Do Self-Affirmations Work? Coping With Low Self-esteem & Self-worth

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Humans try to reassure themselves of many things – I am lovable, I am smart, I can do this, I will figure it out. To get there, humans, with low self-esteem and self-worth, need a nudge because the starting point is – I am unlovable, I am dumb, I can’t do this, I don’t know what to do. This is exactly where positive self-affirmations tend to be useful, but only under certain conditions.

Before we get to the core of why, when, and how self-affirmations work, we will do a quick overview of some important concepts.


What is self-esteem and self-worth?

Self-esteem is what we think, feel, and believe about ourselves. Seeing yourself negatively or inferior to some ideal (or others) is low self-esteem. Confidently knowing you are not fundamentally inferior (in spite of failures) is a sign of high self-esteem.

Self-worth is how we value ourselves. Thinking you are never good enough or you don’t deserve good things is a sign of low-self worth. Knowing you are a valuable life-form and have a valued place in the world is a sign of high self-worth.

Both of these are interlinked. Low self-worth can lead to behavior like tolerating poor treatment which can undermine self-esteem and lead to beliefs like I am inferior and this is what I deserve. On the other hand, it is also possible to have great confidence in individual professional skills but go to bed thinking you are not good enough because of poorly satisfied intimacy needs. That can trigger a pattern of behavior which lowers self-esteem and self-worth.

Low self-esteem & self-worth manifest as harsh judgments about yourself, regardless of evidence to support that judgment.

This is precisely where self-affirmations can come into the picture and help people overcome problems like deteriorating self-esteem and self-worth. In some cases, even when one hits rock bottom. But, there are conditions that need to be satisfied for positive affirmations to work.


What are self-affirmations?

Self-affirmations are words and actions that aim to reassure ourselves of something. They are often sentences like “I am beautiful” and “What I am doing is perfectly ok, it is enough. I have nothing to prove to anyone and I am valued for the effort I put in.

Instagram is full of self-affirming posts with more complex emotional expressions. It probably reflects how humans have fundamentally conceptualized complex situations and nuanced emotions as the basic building blocks that support mental health.

One remarkably useful type of self-affirmation is value-affirming. It is when people deliberately speak or write about a few value-oriented aspects of life – What do I value the most? Why? Or, what aspects of life are most important to me and do I hold them as important?

Positive self-affirmations are things people say or do to feel adequate, deserving, competent, and efficacious – You are skilled & worthy.

Taking an easy test to feel intelligent is also a self-affirmation; a more behavior-oriented affirmation. It is common for people to verify their ability and worth by doing something very simple. Sometimes, this behavior is a way to self-affirm knowledge/skill or undermine threats to self-esteem and self-worth. After repeatedly failing to achieve something, one can try to achieve something easy to undermine the newly developed thought “I am a failure.” This might not work if self-esteem is already low. We’ll get to why it won’t work in a bit.

There are positive affirmations and negative affirmations. It might seem unlikely that people engage in negative affirmations but they are quite common. Self-sabotage, confirming one’s

People seek out self-affirmations, download apps that display them at random times, listen to affirmations before sleeping, etc. Affirming behaviors are both deliberate and habitual.


The usefulness of self-affirmations increases dramatically when a person is under psychological threat or has mental health problems characterized by negative thoughts, feelings of being defeated in life, and even trauma. People have a tendency to “make sense” of the world and experiences they emerge from. That need (called sense-making) alters self-esteem, self-worth, world-views, and life-expectations. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.



Why, How, and When does Self-affirmation improve self-esteem and self-worth?

Claude Steele, in 1988, conceptualized a valuable mechanism in human behavior – The Self-affirmation theory. It says that people are motivated to seek out ways that restore their present self-image. A small extension of this is – people affirm their adequacy and competence in areas they believe are important in life.

Another interpretation of this theory is – when people are threatened in one domain, they seek to affirm their sense of self in another domain and use that positive affirmation to nullify the threat. This process appears to be a universal psychological adaptive coping mechanism.

Self-image is a broader term than self- esteem & worth because self-image refers to how a person perceives the self. It is a combination of everything human that the person deems important with respect to the subjective idea of “self” – in simple terms, the sense of self. When self-image or any related self- components are threatened, self-affirmation processes take over and a person becomes more likely to engage in behavior that restores the pre-threat status. This may happen consciously as well as unconsciously.

When threatened by life-experiences, personal revelations, trauma, disease, or even relationships, people seek to restore their sense of self over and above the removing threats. Threats aren’t always “removable”. That is why defense mechanisms kick-in. People go in denial, they divert emotions elsewhere, etc.

Self-affirmation is an act that demonstrates a person’s adequacy, maintains current self- worth/esteem/identity, and reinforces preconceived notions about the self. People can write in their diary, seek-out social events, buy trinkets, get vanity positive feedback, and even update Facebook status posts with a strong statement. Sometimes, it is about proving a point to yourself and sometimes it is about doing something to feel good.


