Self-Affirmation Doesn't Mean Talking Yourself up in a Mirror

Self-affirmation techniques are the butt of many jokes, including a famous Saturday Night Live sketch with Al Franken. But value affirmation is something different, says Harvard's Amy Cuddy.

Amy Cuddy:  There was this old Saturday Night Live sketch called "Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley," who was played by Al Franken, who is now a politician. And he would look into the mirror and say, "I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me." And by the end of it he would be saying to himself, "I am in a shame spiral. I’m going to die homeless and penniless and overweight. No one will ever love me. I am a fraud. I’m a phony." And so what was funny about that was that we all know that that doesn’t work.

When you feel acutely anxious and self-doubting the last thing you should do is lie to yourself, right? So what happens is that that creates a kind of backlash that makes you feel not only more anxious, but now you’re also a liar, right? Now you’re lying to yourself. So that’s not the kind of self-affirmation that I’m talking about. The kind of self-affirmation I’m talking about is this where you really do identify what are your core values? What are the things that no one can really change about you? Why do they matter to you? And you kind of anchor yourself in them. Now what the research shows – and there literally are hundreds of studies on self-affirmation and most of this was work done by Stanford psychologists led by Claude Steele. And what they find is that when people self-affirm, it is the simplest exercise. It really is. One, what are your core values? Two, why do they matter to you? Three, write about a time when you express this. When people do that, it dramatically lowers their stress and anxiety, self-reported stress and anxiety — it lowers their neuroendocrine measures of stress and anxiety like cortisol and epinephrine.

And it allows them to perform much better in a stressful task. So somebody might self-affirm and write about why, you know, family matters to them. And then they go take a really hard math test. Not only are they less stressed out, they actually do better on the math test. Now what’s funny about it is it’s not somebody saying to him or herself I’m a math genius, you know, I’m a real Einstein. It has nothing to do with math. The self-affirmation could have nothing to do with math. Why does it work? It works because when we are reminded of who we really are it’s okay to not be perfect, right. So you can go into that stressful situation and know that no matter what happens you are leaving it as yourself. So I think it’s a pretty wonderful little intervention. There’s a recent study showing that employees whose orientations focused on self-affirmation in both Indian and American call centers — those employees who did that orientation as opposed to a general orientation — stayed at the job longer, were happier, and provided better customer service. So it’s for a long time. It’s not something that lasts only a day, so it’s pretty amazing.

Okay, so you self-affirmed. Now you know who you are. The next part is really how do you access that. In your sort of day to day life when you’re not facing one of these big challenges, you’re naturally expressing who you really are because you’re not afraid to tell your friends what you care about or show your family who you really are. When you get into those stressful situations, the last thing you’re thinking about is, "I need to make sure that I show them exactly who I am." And so instead showing them who you are becomes very threatening and, you know, that wall goes up. And now you can’t access those things. Even if you want to you can’t access them because you’re into kind of fight or flight mode. So it all turns on feeling powerful. And what I mean by power is not power over others. That’s social power. Personal power is power over the self. So it’s power to access the resources that you already possess, right?

So it’s the things that you internally possess that again your values, your skills, your knowledge, your personality. When you feel powerful you can access those things. When you feel personally powerless, suddenly you can’t access those things. So the really important difference between social power and personal power is that social power is zero sum and personal power is infinite. Everyone can be personally powerful. In fact I would argue that you want people to be personally powerful because you’re getting the best version of everyone when they feel that way. Personal power does not make people competitive in this sort of zero-sum fixed-pie way. It makes people open and action oriented and creative. And, frankly, just kind of more interesting people.

Self-affirmation techniques are the butt of many jokes, including a famous Saturday Night Live sketch with Al Franken. But value affirmation is something different, says Harvard's Amy Cuddy. The last thing you want to do if you're looking for more self-assurance and confidence is lie to yourself (the conceit of Franken's sketch). Instead, says Cuddy, focus on your personal values: what they are, what makes them immutable, and why they're important to you.

As a follow up exercise, Cuddy suggests writing about a time when you express these values. The endpoint of self-affirmation through your values is an increase in power — not power over other people, but internal power that represents a form of self-mastery. Not only is this an effective way to make individuals more confident and more effective, it makes people more interesting in general.

Cuddy's book is Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

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