Mythbusting: Affirmations don't work - at least not for everyone

Posted 05 September 2011 by

"Look at yourself in the mirror and say this to yourself, and make sure you say it like you believe it…” says the Management Consultant or Self-Esteem Guru, “I am strong and confident. I can make a difference.”

We’ve all heard about this kind of thing, and probably know people who do it (even if they don’t admit it). So the rhetoric goes: if you’re feeling self doubt, you can pick yourself up by repeating confident affirmations to yourself.

But does this form of positive reinforcement actually work?

As is so often the case, the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. In a 2003 study* it was found that the kind of people who report most benefit from this kind of activity are actually already more confident and therefore not so much in need of confidence boosting.

Sadly, for the kind of people who most need a boost, regular self-affirmation of this kind can actually make things worse. The whole thing feels hollow and can make them feel embarrassed or even humiliated. The study found that people with low self-esteem are not able to accept positive feedback that stems from the self.

It appears that most often we hear this kind of advice from self-improvement gurus and management consultants because they themselves are confident people who like this kind of thing. It works for them, so they want to share these benefits with everyone else. Unfortunately they haven’t taken into account the differences between people. Stories of achievement, success, confidence and compliments will inspire many people, but there are a significant proportion of people who find these intimidating or embarrassing.

This is one of those many times where being able to assess the personality make-up of your audience will enable you to provide advice that works for them, and avoid advice that could be harmful.

This is where instruments such as the MBTI tool excel. If you think about the range of different people in your target audience for a speech, advice, book, article or advisement, then you can create a message that either appeals to a wide audience, or really hits home for particular groups. Try to think about whether or not you’re trying to appeal to excitable Extraverts, more contained Introverts, imaginative iNtuitive types, or more practical Sensing types. Or if you’re trying to appeal to all people, make sure that you start your messages with an overview (to engage iNtuitive types), then move on the practical details (so that you don’t lose the Sensing types).

The main message is – start by treating others as you would like to be treated, but be prepared to hear that they might prefer something different.

* Self-Esteem Maintenance Processes: Why Low Self-Esteem may be Resistant to Change, Josephs RA; Bosson JK; Jacobs CG; University of Texas, 2003

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