Value Affirmation and threat

Affirming important values (value affirmation) can increase available psychological resources. These resources range from activation of different brain regions, shifts in attention, access to memory traces, coping mechanisms, motivational forces, etc. When people are threatened by negative experiences or contradictory information, value affirmation can, metaphorically, reset the system.

When such affirmations include broad values (things that are important, goals, vision, aims, what you treasure, etc.) the construal level rises. Construal level indicates the level at which you process information. In this case, the threat and values. A raised construal level is broad and not very detailed. It allows abstract thinking, global bird’s eye view, and creates distance between you and your immediate emotional low. In short, raising the construal level reduces the intensity of emotions and broadens the context. This reduces threat and the affirmation helps people ground their self-esteem and self-worth in their values.

A lot more on construal theory here and here.


Self-affirmations help people confirm and refine their personal narrative. A broadened context reduces the impact of negative emotions. This is one of the key reasons why affirmations feel good.

When events like breakups, job rejections, or actions of a perpetrator (abuse, rape, bullying) take place, it is easy to fall into the trap of “global” judgments about oneself. These global judgments/perceptions are about an entire individual, not just a small portion of their sense of self (like professional skills). These judgments range from “I am worthless and a failure,” to “I can’t tell right from wrong but I must be wrong.” These take a stronger toll on a person than domain-specific judgments like “I suck at writing” and “I can’t flirt.” When global judgments threaten global adequacy (global self-worth), a person gets into the mode of maintaining existing pre-threat self-worth and integrity. This mode demands immediate resources. That’s exactly when value affirmations can benefit a hurting person. The stronger the threat, the greater the positive impact of value-affirmations.

People determine if they have the mental resources to cope with a specific/focal threat like negative feedback or failing an exam. But this assessment is compromised if a person focuses on the negative aspects which limit the full range of available mental resources – possibly because people pre-occupy themselves with negative details which block out other aspects of an experience. So changing the narrative can reduce or increase mental resources to cope with threats to self-esteem and self-worth. A positive narrative will increase resources and a negative narrative will reduce them.

Self-affirmations can help with changing the narrative and promotes self-regulation (the broadest term for all things changeable about the self). Because values and other positive affirmations change one’s perspective, it is easier to address non-threatening elements of an experience – such as the sincerity with which you worked, in spite of failing.

The brain’s error detection processes function in a different way when we affirm ourselves through values or any other activity. When affirmed, the brain looks out for errors in judgment by being more sensitive to errors but approaches them with an opportunity to learn. When not affirmed, the error detection system is not geared toward the “opportunity to learn” perspective. These errors are often about how we judge ourselves.

In chronically stressed people, self-affirmations can buffer against the negative effects of stress on problem solving and creativity. It would be useful for those who are regularly stressed-out to do some self-affirming activity before doing a stressful task.

In summary, threats to self-esteem and self-worth (eg: failing an exam because of a fear of failure which prevents studying) can be countered with value affirmations and positive affirmations. Affirmations raise the construal which reduces the intensity of threat, broadens the perspective, avails more mental resources for coping, and “decouples” the threat and the self.

The positive effects of self-affirming activities are not absolute. They may not work and even make things worse in certain situations. Especially when we look at low self-esteem and highly positive affirmations.


Self-Affirmations can back-fire but there is a way out

Suppose a person’s self-esteem and self-worth is very low – A common characteristic of depression. When a person is at equilibrium with thoughts like “I am worthless and unlovable” and “I have no place in the world,” positive affirmation statements like “You are lovable, everybody loves you” backfire.

Researchers propose that there is a latitude of acceptance for judgments and claims people make. It is the range of the nature of judgments that are acceptable and believable. Anything outside that range is likely to be rejected.

When a person has already determined that he/she is unlovable, that is their perceived reality. That is a manifestation of their low self-esteem and self-worth. Remember we discussed how people have a tendency to maintain their sense of self? In these people, their low self-esteem and undefined self-worth is maintained. Unless the affirmation is in the latitude of acceptance, it is not easy to actually “affirm” anything with a statement. Changing the affirmations into something acceptable, reasonable, and within-reach can enter their latitude of acceptance. Once that is done, the affirmation might offer its benefits.

If the person continues to hear positive affirmations far beyond their latitude of acceptance, it will reinforce their existing sense of self – “I am unlovable and worthless.” – in order to protect their existing integrity. This would only make it harder to improve self-esteem.

Self-preservation is our tendency to protect ourselves from threatening changes. Any unacceptable change in perspective or an overwhelming attempt to affirm can kick-start self-preservation processes and a person may withdraw from the affirmation.

This problem is worsened by self-verification processes – People often want to be identified as they identify themselves. When self-esteem is low, negative beliefs become a part of your identity and people might, unconsciously, want to be identified (by others) based on those negative beliefs. All of this goes toward maintaining existing integrity. Low self-esteem leads to rejecting positive self-affirming statements and high self-esteem leads to accepting positive statements.

