How to make self-affirmation work

By Allyson Chiu

For fans of “Saturday Night Live,” the word affirmation probably triggers memories of a character popular in the 1990s: Stuart Smalley. With his carefully coiffed blond hair and light-blue sweater, the host of “Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley” (played by comedian Al Franken) would gaze into a mirror and earnestly declare, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Though the depiction was satirical, viewers could be forgiven for considering the idea of self-affirmation with skepticism or dismissing it as “too woo-woo.”

But numerous studies have found that affirming yourself can produce wide-ranging benefits, including stress-buffering effects. The trick, they say, is how you affirm yourself — particularly what you focus on.

“I would just jettison all that Stuart Smalley stuff,” said Claude M. Steele, a social psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University who wrote a foundational paper on the psychology of self-affirmation.

Effective affirmation isn’t thinking, “I want to pump myself up and find ways to say how much I like myself,” said David Creswell, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University who researches self-affirmation. “It’s more about really identifying, in really concrete ways, the kinds of things about you that you really value.”

What’s more, people can mistakenly think affirmations are about “seeking perfection or seeking greatness,” said Chris Cascio, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the practice. Instead, Cascio said, the key concept of affirmations is: “As you are, you are good enough, and you’re valued being you.”

Self-affirmations can be “a tool for self-defense” against these threats, Creswell said. Affirming things about yourself that you value can help bolster your overall sense of self and self-worth, and it can improve your ability to cope with destabilizing experiences.

The benefits of thinking about important personal values before potentially stressful events are supported by research. Studies have shown that doing simple self-affirming exercises, such as writing about core personal values before a test, raised minority student achievement in school, with some evidence of long-lasting effects, according to a 2014 review paper.

(Courtesy: The Washington Post)

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