How to make positive affirmations work better for you

Snowman dolls in red and white scarves smiling at camera

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

You’ve all heard the folk wisdom: positive affirmations change how you see yourself. But how can you make positive affirmations work if you have low self-esteem? 

According to the theory, you repeatedly tell yourself you have certain positive qualities. Then you’ll start to see yourself as having those qualities. So if you tell yourself over and over that you’re strong and powerful, you’ll see yourself as strong and powerful. Or kind and compassionate, or whatever you want to be.

Somehow the positive qualities are supposed to soak into your psyche, and you become a person with all of those qualities.

So can you make positive affirmations really work for you?

You can – but there’s a catch. They’re only effective if you know how to phrase them properly. 

They work for positive self-esteem

Now if you have a healthy self-image, positive affirmations may add gloss to your self-esteem. But will they work for those who hold negative beliefs about themselves? For people who are highly self-critical, or expect to fail at whatever they do?

Because on the surface, the affirmation spiel sounds logical. If you repeat positives about yourself over and over, you’ll start to believe it. It’s as if you’re brainwashing yourself. And we all know how effective that is.

Advertisers bombard us with hype about their products. They know the more they repeat a message, the more we’ll fall for it.

Brainwashing yourself

In fact, you’ve probably been brainwashing yourself for years – especially if you tend to be self-critical.

For example, you’ve been brainwashing yourself if you think thoughts like:

I’m useless at maths

I can’t manage money

I’m a hopeless cook

No-one likes me.

These thoughts linger in the back of your mind. They flare up when you’re feeling your worst, and then they’re really hard to get rid of. They become a constant refrain you can’t ignore. If you say them a lot, you probably believe them quite strongly. 

So if this works for negative thoughts, can you make positive affirmations work to make you feel better about yourself? 

Unfortunately, the answer isnot always.

It’s tricky if your self-esteem is low to start with.

Let’s look at Jessie’s experience with self-affirmations.


Jessie’s tired of having low moods and poor self-confidence. She’s been unhappy since her teens. Whenever she slips up, she launches abuse at herself:

“You should’ve known you’d mess this up. You always do. Now you look stupid in front of everyone. You’re such an idiot.”

Over the years, Jessie has realised how nasty she is to herself. Now she wants to feel better about herself.

So she decides to try some positive affirmations. She repeats a script to herself every day for 5 minutes, morning and night.

“I am competent and confident. I work efficiently and effectively. My colleagues value my contributions.”

And the outcome after a few weeks?

Unfortunately her mood isn’t any better. And she doesn’t feel more competent or confident.

In fact, she feels less sure and even more hopeless about herself. So why didn’t all those positive messages work?

Low self-esteem and positive affirmations

Unfortunately, low self-esteem can make positive affirmations less effective. 

Jessie already believes she’s incompetent and ineffective at work. She certainly doesn’t believe her colleagues value her input.

Now, her beliefs may or may not be true. Jessie may or may not be a competent worker. Her colleagues may or may not value her.

We won’t worry about the reality of her beliefs now. Right now let’s look at why the positive affirmations didn’t work.

Types of messages

Jessie usually sends self-critical messages to her brain. These messages match her low self-esteem. So her brain doesn’t protest when it receives them. In fact, it easily believes any thoughts like, “I’m hopeless.”

But when she tells her brain she’s competent and confident, it objects. That’s because these new messages don’t match the old ones.

They’re too out of step with the view the brain has already formed of Jessie. So her brain assumes these new, upbeat messages must be faulty. In other words, that they’re unreliable or incorrect. 

So the positive affirmations get rejected. Therefore, her self-esteem won’t improve, and may even take a dive. 

Resistance to change in self-esteem

So what causes this strange effect?

The brain can be conservative at times. It likes to take short cuts to save energy and effort. So it resists making changes if possible.

In fact, the brain will fight back to keep the status quo. In other words, it wants to keep Jessie’s low self-esteem intact. And it’s not going to give up easily.

