was recently washing my hands in a women’s bathroom where the mirrors were littered with sticky notes. It was as if I had stumbled into the very bowels of Ideation. Upon closer inspection, I found that each note contained a different phrase. Proclamations of positivity like “love yourself,” “you deserve abundance,” and “thanks for showing up” clung to my reflection, vaguely suggesting their surface application could act as effective cover-up for any self-worth issues I may need concealed. That was my cue: eye-roll engaged.
Aside from giving me unusable ideas for single-panel New Yorker cartoons (Jason Vorhees sitting at his vanity arranging his hockey mask and muttering, “My imperfections make me unique and special”), these sorts of anonymous platitudes have never been a true shade match for me. When I’m feeling great, they induce the aforementioned eye-roll. When I feel poorly, I find myself internally arguing their claims.
Post-handwashing in a Z-snap of sass, I took a picture of the mirror and posted it to my Instagram. As a joke, I created a poll asking if “positive affirmations from your anonymous bff” really worked for anyone. Surprising to me, about a third of the respondents said that yes, they did. Intrigued, I asked Phillip, a marketing professional and one of the affirmative respondents why he thought they worked for him. “I honestly think it just depends on your love language,” he said. “I personally feel amazing when I am encouraged through words.” Sentiments like these inevitably made me feel both guilty for my cynicism and a bit sour that I can’t center myself with the same breezy positivity. Eye-roll disengaged.
Admittedly, my informal affirmation research was lacking in both sample size and scientific rigour. It did, however, lead me to question why this methodology works so inconsistently. Dr. Joanne Wood, a Professor of Psychology at University of Waterloo, and her team performed a series of studies that explored the effect of positive self-statements on those with varying levels of self-esteem. This dispositional trait was identified using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale — a questionnaire used to measure a subject’s self-esteem on a scale between 0 (low) to 40 (high). During Wood’s research, participants were asked to repeat the phrase “I’m a lovable person” or to focus on its truth. What they found was that positive self-statements can cause low-self esteem people to feel worse.
“One of the things that we think is going on when positive self-statements backfire for low self-esteem people is that they refute the statement,” says Dr. Wood. “For example, when they tell themselves, ‘I am a great person,’ they immediately have thoughts that disprove that statement. It appears that positive self-statements, despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most.”
She also points out during our discussion that these findings seem to run counter to the pop culture narrative. “We’re often told by self-help books and talk shows that we’re supposed to tell ourselves positive things on a daily basis… both to pep ourselves before a stressful event, or to cope with the stressors of everyday life,” but these aren’t sure-fire strategies. Even if you don’t have low self-esteem, positive affirmations may not work for you. It’s important to test stuff out, experiment with intention, and build a set of go-to methods that do.
“Positive affirmations revive the negative for me,” says Courtney, an illustrator who responded to my survey. “It’s the cheese of a motivational poster and inaction.” She utilizes a blend of self-care and prioritizing to realign herself instead: “I apply a clay face mask, draw a bath, soak, and reset. For work, my centering is list-making. It’s a clear list of actions to take me to my goals.”
A similar sentiment is echoed by another respondent Amy, a writer and teacher: “Affirmations, for me, feel contrived and falsely motivational. To re-center, I have to focus on small, actionable steps. Telling myself I’m amazing isn’t going to necessarily make me suddenly able or capable. A small action towards capability though, that gives me a dose of what I need (and what I think others find in affirmations): a sense of belief, and self-capability.”
Research published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience supports the solutions Courtney and Amy arrive at in their critiques of affirmations. The study performed in 2016 found that affirmations work best (“best” meaning how much activity is visible in the the areas of the brain involved in self-processing and valuation) when they expand your sense of self-worth and are future-focused and actionable.
In other words, setting modest goals can be a more useful method than stating a collection of encouraging words. It acts to provide concrete evidence that you can, in fact, do something, however small, to shift your current state to something productive and positive. As Leandra wrote in a recent IG post, “[I]f you just do what you know how to do, put one foot ahead of the other, keep taking steps, just walking, you get there.”
While I may laugh at the words scrawled across a cupcake-shaped sticky (“I am loved? But by whom, and why are they choosing to inform me this way?”), I certainly don’t begrudge the psychological benefit these anonymous affirmations may provide others. Do I sometimes wish that I could rely on an anonymous cheer squad to bring me back to center? Sure. Barring some intense neural rewiring though, I’m content to settle for the toolset that works for me and a private moment of delightful satire. Who am I to deny the self-conscious Grim Reaper in my mind his mantra that he does, in fact, deserve abundance?
Gif by Madeline Montoya.