The power of self-affirmations to change behavior


Our personal identities are under constant threat, not from identity thieves but from the people we interact with every day. Humans have a constant need to feel as though they are good, moral and acceptable to others. Their self-critical nature can threaten their self-identities as much as other people can.

Any perceived threat to personal identity triggers stress responses and defense mechanisms that often obstruct normal growth and functioning. A little trick called self-affirmation can do a lot to halt the destruction.

What is a self-affirmation?

A self-affirmation is an act that demonstrates and affirms one’s adequacy. A self-affirmation changes the direction of negativity and begins the cycle of positivity. A self-affirmation does not necessarily require looking in the mirror every morning and reciting positive things that one may or may not believe to be true. Rather, a self-affirmation is a simple, honest reminder of core values that can keep things in perspective when personal identity is threatened.

How are self-affirmations done?

There are many ways to do a self-affirmation, but the most commonly used method in experiments involves three easy steps:

  1. Review a list of core personal values, avoiding health and family values
  2. Choose one or more of those values as the most important
  3. Write an essay about why those values are important and a time when that chosen value was important to have

What do self-affirmations have to do with changing behavior?

Having a healthy perspective results in the projection of positive emotions and more positive social interactions. An outstanding review article by Geoffrey L. Cohen and David K. Sherman from Stanford University provides a detailed explanation of how self-affirmations work in their review entitled, “The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention,” published in the 2014 Annual Review of Psychology. The authors describe a “cycle of adaptive potential” in which a positive feedback loop is created between the self-system and the social system that propagates adaptive outcomes over time. In other words, self-affirmation can trigger a self-perpetuating cycle of positivity.

Self-affirmations have been shown to:

  • Reduce defensiveness
  • Buffer against stress
  • Help overcome barriers to behavior changes, such as negative emotions
  • Turn the cycle of potential from a maladaptive direction to an adaptive one

Self-affirmations in recovery

People recovering from substance use or mental health disorders often struggle from having lost their personal identity in the throes of their illness. This makes them particularly vulnerable to stress and self-criticism. In such cases, self-affirmations are particularly helpful in reversing maladaptive cycles of behavior. The lasting benefits can be profound by triggering a cycle of positivity.

About us

At White River Academy, we integrate multidisciplinary strategies to promote lasting behavioral health in young men ages 12 to 17. When treatment becomes necessary, the White River Academy in beautiful Delta, Utah, offers state-of-the-art care, education and growth opportunities that can lead to a bright future. We treat every patient and his family with respect and understanding, helping both to heal and attain their potential. Our financial counselors can provide insurance solutions, resources and information about how to access the best care possible. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. 

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