When Jessie repeats her positive affirmations, her brain fights back with an blitz of negative self-talk:

“Competent! Effective! Since when? Everyone’s just being nice so you don’t get upset. They’ll get rid of you as soon as they can.”

And her brain doesn’t let up. These negative messages will play again and again, and more strongly than ever.

End result? Jessie feels worse

The positive affirmations have simply strengthened Jessie’s low self-esteem. So now she feels even worse about herself.

The sad truth

Wait a minute! Shouldn’t positive affirmations work to make Jessie feel better?

Yes, they should. But unfortunately they can also backfire in a big way.

It’s rather ironic. 

People with low self-esteem, like Jessie, often try to use positive affirmations to improve how they think about themselves. 

But will positive affirmations work while Jessie’s self-esteem is low? No – and they won’t make her suddenly become a better person.

Magical thinking

So the sad truth is – repeating random positive things about yourself won’t have much impact if your self-esteem is low. It’s no more effective than magical thinking, or just wishing your self-esteem was better.

Negative thoughts about yourself can be hard to shift. Any positive affirmations you use have to be close to reality. Otherwise the brain simply rejects them.

And there’s a further problem.

New beliefs need new pathways

Jessie is trying to develop a new set of positive beliefs about herself.

These new beliefs need new pathways to be laid down in the brain.

But Jessie hasn’t thought these positive thoughts very often. So the pathways in her brain for these positive thoughts aren’t strongly defined.  

Her new, more positive thoughts find it hard to battle down these weak pathways. So it takes more energy to think and remember good things about herself.

As a result, the new pathways for positive thoughts won’t be used as much as the old ones – unless she makes an enormous effort to change her thinking patterns.

If she doesn’t, it’s unlikely the new pathways will be used as much as the older, more negative ones. 

Old pathways are stronger

And that’s because the old pathways in Jessie’s brain are very strongly defined. She’s had thousands and thousands of negative thoughts about herself. So her brain automatically uses the old, well-defined pathways.

And her thoughts naturally follow the old negative, critical themes, even though she’s not always aware of this. 

The brain is taking the easier short cut. Following the well-established pathways uses less energy and effort.

So to summarise:

The new messages of positive affirmations are too different to the old messages for the brain to accept. Because they’re so different, it takes a lot of effort for the new pathways to be established.

Therefore, the brain takes the easy way out. It simply rejects the positive messages in favour of the familiar old critical ones.

So to make positive affirmations work better for you, they must be based on reality. 

Positive affirmations must be meaningful

In addition, positive affirmations need to be meaningful. They need to match the values you believe it’s important to live by.

As an example, let’s say you don’t really care about others. But you want to portray yourself as having these qualities. So you tell yourself repeatedly that you’re kind and compassionate.

How do you think your brain will react?

Clearly, by rejecting this statement. It’s so far from reality that the brain is unable to bridge the gap.

Saying these things will provoke it to protest loudly, as Jessie’s brain did. So it will kick back with the exact opposite of what you’re trying to say to yourself:

“You’re not kind at all. In fact, you’re mean to others and ignore them when they need help. You don’t care about anyone except yourself.”

So will that make you believe you’re kinder and more compassionate? Probably not.

It won’t matter how many times you repeat the affirmation to yourself. 

Can Jessie change her self-image?

So can Jessie improve her self-image and learn to enjoy life by using positive affirmations? Or is she doomed to remain self-critical and negative?

Yes, she can change

Luckily someone with low self-esteem like Jessie can improve her self-image. But not with the blanket positive affirmations like those at the start of this article.

Instead, she needs to make one simple change to the way she talks to herself. A change that will dampen her brain’s negative messages.

This change will make all the difference to the effectiveness of positive affirmations.

It will help her brain agree more easily with the new claims about herself. It won’t object or fight back with negative memories. Then she can take in new, more positive information about herself.

Over time, her view of herself will slowly shift. With more confidence, Jessie will be able to challenge her previous self-criticism.

You can raise your self-esteem

You can also change how you think about yourself. But you need to do it the right way.

So if you have low self-esteem already, drop overblown positive affirmations. Learn the simple trick that really will make positive affirmations work for you.


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