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How to make self-affirmation work, based on science

Effective self-affirmation involves focusing on things about yourself that you value, experts say, such as relationships with family and friends or passions. (Monica Garwood/Illustration for The Washington Post)
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For fans of “Saturday Night Live,” the word affirmation probably triggers memories of a character popular in the 1990s: Stuart Smalley. With his carefully coifed blond hair and light-blue sweater, the host of “Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley” (played by comedian Al Franken) would gaze into a mirror and earnestly declare, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Though the depiction was satirical, viewers could be forgiven for considering the idea of self-affirmation with skepticism or dismissing it as “too woo-woo.”

But psychologists and researchers who have examined self-affirmation say numerous studies have found that affirming yourself can produce wide-ranging benefits, including stress-buffering effects. The trick, they say, is how you affirm yourself — particularly what you focus on.

“I would just jettison all that Stuart Smalley stuff,” said Claude M. Steele, a social psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University who wrote a foundational paper on the psychology of self-affirmation.

Effective affirmation isn’t thinking, “ ‘I want to pump myself up and find ways to say how much I like myself,’ ” said David Creswell, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University who researches self-affirmation. “It’s more about really identifying, in really concrete ways, the kinds of things about you that you really value.”

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Using broad or generic affirmations probably won’t be helpful and can sometimes backfire, experts said. For instance, repeating “I really like myself” can make you think about yourself in terms of being a good or bad person, and it sets you up to judge yourself, Creswell said. “Even though it’s trying to position it as a positive evaluation, it creates the possibility that maybe you’re not a good person.”

Affirmations also might be ineffective if they don’t align with what you believe about yourself, said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “This is about accurately and authentically encouraging yourself or using words of encouragement or acknowledgment that are consistent with your truth.”

What’s more, people can mistakenly think affirmations are about “seeking perfection or seeking greatness,” said Chris Cascio, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the practice. Instead, Cascio said, the key concept of affirmations is: “As you are, you are good enough, and you’re valued being you.”

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Understanding how self-affirmations, also known as value affirmations, work requires recognizing that people are made up of “some unique combination of identities or dimensions that we hold ourselves self-evaluatively accountable to,” said Steele, who is credited with coining the term “self-affirmation theory.” The theory, which is laid out in Steele’s 1988 paper, goes on to postulate that people are motivated to maintain views of themselves as morally good and competent.

But we often experience situations in which this self-view might be emotionally or psychologically threatened, such as failing a test or receiving criticism.

Self-affirmations can be “a tool for self-defense” against these threats, Creswell said. Affirming things about yourself that you value can help bolster your overall sense of self and self-worth, and it can improve your ability to cope with destabilizing experiences.

If you have a stronger sense of self, threatening situations might not affect you as negatively, he said. “You’re not going to ruminate as much about them. You’re not going to get caught in them.”

You may, for example, be better able to weather critical feedback at work if you’ve affirmed your abilities as a parent, partner or friend. “You will have these other things you care about, these friendships, these involvements, that will give you a sense of security when you’re threatened in a particular domain,” Steele said.

The benefits of thinking about important personal values before potentially stressful events are supported by research. Studies have shown that doing simple self-affirming exercises, such as writing about core personal values before a test, raised minority student achievement in school, with some evidence of long-lasting effects, according to a 2014 review paper.

Research has also documented some positive effects on stress.

In one small study, participants who affirmed their values had “significantly lower cortisol responses to stress” compared with the control group, researchers wrote, referring to the body’s primary stress hormone. Another small study of college students found that those who did two value-affirming writing exercises ahead of a midterm exam had lower stress levels the day before the test. Self-affirmation can also help improve problem-solving under stress, according to a 2013 study.

Brain studies offer further insight into how self-affirmations might work, experts said.

Affirmations seem to engage regions of the brain associated with positive valuation and self-processing, said Cascio, citing his research findings. He added that his work found that affirmations related to “future-oriented values” — for example, if family is a core value, you could think about time you’re planning to spend with them — were “much more beneficial in terms of the affirmation’s success compared to thinking about the past,” because doing so engaged the value and self-processing regions of the brain to a greater degree.

Other studies show that affirmation 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 self-affirmation effects,” he said. “They’re really turning on the brain’s reward system, and that reward system is sort of then muffling your stress alarm system in ways that can be helpful.”

If you would like to try self-affirmation, experts offer these suggestions.

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Prioritize developing a “multidimensional life.” It’s critical to become involved in multiple things that contribute to who you are, such as relationships with family and friends, work or passions, Steele said. That not only gives you more to draw on for your affirmations, but it also offers other psychological benefits.

“I’m vulnerable if I just have one dimension on which my whole self-regard rides,” he said. “I’m going to be a pretty volatile person.”

Identify authentic affirmations. Your affirmations and how you word them should be consistent with values that are important to you and your self-beliefs, Dattilo said.

If you’re struggling to find things about yourself to affirm, Dattilo suggests starting with statements that reflect what you want to believe. I want to believe that I’m capable enough. I’m working toward believing in myself. I’m trying every day to think more positively about myself and my capabilities. “It doesn’t feel inauthentic, and it’s moving you in the direction of what you’d like to do, how you would like to be and how you’d like to feel,” she said.

Dattilo said she also sometimes recommends that her patients write down statements about themselves and rate the believability on a scale of zero to 100. If anything is under 50, discard it or reword it, so it becomes more believable, she said.

Creswell suggests affirming who you are by focusing on what you love, such as: I love being a parent. “You’re giving yourself an opportunity to hold up something you value and cherish and not feel like you need to judge it or have a debate about it in your head or in your writing,” he said. “We live our lives sometimes in a busy multitasking, chaotic way, and we can lose sight of things that we really cherish and that give us a sense of purpose.”

Build a daily habit that relates to affirmation. Although the research shows that it’s helpful to affirm yourself ahead of stressful situations, experts encourage regularly doing affirming activities.

A daily gratitude journal may be a good place to start, Creswell said. Once a day, perhaps at the end of your day, take a couple of minutes to write down at least one thing you’re grateful for. “Most people who try that for two weeks might be really surprised at their experience and how there may be surprising carry-over effects,” he said. “I suspect that something like that is going to result in people spontaneously affirming more.”

Self-affirmation can also be built into meditation or mindfulness practices, Dattilo said.

But keep in mind that your behavior also matters, she added. One way to improve how much you believe an affirmation is by behaving in ways that are consistent with the belief.

“We see ourselves through our behavior better than we see ourselves through our thoughts,” Dattilo said. “When the choices that we make are in line with our values and the things that we want to believe about ourselves, we’re moving further along that believability continuum.”

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