Think back to the last time you were in a stressful situation or faced with a difficult decision. Did you give yourself a mental pep talk, or did discouraging thoughts take over?
Too often, we berate ourselves for not being pretty enough, smart enough, strong enough. Our inner thoughts play host to all sorts of negativity—which is exactly the opposite of what we need to show that we are pretty/smart/strong or whatever we want to be channeling. It may sound hokey, but there is an easy way to boost your confidence when it’s flagging: affirmations.
Affirmations are when you talk to yourself with positive phrases, like “I am lovable.” They often get a bad rap—Who really wants to stare into a mirror and talk to themselves?—but research shows that they are effective at giving you an internal boost. Acknowledging our good qualities is crucial to building confidence, resilience, and well-being. Here’s what you need to know.
The Science Behind Affirmations
Anyone who has seen former SNL cast member Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character can attest that affirmations can seem silly at best. But research says that maybe we should stop laughing. A Carnegie Mellon research study found that self-affirmations boost a person’s problem-solving abilities and protect against the damaging effects of stress. Another study found that women in an introductory physics class who used self-affirmations performed better on their exams and earned higher grades than the women in the class who did not.
Affirmations have also been linked to positive responses to stress. One study found that students who used affirmations before a midterm they rated as “most stressful” had lower levels of the hormone epinephrine (which is present in times of stress) than their peers who did not. The Science of Us, from New York Magazine, even reported fascinating cognitive research: When participants engaged in self-affirmation, the parts of their brain associated with executive function (memory, problem-solving, reasoning, planning) and receiving awards were more activated than the control group.
How to Use Affirmations Successfully
Affirmations are effective, but how does one put them into practice? A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that affirmations in second or third person were more effective in reducing stress and anxiety than using first-person ones. Ethan Koss, one of the study’s researchers, shared in an interview with NPR that he formulated the idea for the study when he noticed something intriguing about how basketball star LeBron James spoke. When James made the announcement that he was leaving Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat, he referred to himself in the third person: “I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy.”
Koss’ research showed that people who used their own names when talking about themselves were more likely to give themselves support and advice. For example, saying, “You will give a meaningful and engaging presentation today” is more effective than “I can give a meaningful and engaging presentation today.”
Researchers believe that using second or third person is a form of self-distancing, which allows individuals to take a step back and observe from an outsider’s perspective. This can help you recognize qualities you never noticed before. What would someone else say about you? Go ahead, try it out.
Identify Your Personal Affirmations
Remember the scene from Mean Girls when Regina, Gretchen, and Karen stand in front of the mirror and point out their physical imperfections? Many times you notice your imperfections first, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Standing in front of a mirror is a great way to start being kind to yourself by using affirmations.
David Sarwer, a psychologist who works at an eating disorder center, uses a mirror as one of his first exercises with his patients. He has them stand in front of the mirror and try to use more neutral language to describe their bodies instead of using negative descriptions. For example, “My face is fat” becomes “My face has a round shape rather than an oval or heart shape that other people have.” What could you say about yourself that is at least neutral, or maybe even positive? Try to focus on an aspect of your appearance that you like rather than an aspect that you don’t.
Personal affirmations aren’t confined to your appearance. They can also help you identify and embrace your strengths. Are you a thoughtful friend? Are you an organized planner who can meet any deadline? Or perhaps you help bring about compromise when disagreements arise? If you are having trouble getting started, think about what a friend might say about you, or even ask a friend what they might say about you.
Identify something you like about your appearance, one (or more) of your strengths, and something that you value and want to work toward. Write these three things down. Some people even find it helpful to display them, such as on your bathroom mirror. Setting a recurring reminder on your phone could also be helpful to keep your affirmations top of mind. Be creative and use whatever system works best for you.
When to Use Affirmations
Affirmations can be used any time, whether at work, home, or with friends or family. They help remind you of your strengths in times of stress. Patty, who blogs at A Modern Grace, shared on the podcast “Caritas” how she used affirmations to help boost her resilience during a stressful period of divorce.
Use affirmations when you wake up in the morning, before a big day at work, before a difficult conversation with a friend, when you are reminding your child not to climb on the counter (for what feels like the thousandth time), and on that first date when you are incredibly nervous.
Using affirmations on a regular basis will have a positive domino effect in your life. Focusing on your positive qualities and strengths not only boosts your self-assurance and sense of well-being but can, in turn, influence the way you cope in stressful situations as well. Recent research has found that using self-affirmations can make a positive impact that lasts weeks and even years. Take advantage of this simple and easy practice to boost your confidence today.
Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan Photography