Positive affirmations don’t improve confidence. Here is what does.

“You are worth it,” “You are enough,” “You are strong,” “You can do it”….

The list goes on and on.

Almost every listicle, self-help book or even TV ads lists some version of the above statements—tell yourself you are great, blow kisses to your reflection every morning, hug yourself, we are told. And everything will be ok. You will be confident. You will be ready to take on the world.

Well, not quite.

A much-sited study from 2009 by the Canadian psychologist Joanne Wood and her team overturns the above advice. “Repeating positive self-statements,” the researchers concluded, “may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

The reason positive affirmations don’t work is that people with low self-esteem generally have unflattering self-opinions. And when they try to tell themselves how powerful, strong, smart, beautiful, lovable they are, these statements tend to clash with their current self-concept.

Simply put, we have a difficult time believing these overly rosy and positive chants.

That’s why they don’t have a true ring to them when we say them.  Hence, they won’t do anything to improve our sense of self-worth.

So, what, if anything, works then?

Well, luckily, there are few things that do the job for me when I need a daily confidence shot (refer to some of my other pieces on my website).

Here is another one of my go-to saviours when I need to “toughen up” to meet the world.

A common way for dealing with the “I’m-doomed-to-never-succeed” mindset involves visualization. It’s straightforward enough— imagine a goal you want to accomplish, and feel the pride and the joy now, in the present time, as if you’ve already achieved it. You need to taste your success. Live it in your mind. (A wonderful book that describes the benefits of this method is the “Secret” by Rhonda Byrne).

The essence behind the visualization approach is a single notion—the power of positive thinking. Which, according to numerous studies, has been linked to (among the long list) things as building our strengths and chances of overcoming challenges, successful goal-achievement and improving performance. Or otherwise—of feeling the joy and pride of being ourselves again.

The practice of “creative visualization” is certainly an intriguing one to examine—from a medical and scientific standpoint. A quick walk back in history would tell us that the technique was first introduced by the New Thought Movement[1] writer Wallace D. Wattles in his book “The Science of Getting Rich” (1910). He advises that success is dependent mostly on one factor: “A thought, in its substance, produces the thing that is imagined by the thought.” And interestingly enough, this practice continues to be favored today by many, amongst which celebrities, who attribute their success and achievements to it.

For instance, perhaps not many know that Jim Carrey has claimed to have written a check to himself for 10 million dollars in 1987. He dated the check for Thanksgiving 1995. After visualizing on this for years, in 1994 he received 10 million dollars for his role in “Dumb and Dumber.” Alternatively, Oprah Winfrey, in a 2007 interview, told host Larry King, “You really can change your own reality based on the way that you think.” Very encouraging, inspiring and…simple, isn’t it?

Well, not so fast. Other wise men have tested and evidenced exactly the opposite—that visualization may not, after all, be a “cure-all” technique. The most famous among these studies was done in 2002 and tested people’s reactions to positive imagery—that is, visualizing the achievement of a long-wanted goal. What they found was that participants who had a high fear of failure showed elevated negative mood after the exercise. [2] In other words, believing we can do it and seeing ourselves succeeding may not always cut it to actually achieve what we aspire.

What these results ultimately warn us of is that visualization and positive thinking may not be the finish line, but rather—the starting points to summon up the courage to stand up against our monsters.

Nevertheless, it pays to envision ourselves succeeding. To know how this person acts, talks, dresses, behaves. And to emulate all this. This is how we motivate ourselves to keep going. And this is how we learn to become better.

So, don’t tell yourself: “You are smart, intelligent, beautiful,” or “You got this; You can do it.” It won’t do anything for you if you are a  low esteemer.

Rather, project.

Imagine yourself as the individual you want to become. Start with the end in mind and work backwards to the present.

What do you need to do/ act/ say today to make sure you give yourself this future that you want? Tell yourself: I’m a successful writer/ manager/ speaker/ runner/entrepreneur. Believe it. This is who you are. Really.

The potential is in you. 

Now, dwell on the image for few minutes every day. On the to-be you. On the confident you. On the re-drafted you.

It’s a great confidence booster for me.

Try it—it may be for you as well.

What do you have to lose after all?




[1] The New Thought Movement is a spiritual movement that began in the United States in the 19th century. Its main teachings focus on positive thinking, creative visualization and the law of attraction, among other ideas, as the sources behind life success and self-healing.

[2] Tantalizing Fantasies: Positive Imagery Induces Negative Mood in Individuals High in Fear of Failure. Langens, Thomas. Journal Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 2002, Vol. 21, No. 4.

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