When we feel good about ourselves, our mental health tends to be relatively stable—this is an intuitive fact that lies at the core of self-affirmation theory. A key principle of this theory is that the self is composed of many parts or ‘domains.’ Such domains could include the family, spirituality, friends, work performance, and so on. In this light, the self should be understood as more of a system rather than an entity tied down to a single definition.
Here’s the catch: when one of these domains is threatened, another domain can be affirmed to maintain an overall positive perception of self-worth. Let’s take the example of work performance. If your boss yells at you for doing poorly in one project, this will likely cause your self-worth to come under threat. One way to alleviate this threat is through self-affirmation, which involves reminding yourself of an important quality, value or trait completely unrelated to work performance. For example, you could affirm being a good son or maybe a successful rock climber. In this process, your self-worth should balance out and become stable. In other words, self-affirmation involves compensating for a failure in one area of your life by re-affirming success in another. Goal-setting can also help in this process. Some goals we set are easily achievable and others we may never achieve, but you’re likely to have a good balance: giving you fuel to engage in self-affirmation.
Sometimes, when we are feeling especially defeated, we can get lost in an irrational cycle of negativity where we fail to acknowledge the existence of a “brighter side.” By engaging in self-affirmation regularly, we can train ourselves to be more conscious of how our self-worth isn’t dependent on just one bad day. We need to look at everything holistically before passing judgment on ourselves.
Does self-affirmation really work?
Self-affirmation has become a hot topic in pop culture, and it sounds like one of those self-help fads endorsed in magazines that seem too good to be true. However, there is indeed substantial research supporting the effectiveness of self-affirmation on a variety of positive outcomes related to mental health. In particular, self-affirmation can mitigate the effects of stress. In one experiment on college undergraduates, half went through a self-affirmation writing class while the other half completed an irrelevant writing task before taking a major midterm exam. By the morning of the exam, the students who affirmed themselves had reduced levels of epinephrine, a hormone linked to the fight-or-flight response normally exhibited in times of stress.
Chronic stress can threaten core aspects of the self since it makes us question our ability to handle high-pressure demands. Self-affirmation can make us more resilient to otherwise overwhelming stressors, even if just for a temporary period. Outside of stress reduction, self-affirmation has been shown to promote more open-mindedness when it comes to our relationships, improved academic/workplace performance, and less aggressive or defensive behavior. In doing so, the well-being of both you and your loved ones can be maintained.
Beyond mental health, self-affirmation can also have important implications for our physical health, albeit not directly. As human beings, we are motivated to view ourselves as healthy people. Any evidence that suggests otherwise, such as articles that link smoking with lung cancer, criticisms about your diet, or warnings about the harmful effects of stress, can threaten that perception. A common response in the face of such threats is denial or defensiveness. Exhibit A: the person who says, “Oh, I don’t smoke that much”, when confronted with evidence about smoking’s deadly effects. Studies have found when participants engage in self-affirmation, however, they no longer respond defensively, becoming more open-minded to what medical experts have to say for their own good.
How can I use self-affirmation in my day-to-day life?
I know, it seems incredulous to think that something as simple as reminding yourself of your qualities or virtues can have profound effects on your well-being. But like any muscle, self-affirmation requires diligence and practice to make you more resilient. Here are some simple steps that I have tried to bring self-affirmation into my daily routine:
One thing to keep in mind is that you have to believe in what you are affirming. Don’t force yourself to reflect on a value or quality that isn’t that important to you to begin with. Sometimes, it can get hard to hype yourself up when your self-esteem hits an all-time low—in fact, some studies have found that self-affirmation has mixed results for those with negative self-views. Remember that self-affirmation alone is not an all-encompassing solution to mental health issues, so in these serious circumstances, consider reaching out to a licensed psychiatrist or counsellor for the help you need.Tags: less aggressive, mental health, self-worth