Affirmations can work. But usually they fail, and it’s because our brains have built-in bull$h*t detectors.
Here’s the problem:
We don’t believe the lies we tell ourselves. Now, affirmations, by definition, are simply true statements. And we can only accept facts we already believe. If the truth (affirmation) doesn’t match our belief (not-necessarily-truth), it causes cognitive dissonance and we nearly always reject it, and unkindly.
When you latch onto an affirmation like “All is well in my life,” what happens is this:
- You already don’t believe it, or you use an affirmation to try to force yourself to believe it.
- Your brain knows this, as well as all the things that are not well in your life.
- The more you say it, the more your brain will argue with you about how it’s not true.
- Your brain will admit that certain things are well. “Your new business cards look great, oh yes, you have a fabulous sense of style.” But it will also point out unwanted things. “Of course your style would look better if you lost 15 pounds. Maybe a different hair cut. Then people would like you more and you’d earn more money.”
Which, of course, may or may not be true. But again, we’re dealing with what you actually believe deep down. It doesn’t have to be true. And before it got off the ground, your affirmation crashed and burned.
They can only work when they’re worded and used in a way your brain accepts.
To create affirmations that have a fighting chance:
- Word them in the present tense as actively happening now. Saying “I will …” is fine with your brain, because someday maybe you will. But that doesn’t generate much motivation. Better: “Today I’m working on …” or “Such-and-such is constantly improving.”
- Be truthful. “I am successful” when you’re about to file for bankruptcy isn’t truthful. If it’s a process, acknowledge it and phrase it that way. “I am becoming more successful.” If you take one tiny baby step toward that goal, that makes it true, and your brain will accept it.
- Be flexible. “I speak and think positively” doesn’t give you any room for expressing negative emotions. Denying frustration, sadness, guilt, or anger can create stress. “I strive to see the positive every day” encourages progress while staying flexible.
- Be less absolute. “Everyone likes me,” but what happens when someone doesn’t? An alternative would be “I’m likable.” It allows for the inevitable exception.
- Keep yourself in the affirmation. “Every problem has a solution” is in the present tense and it might be technically true, but it doesn’t relate to you. Better: “I believe every problem has a solution, and I do my best to find it.”
One more note:
The brain can become numb to repeated duplicate input. Several repeated signals later, the brain completely ignores the input. This doesn’t help the success rate of affirmations (about 15% in ideal research conditions). Maybe consider goal-setting instead?