How Can We Do Better With Affirmations?
© Dr Richard Bolstad
In 2009, those of us involved in personal development got a wake up call from researchers who demonstrated that one of the most popular self-development tools of all time generally lowered people's self esteem and made them less likely to act. As with the repeated research showing that an oversimplistic application of "The Secret" is one of the two most significant impediments to achievement (Bolstad 2010), this research on affirmations was almost ignored by NLP trainers as well as other "personal development experts". Mostly, we just didn't think the research could have been done correctly.
But recently there have been several corroborating studies, and I believe it's time we took a new look at a technique that was never officially developed as part of NLP, was critiqued clearly by the developers of NLP, and now has been shown only to work in certain situations. There are good reasons why affirmations block success, when they do, and they are easy to understand so that we can move beyond affirmation.
The Initial Research Studies
Psychologists Joanne V. Wood and John W. Lee from the University of Waterloo, and W.Q. Elaine Perunovic from the University of New Brunswick, first asked 249 research subjects to fill in a short questionnaire designed to analyse their self-esteem and to say how often they said positive things about themselves, on a scale from 1(never) to 8 (almost daily). About 50% gave a rating of 6 or higher. Subjects who already had high self-esteem said they already often said affirming things to themselves, particularly to help themselves cope with exams, prepare for presentations, cope with problems, or even as part of their everyday routine. On average, they felt that such statements were helpful. Those with low self-esteem also claimed that such statements sometimes helped them, but they said that they more often made them feel worse. To find out why, the researchers did two follow-up studies.
First, they asked their subjects to write down anything they felt or thought in a four-minute period. The recruits included equal numbers of students with high or low self-esteem and half of each group were told to say to themselves, "I am a lovable person", every 15 seconds, on the cue of a bell rung by the researcher. Afterwards, they completed several questionnaires. Two of these were designed to assess their mood, including questions such as "What is the probability that a 30-year-old will be involved in a happy, loving romance?" and "Would you like to go to a party?" Another set of questions rated their current self-esteem by asking them to say which of two adjectives they felt closest to -- eg valuable or useless, nice or awful, good or bad. As you might expect, the students with higher self-esteem had higher, happier scores on all three questionnaires than those with low self-esteem. In fact they actually felt slightly better than before, after saying the affirmations (only slightly though). But for those who already had low self-esteem, the effect of the affirmations was dramatic and negative. They felt worse after saying these words, had more negative beliefs, and had lower expectations of success. Their self-esteem scores were almost halved as a result of trying to use affirmations.
The researchers explain the result by saying that everyone has a range of ideas they are prepared to accept. Messages that lie within this boundary are more persuasive than those that fall outside it - those meet the greatest resistance and can even lead to people holding onto their original position more strongly. If a person with low self-esteem says something that's positive about themselves but is well outside the range of what they'll actually believe, their immediate reaction is to dismiss the claim and feel even worse. Statements that contradict a person's current self-image and basic model of the world, no matter how positive in intention, are likely to trigger mismatching thoughts. Of course, as an NLP Practitioner, you have several interventions that can change self-image and model of the world so that these affirmations would work... and of course then the affirmations may not seem so important anyway. Wood concluded that affirmations only work in situations where people make very specific statements that are impossible to argue with, or where none of their major beliefs are challenged. For example, people may be better off saying "I choose good gifts for people" rather than "I'm a generous person". Put in Transforming Communication terms, positive statements are better worded as sensory specific "I messages" rather than as judgments. She cautioned that "outlandish, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as 'I accept myself completely,' are often encouraged by self-help books. Our results suggest that such self-statements may harm the very people they are designed for: people low in self-esteem."