When people seek affirmations, there is an inherent motivation to affirm something. That something needs to be easy to digest.

Instead of affirming “I am lovable, everyone loves me,” try “I don’t know if I am lovable, some people like me, so there is something likable in me. Some people have found me lovable and I can try showing more self-love to feel lovable.”

The latter sentence is more realistic and likely to be in the latitude of acceptance for someone who feels unlovable.

“I am worthless in this world” can be affirmed by “I am not entirely useless, and I have the capacity to add more value to the world.” A change in the affirmation statements can counter the back-fire.

Researchers have demonstrated that people are more persuaded by statements that fall in their latitude of acceptance than those which don’t fall in that zone – social statements, scientific findings, theistic beliefs, political stands, etc. all included. People even resist statements that are far outside their latitude. The mental flexibility has a range and that range is important to understand when affirmations work.

Lower the flexibility, smaller the possibility of affirmations that work. Step by step, affirmations within the latitude of acceptance can raise self-esteem and self-worth. This, in turn, shifts the latitude of acceptance to accept more positive affirmations.

When people feel deficient in a particular quality, positive statements that contradict their self-image increase the discrepancy between the statement and latitude of acceptance. That leads to dismissing contradictions, although positive in nature.

People accept feedback favorably and unfavorably based on this latitude. Feedback is favorable when it is close to pre-existing notions. Feedback is deemed incorrect if it is very different from what people believe about themselves. If the feedback is congruent with our own beliefs, we feel good. If it is incongruent, we feel worse.

Tip: If your self-esteem is low, focus on smaller, realistic, moderately positive affirmations than global absolute over-the-top positive affirmations. Smaller, concrete, realistic affirmations will help. The others may back-fire.

Whether self-affirmations work or not is also dependent on how they are presented. People tend to benefit more from audio affirmations than reading statements regardless of their self-esteem. This may be due to the more intimate nature of audio affirmations and the perception that someone is there to affirm for you. That comfort might affect how affirmations impact you. Audio affirmation tends to improve mood more than reading them. An improved mood is more conducive to positive changes and similar to value affirmations, it enables more mental resources for perspective changes, coping mechanisms, learning, etc.

There is one more important variable to consider – need satisfaction. Humans have many needs – social, sexual, professional, intimacy, etc. The satisfaction or dissatisfaction of these needs affects our self-esteem and self-worth. When need satisfaction is low in important areas (self-prioritized importance) reading affirmations can lead to a worsened mood.

So along with self-affirmations, attempts to satisfy needs will help in improving self-esteem and self-worth.


Highlights

  1. Self-affirming positive statements work if they are in your latitude of acceptance.
  2. If self-affirmations contradict your personal beliefs, they can backfire and reinforce pre-existing low self-esteem and low self-worth.
  3. Audio affirmations tend to work better than reading affirmations
  4. Realistic, concrete, reasonable, and naturally acceptable affirmations work best when self-esteem is low
  5. People have a tendency to maintain their self-image, even if it is based on low self-esteem.
  6. Value affirmations like writing and speaking about your values can counter threats to self-esteem, self-worth, and enable broader mental resources to cope with distress.
  7. People with low self-esteem are the ones who benefit from affirmations the most.
  8. Positive affirmations and affirming activity can reduce the impact of negative emotions when a person is threatened and even broaden one’s perspective to be more adaptive.

If you go through the published research on self-affirmations, you’ll see that they help in improving academic and sports performance, coping with stressful situations, dealing with disease, improving problem-solving skills, coping with negative emotions, and improving focus when you have a disadvantage.


References

Düring, C., & Jessop, D. C. (2014). The moderating impact of self-esteem on self-affirmation effects. British Journal of Health Psychology, 20(2), 274–289.

Albalooshi, S., Moeini-Jazani, M., Fennis, B. M., & Warlop, L. (2019). Reinstating the Resourceful Self: When and How Self-Affirmations Improve Executive Performance of the Powerless. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 014616721985384.

Sherman, D. K. (2013). Self-Affirmation: Understanding the Effects. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(11), 834–845.

Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The Psychology of Change: Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1), 333–371.

Wakslak, C. J., & Trope, Y. (2009). Cognitive consequences of affirming the self: The relationship between self-affirmation and object construal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 927–932.

Taber, J. M., Klein, W. M. P., Ferrer, R. A., Kent, E. E., & Harris, P. R. (2015). Optimism and Spontaneous Self-affirmation are Associated with Lower Likelihood of Cognitive Impairment and Greater Positive Affect among Cancer Survivors. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 50(2), 198–209.

Brown, J. D., & Marshall, M. A. (2006). The Three Faces of Self-Esteem. In M. H. Kernis (Ed.), Self-esteem issues and answers: A sourcebook of current perspectives (p. 4–9). Psychology Press.

Richards, J. M. (2004). The Cognitive Consequences of Concealing Feelings. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(4), 131–134.

Wood, J. V., Elaine Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860–866.

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