Our self-talk (our internal dialogue) influences who we are, and the self-help movement has made the case that self-affirmations are the cure for boosting self-esteem.
Not so fast.
Research is clear that affirmations can be powerfully positive for some people. Studies also show that it’s powerfully negative for others.
That’s why people who love affirmations are such strong advocates for affirmations. Meanwhile, those who try affirmations and don’t see the benefits…often feel worse. And sometimes, a lot worse.
Affirmations and High Self-Esteem
Researchers have found that people with high self-esteem tend to benefit from positive self-statements, such as affirmations. People tend to use affirmations before taking an exam (85%), before giving a presentation (78%), and coping with a difficult situation (74%).
The higher a person’s self-esteem, “the more helpful they said such statements were,” reported researchers Joanne V. Wood, W.Q Elaine Perunovic, and John W. Lee.
Affirmations and Low Self-Esteem
While individuals with high self-esteem appear to benefit from affirmations, people with low self-esteem often suffer from doing affirmations. The same researchers conducted another study and found that “positive self-statements (or focusing on how they were true) were detrimental to people with low self-esteem.”
When people with low self-esteem or people with anxiety or depression used affirmations, they often felt worse. Their feelings about themselves didn’t improve and neither did their moods.
A lot of our culture encourages individuals to “think positively.” Yet, this doesn’t always work for everyone, particularly for those who ruminate or who have minds that tend to dwell on the hard stuff of life.
What’s the difference between a high and a low self-esteem? Researchers Wood, Perunovic, and Lee measure self-esteem by three measures: 1) mood, 2) the current state of your self-esteem, and 3) how happy you are with yourself. For people with low self-esteem who try positive affirmations, their negative thoughts often intrude in the process, and they quickly conclude that affirmations don’t work and that something’s wrong with them. (All of this, flattens their mood and self-confidence even more.)
The Power of Loving-Kindness Meditation
So what’s more powerful than affirmations?
This form of meditation also uses positive statements, but they’re not affirmations or positive self-talk. Instead, loving-kindness meditation incorporates loving-kindness phrases that are wishes. The affirmation, “I’m becoming stronger every day,” is more powerful as a loving-kindness phrase, “May I feel strength throughout my day.” The affirmation is an absolute “I’m becoming,” which can trip up some people. The loving-kindness phrase is an intention, a wish, a hope.
Some people see affirmations as self-esteem boosts (like inflating a balloon that already has air). For some people (particularly those with a strong sense of self-esteem), affirmations may be helpful and can inspire them to tap into the strongest parts of themselves.
Loving-kindness meditation phrases, in contrast, are invitations. For most people, loving-kindness meditation helps to soothe our souls and minds and invites us to plant seeds within ourselves to be more mindful, to be more kind, to be more compassionate towards ourselves.
Greater Good in Action, which is part of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, provides a number of loving-kindness phrases that you can use to get started. Besides the phrases, it’s helpful to sit comfortably and close your eyes. Your body position is just as important as the intentional phrases that you say.
Consider the powerful effects of loving-kindness meditation. This form of meditation helps you to connect with the deepest parts of yourself, whether or not your self-esteem is high or low. Loving-kindness meditation is about developing compassion and kindness towards yourself—and others.