Affirmations can be ineffective if they don’t align with how you feel about yourself, said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
For “Saturday Night Live” fans, the word affirmation likely triggers memories of a popular character in the 1990s: Stuart Smalley. With her neatly styled blonde hair and light blue sweater, the ‘Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley’ host (played by comedian Al Franken) looked in a mirror and candidly declared, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough. , and too bad, people like me. Although the depiction is satirical, viewers could be forgiven for viewing the idea of assertiveness with skepticism or dismissing it as “too woo-woo.”
But psychologists and researchers who have looked at assertiveness say numerous studies have shown that being assertive can produce many benefits, including stress-relieving effects. The trick, they say, is knowing how you assert yourself, especially what you focus on.
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“I would just like to throw out this whole Stuart Smalley thing,” said Claude M. Steele, social psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, who wrote a seminal paper on the psychology of assertiveness.
Effective affirmation isn’t about thinking, “‘I want to pump myself up and find ways to say how much I love myself,'” said David Creswell, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies affirmation. self.
“It’s more about identifying, in a very concrete way, the kinds of things about yourself that you really value.”
Using broad or generic statements is unlikely to be helpful and may, in some cases, backfire, experts said. For example, repeating “I really love myself” can make you think of yourself as a good or bad person and force you to judge yourself, Creswell said. “Even if he tries to position it as a positive assessment, it creates the possibility that you may not be a good person.”
Affirmations can also be ineffective if they don’t align with how you feel about yourself, said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It’s about encouraging yourself with precision and authenticity or using words of encouragement or acknowledgment that align with your truth.”
Additionally, people may mistakenly think that affirmations are about “seeking perfection or striving for greatness,” said Chris Cascio, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin- Madison who studied the practice. Instead, Cascio said, the key concept of affirmations is, “As you are, you are good enough and you are valued as you.”
To understand how self-affirmations, also known as value affirmations, work requires recognizing that people are made up of “a unique combination of identities or dimensions for which we hold ourselves self-assessed accountable.” , said Steele, who is credited with coining the term “assertiveness theory.” The theory, which is expounded in Steele’s 1988 paper, goes on to posit that people are motivated to view themselves as morally good and competent.
But we often experience situations in which this view of self may be emotionally or psychologically threatened, such as failing a test or receiving criticism.
Self-affirmations can be “a self-defense tool” against these threats, Creswell said. Affirming things about yourself that you appreciate can help strengthen your overall sense of yourself and your self-esteem, and improve your ability to deal with unsettling experiences.
If you have a stronger sense of yourself, threatening situations might not affect you as negatively, he said.
“You’re not going to ruminate on them so much. You’re not going to get caught in it.
You might, for example, be better able to deal with critical comments at work if you have asserted your abilities as a parent, partner, or friend. “You will have those other things that are close to your heart; those friendships, those commitments, that will give you a sense of security when you’re threatened in a particular area,” Steele said.
The benefits of reflecting on important personal values before potentially stressful events are supported by research.
Studies have shown that doing simple assertiveness exercises, such as writing about core personal values before a test, increased the success of minority students in school with evidence of lasting effects, according to a review article. of 2014.
Research has also documented some positive effects on stress.
In one small study, participants who asserted their values had “significantly lower stress cortisol responses” compared to the control group, the researchers wrote, referring to the body’s primary stress hormone.
Another small study of college students found that those who did two value affirmation writing exercises before a midterm exam had lower stress levels the day before the test. According to a 2013 study, assertiveness can also help improve problem solving under stress.
Brain studies offer additional insight into how assertiveness might work, experts have said.
Affirmations appear to engage brain regions associated with positive appraisal and self-treatment, Cascio said, citing his research findings. He added that his work found that affirmations related to “future-looking values” – for example, if family is a core value, you might think about the time you plan to spend with them – were “much more beneficial in terms of the success of affirmation versus thinking about the past,” because it engaged the value and self-processing regions of the brain more.
Other studies show that affirming activities can activate the brain’s reward system — the same system that responds to sex or drugs, Creswell said.
“There’s a really cool brain basis for these assertive effects,” he said. “They really activate the brain’s reward system, and that reward system kind of muffles your stress alarm system in a way that can be helpful.”
If you want to try assertiveness, the experts offer these suggestions.
Prioritize the development of a “multidimensional life”
It’s essential to be involved in several things that contribute to who you are, such as relationships with family and friends, work or passions, Steele said. This not only gives you more resources for your affirmations, but also provides other psychological benefits.
“I’m vulnerable if I only have one dimension on which all my self-esteem rests,” he said. “I’m going to be quite a volatile person.”
Identify authentic claims
Your affirmations and the way you phrase them should be consistent with the values that are important to you and your personal beliefs, Dattilo said.
If you’re struggling to come up with things to say about yourself, Dattilo suggests starting with statements that reflect what you want to believe. I want to believe that I am capable enough. I work to believe in myself. I try every day to think more positively about myself and my abilities. “It doesn’t feel inauthentic and it directs you to what you’d like to do, how you’d like to be, and how you’d like to feel,” she said.
Dattilo said she also sometimes recommends her patients write 50 statements about themselves and rate credibility on a scale of zero to 100. If something is below 50, throw it out or rephrase it. for it to become more believable, she said.
Creswell suggests affirming who you are by focusing on the things you love; for example, I love being a parent. “You give yourself the opportunity to hold something you enjoy and cherish and not feel like you need to judge it or have a debate about it in your head or in your writing” , did he declare. “We sometimes live our lives chaotically and multitasking, and we can lose sight of things that we truly cherish and that give us purpose.”
Build a daily habit that relates to affirmation
Although research shows that it helps to be assertive before stressful situations, experts encourage regular assertiveness activities.
A daily gratitude journal can be a good place to start, Creswell said. Once a day, perhaps at the end of your day, take a few minutes to write down at least one thing you are grateful for. “Most people who try this for two weeks might be really surprised at their experience and how there can be surprising carry-over effects,” he said. “I suspect something like this will get people to spontaneously assert more.”
Assertiveness can also be incorporated into meditation or mindfulness practices, Dattilo said.
But keep in mind that your behavior matters too, she added. One way to improve your level of confidence in a statement is to behave consistently with that belief.
“We see ourselves better through our behavior than we see ourselves through our thoughts,” Dattilo said. “When the choices we make are consistent with our values and the things we want to believe about ourselves, we move further along this credibility continuum.”