In the third study, subjects were asked to consider the statement "I am a lovable person" and either to focus only on ways in which it's true, or to consider ways in which it is and isn't true. After the task, people with high self-esteem benefited from focusing only on the positive side of the statement, but those with low self-esteem felt worse about themselves if they dwelled only on positives, and better if they were asked to take a more balanced approach. Wood suggests that if people with low self-esteem are asked to think only positive thoughts, and find it difficult to block out negative ones, that merely certifies their belief that they aren't measuring up to standards. As far back as 1991, Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan (1991) found that people who were asked to remember 12 examples of being assertive rated themselves as being less assertive than those who just had to remember 6 examples. He pointed out that it was not remembering the 12 events that made the people feel bad, it was their own internal response to having difficulty remembering 12. When people had trouble in bringing 12 examples to mind, they decided that they must not be very assertive after all.
NLP Approaches to Affirmation
Richard Bandler and John Grinder did not include "affirmations" in their list of NLP techniques. Robert Dilts in the Encyclopaedia of NLP does champion affirmations, saying "Affirmation is a method for creating, strengthening and encouraging positive 'self-fulfilling' processes. "Affirmation" essentially involves the verbal assertion and reinforcement of empowering beliefs. The process of affirmation involves the repetition of a series of belief statements. In many ways, affirmations represent a fundamental example of "neuro-linguistic programming". They employ the use of language to establish and encourage positive mental "programming"." (Dilts and deLozier, 2000) However, Dilts examples of affirmations are all current reality based. Put another way, Dilts examples are all process oriented eg "It is possible for me to be healthy and well," "I have the capabilities to be healthy and well," rather than outcome based "I am healthy and well." The above research suggests that since his affirmations don't challenge the client's "reality" they are more likely to be received positively.
Bandler and Grinder did develop methods for transforming internal beliefs, and they seem to have been very aware of the risk of contradicting a person's experience of reality. Bandler, for example, describes creating a new belief as creating a new focus of attention, rather than contradicting the evidence that a person has collected about "reality". Describing the construction of new beliefs, Richard Bandler says (1985, p 105-109) "Do you know what belief you'd like to have in place of the belief you have now?... Start thinking about it now, and be sure you think about it in positive terms, not in terms of negations. Think of what you do want to believe, not what you don't want to believe. I also want you to frame that belief not in terms of an end or goal, but in terms of a process or ability that would result in you getting that goal. For instance if you'd like to believe that you know NLP, change it so that you believe you can pay attention, and learn and respond to feedback in order to learn NLP.... We want to mobilize new abilities, not install new delusions!" To the extent that "Every day in every way I am getting better and better," (to quote one traditional affirmation) is inconsistent with reality, it is of course a delusion. No wonder many people in the research resist it.
I Wonder If Positive Questioning Works Better Than Affirming?
Recent research offers hints of a technique that solves the affirmation-kickback problem and confirms an even earlier NLP approach.
Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracín and Kenji Noguchi at the University of Illinois gave research subjects challenging tasks, and had them say one of two very different type of comment to themselves before starting. One type of comment was "I will do this" (an affirmation). The other was "Will I do this?" (a question). In several different experiments, the results were the same. Those who asked the question were more motivated, more focused and more successful. Furthermore, they reported different subsequent thinking about their goals. In one study, for example, subjects had a goal of going to the gym regularly. Those instructed to say "I will" reported later that they felt motivated (for example) "Because I would feel guilty or ashamed of myself if I did not," whereas those instructed to say "Will I?" reported that they felt motivated (for example) "Because I want to take more responsibility for my own health." In NLP terms, the affirmations had a kickback effect of producing away from motivation, whereas the questions produced towards motivation. The researchers noted that questions open the person to possibilities while affirmations close the mind to other choices. Questioning invites you to explore; affirmation tells you what is and ignores the ability to find unexpected or more useful results.
This questioning style of internal dialogue has been under-reported in NLP, but we can see it in Milton Erickson's work. Milton Erickson continuously quotes his own internal dialogue before any new success as "I was wondering..." He does not use self-affirmations, he uses self-questioning. For example in his collected works, in a discussion with Ernest Rossi, he mentions how he developed the ability to write whole articles during his sleep, unconsciously. He says "I wondered if I could write editorials. If I did not recognize my words on the printed page, that would tell me there was a lot more in my head than I realized. Then I had my proof that I was brighter than I knew." (Erickson, p 7) Later, he describes how he gave himself a transcendent personal experience: "I was in the backyard a year ago in the summertime. I was, wondering what far-out experiences I'd like to have. As I puzzled over that, I noticed that I was sitting out in the middle of nowhere. I was an object in space....It was the most far-out thing I could do!" (Erickson, p 21).
