On a daily basis, each of us experiences setbacks and challenges that threaten or alter the way we envision ourselves, our abilities, and the roles we play within our family and our community. When the image we hold of ourselves is challenged, our minds must work to restore our understanding and our equilibrium (Sherman, 2006).
Self-affirmation theory builds upon these concepts to propose that the purpose of this self-restoration process is to preserve our internally held image of ourselves as having integrity, morality, and the ability to adapt. An image that assures us that we are good people functioning adequately within our social groups (Sherman, 2006). This theory also highlights the subconscious desire to maintain an image of ourselves as fair, competent, complete, stable, able to make choices freely, able to influence important outcomes, and able to impact our world through our actions (Steele, 2008).
This desire holds true even for those who have low self-esteem. In fact, those with low self-esteem are more likely to feel strong, negative emotions about events that threaten this desired self-image (Nail, 2003).
In order to preserve and improve this internally held image of ourselves, we use language, in our thoughts and spoken aloud, that is consistent with that image and the values shaping that image. Even more, when we think or speak language aligned with our values, we are activating self-protective defenses that make us more resilient to the negative outcomes of stress (Cohen, 2014). Language aligned with our values is referred to as affirmations, which allows us to affirm, or reinforce, our beliefs about the world and our actions within it.
When faced with stressful situations, the use of timely affirmations has been shown to improve our ability to learn, our satisfaction with our interpersonal relationships and even our physical health. The benefits of using affirmations can last for months to years (Cohen, 2014).
Affirmations act as a buffer between our true self and the world around us, allowing us to adapt not only our thinking, but our behavior as well (Sherman, 2006). Use of affirmations creates a positive feedback loop, where spoken affirmations lead to behavior that continues to enhance core values, which in turn increases positive self-image. Over time, these efforts can multiply to help grow other beneficial adaptive outcomes (Cohen, 2014).
The goal here is to develop new ways of thinking about ourselves and the world around us. Constructing affirmations that have meaning to us can help release habitual patterns of thinking that no longer serve our needs. Using affirmations as a tool, we can positively influence how we feel on a daily basis (Farmer, 1991).
Core Personal Values and Beliefs
Core personal beliefs and values are at the foundation of an affirmation (Cohen, 2014). These are automatic thoughts about ourselves that we believe to be wholeheartedly true. They live in our subconscious, and pop up with less effort than other thoughts due to our reliance on them - manifested through intentional repetition. We use our core personal beliefs as a default, and make them the basis for our understanding of who we are as a person and what kind of treatment we deserve from others. These beliefs and values influence how we interpret the events that we experience, as well as influence the actions that we take in response to those events (Torres, 2021).
When creating an affirmation, the goal is to define an existing positive core value or create a new, constructive core value (Farmer, 1991). Let's start by thinking of something neutral or positive about ourselves or the world, that is true, with a goal of reassurance and a building up our self-image. Consider the following examples:
- The past occurred and it cannot be changed nor entirely forgotten.
- I am a human person who makes mistakes and experiences successes.
- I can offer grace and forgiveness to others, and I am deserving of the same.
- I have gained skills, knowledge and experience from life and am capable of change.
- The past can influence my future only to the extent that I allow it to.
We can start to draft a positive core value by thinking of people we respect and trust, and then imagining how we want them to see us. Alternatively, we may have specific goals that have meaning to us or accomplishments we are proud of. Core values can also relate to future events we hope to experience.
We're going to now write down the positive core values we just came up with on a piece of paper to activate our brain and body in manifesting them into our physical, conscious and subconscious. When writing, try to be specific, brief and use simple wording for the sake of clarity.
Rote memorization is a process of written repetition which makes something permanent in the mind over time (Hayes, 2013). To use this feature as an advantage, write down every potential core value that came to mind in the previous paragraphs. We'll apply this concept to affirmations as well.
How to Write an Affirmation
The positive and negative words and phrases we use to describe ourselves in our thoughts, and to others, serve to reinforce our ideas about ourselves. The words we choose can help us or hurt us in the same way that others' words can offer support or do harm (Sherman, 2006). Affirmations are our chance to create and enhance our internal conversations to ensure we benefit from how we talk to ourselves.
Affirmations can be written in whatever way works best for us, however, using ‘I’ statements can be especially powerful, especially if we use our names. For example, ‘I, Supplemental Sanity, am proud of my… (Farmer, 1991).’ Here, we are taking our core value and writing it in the traditional affirmation format.
Consider starting the affirmations with ‘I can’, ‘I am able to’, ‘I am capable of’, ‘I forgive’, ‘I improve’, ‘I create’, ‘I let go of’, ‘I am grateful for’, I am at peace with’, ‘I enjoy’, ‘I acknowledge’, ‘I feel confident’, ‘I express’, ‘I ask for’, ‘I take responsibility for’, ‘I have the courage to’, ‘I am committed to’, ‘I give myself credit for’,’I protect’, ‘I feel safe’, ‘I deserve’, ‘I set limits’, ‘I trust my’, ‘I am learning to’, ‘I value my’, ‘I am successful at’, or ‘I am responsible for’ (Farmer, 1991).
Try to stay in the present tense and use strong action words to describe efforts to engage each core personal value. The final affirmation should be brief, true and realistic. The simpler the affirmation, the easier it will be to recall. Try to write at least three.
Examples of strong affirmations include (Rosselló, 2007):
- I am intelligent.
- I am responsible.
- I am a decent person.
- I am doing a good job.
- I am in control of myself.
- I can do better next time.
- I have a right to be happy.
- I am learning to be happy.
- I am honest and trustworthy.
- I am hopeful about my future.
- I handled this situation reasonably.
- It is a beautiful morning/day/evening.
- I am deserving of recognition and credit.
- I can handle a crisis as well as anyone else.
- I am able to provide for myself and my family.
- My experiences have prepared me for the future.
- I can find the strength to solve difficult problems.
- I can choose the best solution to difficult problems.
- Even though things are bad now, they can get better.
- I can learn from the past, and not repeat my mistakes.
Using Affirmations To Enhance State Of Mind
Repeat the affirmations out loud. This strategy will enhance the positive impact of the words being used (Farmer, 1991).
One approach to maximizing affirmations is the 3 X 3 method. Using this strategy, we choose three affirmations and repeat them 10 times, out loud, daily for three weeks. In the fourth week, we choose three new affirmations and repeat those out loud 10 times for three weeks. This effort continues for a total of 12 weeks. At the end of the 12th week, we can take some time to reflect on how the affirmations felt to us, how impactful each affirmation was, and then discard any that aren't helpful. We then continue to repeat the affirmations that do work each day thereafter (Farmer, 1991).
Consider writing down the affirmations and placing them in highly visible spots. Use a pack of sticky notes and a sharpie to place the affirmations on mirrors, by door knobs, on the refrigerator or anywhere where it can be read easily. Click here for a template.
Repeating the affirmation at the same time every day or while doing something we enjoy can help the idea stick. Record the affirmation and play it back, or have someone trusted repeat it out loud to you as a favor. It will take around 21 days of repetition for the affirmation to stay put, so keep at it (Farmer, 1991).
RoadBlocks to Affirmations
Unfortunately, when children are told things about themselves by authority figures in their lives, especially parents and teachers, those children soon come to believe that those things are true. This cause and effect happens with such consistency, that the phenomena is actually referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Positive reinforcement and affirmations are accepted as effective tools to counter these effects and reduce suffering in adults who were victims of abuse as children (Downing, 1986).