a drinker, that’s one more thing making it harder to stay sober. However, if you affirm core values such as family or professional competence, you are less likely to rely on drinking as part of your identity.
How to Practice Self-Affirmation
Most interventions in studies have focused on writing about core values, such as family, integrity, compassion, knowledge, and self-determination. Participants are typically asked to choose a value and spend a few minutes writing about why it matters to them. This could easily be a regular part of your daily journaling, which is itself a powerful recovery practice. You might also include your core values in your daily meditation or prayer. The key is to find some way of keeping your core values fresh in your mind.
Recovery from addiction is about far more than just abstinence from drugs and alcohol. It’s about creating a life full of joy and meaning. Getting in touch with your core values can guide your actions for the better and help you stay sober. At Tree House Recovery of Orange County, we recognize the importance of treating the whole person, body, mind, and spirit. We help men live better lives, free from drugs and alcohol. Call us today at 855-202-2138 to learn more about our treatment program.