Sherif Arafa is an editorial cartoonist, self-development author, public speaker, and dentist by degree. Arafa holds an MBA in Human Resources and an MS Degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of East London. He left dentristry to focus on using his books and cartoons to augment well-being awareness, foster open-mindedness, increase tolerance, and oppose extremism. LinkedIn profile. Sherif's articles on PositivePsychologyNews are here.
In a classic Egyptian comedy movie, a patient tells his psychologist that he feels bad because he is too short. The therapist advises him to repeat to himself, “I’m not absurdly short; I’m ridiculously tall!” and everything will be fine!
Some people mock the idea of positive affirmations and consider them some kind of self-deception or delusion. Meanwhile, it is commonly suggested in pop psychology and spiritual books to use self-affirmations to raise confidence, considering that “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
Self-talk is what people say to themselves either out loud or as a small voice inside their head. So has it been scientifically proven that positive self-talk can make any difference at all?
According psychological studies and experiments, do self-affirmations really work?I’m a lovable person!
In a recent study that investigated the effect of self-talk, researchers chose a self-affirmation statement suggested by a self-development book: “I’m a lovable person.” Then they asked participants to repeat this statement to see how it affected their self-esteem.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that people with high self-esteem felt better when they did this, while people with low self-esteem did not; in fact, they actually felt worse!
Does this mean that self-affirmations are useful only for people with high self-esteem, and harmful for people with low self-esteem?
Can’t we use positive self-talk to help us when we feel down?Custom-made Affirmation
Other researchers performed a different experiment. They let the participants write down the most common thoughts that cross their minds during the day and then use the most positive and believable thought as a self-affirmation to rehearse more often.
This experiment resulted in an obvious increase in the participants’ self-esteem, even in people with low self-esteem.
Why did this happen?
By comparing this experiment to the first one, we can infer that the key point is to use a self-affirmation that comes from a person’s own thoughts, not a random mantra advised by a self-help guru that may not fit people’s beliefs about themselves. Repeating a self-affirmation that doesn’t feel right can make someone feel worse.
How to self-talk positively?
It is possible to train people to increase positive thoughts, which has many benefits. It is important for mental health and has been shown to enhance performance for athletes in many sports, such as tennis, water polo, and basketball. It can also be useful in business, enhancing organizational performance if employees practice it often.If you think about it, positive self-talk is easy to do; just close your eyes, and talk to yourself in a positive way. However, researchers have designed many techniques to increase the frequency of effective positive self-talk. Examples include
- Fluent training, which is writing as many positive thoughts as possible in a one-minute period, once every day for two weeks can make these positive thoughts become automatic.
- Writing 15 positive self-statements and rehearsing them three times daily for two weeks or twice daily for three weeks can also lead to more fluent positive thoughts.
These experiments also show that recalling realistic and believable positive statements prewritten on flash cards (or cell phone applications to be available any time) can be useful as reminders to increase the frequency of positive thoughts.
So it seems the self-affirmations should be derived from the thoughts people already have about their own qualities and characteristics. Personally, I use my character strengths as an inspiration to write my own self-affirmations, so they will match what I really believe about myself.
On the other hand, it may not be useful to repeat a random mantra taken from a self-help book, because this may contradict what people believe about themselves. Doing so may be harmful for people with low self-esteem because they may feel the statement is not realistic, like the patient who keeps saying, “I’m not absurdly short; I’m ridiculously tall!”
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