The term “self-affirmation” may call to mind a meditative yoga class or the classic Al Franken “Saturday Night Live” Character Stuart Smalley (Remember? “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”). Self-affirmations are sayings, like Smalley’s, that are repeated to oneself in order to improve confidence and self-image.
But self affirmations are not a joke — recent research shows that using positive mantras can decrease stress and improve performance on challenging tasks. And they may even help you make healthier decisions.
Self-affirmations have also been shown to help people make healthier choices. A new study in “Psychology of Sport and Exercise” shows that athletes who practiced self-affirming mantras experienced decreased temptation and intentions to dope for performance enhancement, compared with a control group. Miller says this is because by creating an “implementation intention” for how to behave in tempting situations, you can triple your chances of accomplishing hard goals.
“If you decide ahead of time that you will say something positive and proactive to yourself when you encounter temptation (for example, ‘When I see someone light up, I will tell myself I am a non-smoker and I will leave the room’), then you will have created a contract with yourself that is often unbreakable,” she explains.
To incorporate self-affirmations into your life, Miller recommends starting with mantras of love for yourself, for others you care about, and for people you’ve had challenges with. Do this at home on your own, repeating the upbeat and affectionate phrases to yourself daily, so the feelings are already there when you encounter those people.
“If you practice saying positive things in non-stressful situations, it’s been found that you can actually change your brain’s reactions,” Miller notes. So when the more stressful situation does arise (an event with a boorish co-worker or during a holiday party with a meddling relative, for example), you already have a habit of affirming love as a response.
Of course, self-affirmations aren’t just phrases to be plucked from thin air. “If you have no history of being an athlete, self-affirming that you will finish an Ironman may only reinforce that it’s not your thing,” says Miller. “Affirmations have to be based on some reality around what you do well and character strengths you possess, for them to be useful.”