Stuart Smalley's famous catchphrase "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me" along with other affirmations such as "My body is healthy; my mind is brilliant; my soul is tranquil," and "I am a powerhouse; I am indestructible," may just be "stinkin' thinkin!"
Countless self-help books and popular press promote a multitude of positive affirmations with promises of personal transformations almost magical in nature. Guidance, a recent Canadian dark comedy which premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, seamlessly weaves the premise of affirmations to tell the story of the main character, David Gold. The audience first meets David doing an audio recording of New Age affirmations, a last-resort acting gig he’s promptly fired from because he is already drunk at 9 a.m. As David leaves the recording studio, we observe the 36-year old man riding a bicycle while a voiceover gently croons the following "If I don't fit into an imperfect world, I am better than the world I live in. I am in control of my life. I am responsible and well-loved. I am well-adjusted. I lead by example. I have a healthy body and mind. I have nothing to fear." In the next shot, we find David at the doctor's office where David is informed he has Stage III skin cancer and needs an aggressive treatment program. David's "I'm OK" response is followed by a screenshot of him in a tanning booth ignoring his doctor's advice to stay out of the sun. The voiceover continues with "I take steps to be more healthy. I am resourceful. I find happiness in every moment. Every day I get better and better. I have a rich and supportive social circle. I have not peaked. My life is on a cusp of greatness. I'm what they call a success story." Within the first 5 minutes of the movie, we understand that David Gold is a former TV child star turned train wreck and his reality could not be further different from his affirmations. "I can help shape the world of tomorrow from the wisdom I have learned from my past" is an affirmation that sets the stage for David's decision to pose as a high-school guidance counselor to avoid being evicted. In the interest of full disclosure, I must add that I have absolutely no affiliation with the movie and I'm not getting any incentives for mentioning Guidance in my blog. I do though really enjoy finding psychology entangled in our lives and culture. Since I don't want to give away the rest of the movie, I will let you decode the multiple meanings of the movie's title, Guidance, and the extent to which affirmations harm or help David through his journey.
Most people who use affirmations are trying to make themselves feel better and to motivate themselves. An affirmation is “a statement or judgment that you declare as being true.” However, if you don’t actually believe the words you are telling yourself, then affirmations can actually make you feel worse. Researchers have found that just engaging in positive affirmations by themselves can do harm to people with low self-esteem. Even for people with high self-esteem affirmations provide only little benefit [Reference: Wood, J. V., Perunovic, E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860–6.] Affirmations may not work when they are unreasonably positive and overestimate the possibility of success without intentional effort. People may think that the very act of repeating the affirmation would on its own propel the universe to do the work of changing for them, but positive affirmations are not a magic wand. Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker, once said "Affirmation without discipline is the beginning of delusion." Doggone it! Let's not delude ourselves.
So how can you make affirmations work for you?
First and foremost, pause to bring greater awareness to your affirmations and ask yourself whether it is something you really desire. Focus on formulating a reasonably positive statement.
Then consider the degree to which your affirmations align with your core values. There is research to suggest that the process of identifying and focusing on one's most important values via positive affirmations boosts stressed individuals' problem-solving abilities.
Then take ACTION. Discipline and action are key ingredients in any self-improvement efforts. When positive affirmations are part of a comprehensive effort of self-growth and intentional cultivation of wellbeing, they are more likely to work.