I watched too many episodes of Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s to ever say anything nice to myself in the mirror without feeling like a low-rent Stuart Smalley, assuring myself that I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people at least tolerate me
The recurring Al Franken character appears to be based on the late self-help guru Louise Hay, who claimed to beat “incurable” cervical cancer in the late 1970s by dealing with her childhood trauma and rape through therapy, nutrition, reflexology and colonic enemas instead of traditional modern medicine. In 1984, she published a book about it, You Can Heal Your Life, which went on to become a bestseller and a movie. She later founded the publishing entity Hay House and earned the title “Queen of the New Age” from the New York Times Magazine.
One of Hay’s core principles of healing involved saying positive affirmations in a heart-shaped mirror she carried around with her — a practice she wrote yet another book about in 2016, a year before she died in her sleep at the age of 90. Mirror work feels as ridiculous in practice as Franken made it seem in parody, but according to researchers and therapists alike, it’s so ridiculous it just might work.
“Talking to oneself positively in the mirror, to counteract negative things one was taught to believe about oneself, can be beneficial, in concert with a lot of other therapy techniques,” Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, tells me. “What it does is confront the internal dialogue that people often learn in a dysfunctional childhood and internalize.”
Although Hay wasn’t a psychologist or scientist by trade, the mirror work she suggested is similar to some of the broader tenants of self-affirmation theory, popularized by Stanford psychologist Claude Steele in the late 1980s. According to Steele, human beings are essentially wired to maintain a positive view of themselves, and threats to that are met with resistance and stress. However, self-affirmations — positive statements about oneself like “I am superior to negative thoughts and low actions,” or “I possess the qualities needed to be extremely successful” — dampen the negative effect of such stress.
If this all sounds too crunchy granola, there is ample science to support the idea that being nice to yourself actually works. Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies of the brain indicate that people who use self-affirmations regularly experience more activity in regions of the brain associated with self-processing and valuation. Self-affirmations have been found to reduce stress, increase physical activity and instill healthy eating habits as well.
“Your brain tends to repeat familiar things over and over, going again and again over established neuronal pathways,” Tessina explains. “Repeating an affirmation over and over creates new pathways, which eventually become automatic.”
Self-affirmations are admittedly awkward enough as it is, but there is something about saying them in front of a mirror that’s even more cringe. However, the greater the degree of discomfort, the greater the psychological benefits. “Looking in the mirror dramatizes the fact that you’re speaking positively to yourself,” Tessina continues. “Speaking directly to yourself and acknowledging your relationship to you, makes the affirmations much more powerful and effective.”
Interestingly, it was only recently that Hay’s New Age-y approach to mirrors and affirmations was confirmed as legitimate by researchers. When study subjects were instructed to recite compassionate phrases they would say to soothe a close friend to themselves in the mirror, they reported more positive emotions afterward, as well as more heart-rate variability — an indicator of one’s ability to self-soothe under stress. Basically, people who said kind things to themselves like, “You’ve been strong in the past, and you will be able to find your strength now, too,” in a mirror experienced greater levels of resilience overall, no matter how silly they felt at the time.
As for the affirmations themselves, free apps like ThinkUp provide a bunch that users can record and listen back to, helping such statements stick. Making a list of things you would say to a friend in distress, like the study participants did, is another way to explore more compassionate self-talk. The real challenge then is facing your dumb mug in the mirror, especially if you’re not accustomed to looking at yourself and liking what you see. “Surprisingly enough, a lot of people don’t really acknowledge their own existence to themselves,” Tessina says. “Their world is all about other people.”
Some therapists like Tessina might recommend affirmations, but Hay always used to encourage people to not overthink it. “Any time you pass a mirror, say something nice to yourself,” she suggested in a 2016 promotional video for Hay House. “We want to be our own cheerleader. We want the things that we say to ourselves to support us and love us, and make us feel good — or make us feel silly.”
After all those years of listening to Franken roast mirror work, it seems that the joke was on him. The only thing more laughable than saying something nice to yourself in the mirror is not saying anything at all. “The good news is that you can choose to replace your negative monologue with something more positive,” Tessina says.
And in that case, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!” more than fits the bill.