One NLP process that installs a useful questioning style as a meta-strategy in a challenging situation is the Core Questions Process described by Steve Andreas in his new book "Help With Negative Self Talk" (Andreas, 2010, p 82). The basic idea of this process is that we are continuously sorting our experience / deciding how to respond by asking ourselves unconscious questions. Sometimes these questions are structured so that they deliver only unhelpful answers (like, for example "Why does this always happen to me?"). You can identify such unhelpful questions and install more useful questions that are better designed to meet your intention. My own version of this installation process follows as an appendix.
Self-affirmation is a language pattern developed long before NLP, and research as well as NLP indicates some cautions about its use. Affirmations work best when they refer to specific positive elements of a person's current experience which are acceptable in their current model of the world. Even there, affirmations state a fixed idea, and self-questions may provide a more useful and forward moving replacement for unhelpful internal dialogue. Self questioning is explored in more detail in Steve Andreas recent book "Help With Negative Self Talk".
Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Trainer and author, and can be reached by email at email@example.com, on the internet at www.transformations.net.nz and by phone in New Zealand at (+64) 09 4784895
- Andreas, S. (2010) Help With Negative Self Talk Real People Press, Moab, Utah (Available at http://www.realpeoplepress.com/pages.php?page=selftalkebook)
- Bandler, R. (1985) Using Your Brain For A Change, Real People Press, Moab, Utah
- Bolstad, R. (2010) "The How Behind The Secret" Acuity the ANLP Journal, Issue 1
- Dilts, R. and DeLozier, J. (2000) Encyclopedia of Systemic Neuro-Linguistic Programming and NLP New Coding, NLP University Press, Scotts Valley, California (Available at http://www.nlpuniversitypress.com/)
- Erickson, M.H. The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson Vol I-IV (ed Rossi, E.L.) Irvington, New York, 1980
- Schwarz, N., Bless, H., Strack, F., Klumpp, G., Rittenauer-Schatka, H., & Simons, A. (1991). Ease of retrieval as information: Another look at the availability heuristic. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 61, No. 2, page 195-202
- Senay, I., Albarracín, D. and Noguchi, K. (2010) Motivating goal-directed behavior through introspective self-talk: the role of the interrogative form of simple future tense Psychological Science Vol 21, No. 4: p 499-504, April 2010
- Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science (DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x)
Appendix. Key Questions: Deciding what you'll ask of life!
From Richard Bolstad (adapted from the Core Question process, NLP Comprehensive Master Practitioner Manual 1996)
1. Resourceful state; Rapport
2. Ask client what situation, or what context they want to find the core question for. (eg. "at work" "my relationship with my kids" "dealing with a client/student")
3. "As you think of that situation, imagine stepping back into your body there. Notice what you see through your eyes there, what you hear, and what you feel in your body. Be aware of how you are deciding what actions to take."
4. "If there were a question that quietly guided all your behaviour in this context, what would it be?"
5. "Now think of that question. Check that when you say that question to yourself, it reminds you of the situation." (You're checking it has the same submodalities; ie feels like thinking of that situation itself).
6. "If you knew, what is your unconscious mind's positive intention in asking this question in this situation?" If the person tells you a negative intention (like "to get me worried") ask "And if it gets you that fully and completely, what even more important thing will you get through that?"
7. "Is there a question that would be even more effective in getting you the positive benefits you want in that situation?"
8. If there is, say "I'd like you to step back into your body in that situation, and say the new question to yourself -actually say it aloud now, as you imagine being in that situation. Notice that when you're in that situation now, the new question is quietly at the back of your mind, guiding your behaviour, and check that that feels much more enjoyable! Imagine a future time, when you'll be in that situation again, and check how asking that new question changes the way it feels."