Positive affirmations can transform the way you think, but one-size-fits-all positivity memes can have the reverse effect. Tailor make your mission statement with words that match your values writes David Goding.
Looking yourself in the eye in the mirror and repeating positive affirmations is not a new concept. It’s a psychological ‘trick’ that segues from Buddha’s theory that what you think, you become.
“Every time you recite an affirmation, you’re confirming your belief, and so the affirmation makes it easier to see evidence that supports the affirmation, and harder to see the evidence against the affirmation,” says psychologist Lana Hall.
But the ubiquity of certain memes, that find their way from Instagram to t-shirts and tattoos, neglects the heterogeneity of human motivation.
Even the most positive statement can turn negative if it doesn’t align with who you are, according to Hall.
“If you don’t at least partially believe an affirmation is true already, then it won’t help you,” says Hall, who cites the phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’ whereby we seek information that supports our beliefs and filter that which doesn’t. “In fact, if you don’t believe the affirmation at all (no matter how much you’d like to believe it), then repeating the affirmation will actually take you further from your goal. This is because when you repeat the affirmation, your mind responds by bringing up all the reasons the statement isn’t true.
“Your sense of self is threatened by your goal and so you don’t follow through,” Hall says. This is worse than if you’d never said the affirmation at all, because your mind will likely go on along its train of disconfirmation for much longer than you say the affirmation and ultimately it undermines your self-esteem because it reminds you of what you’re not.”
Tapping into your sense of identity is the scientific reason why affirmations are meant to be said in the present tense, as though you are already there, Hall says.
That said, some discrepancy between identity and affirmation can stimulate growth. After all, if you always do what you’ve always done… “Individuals who can tell themselves: ‘Yes, it is really uncomfortable, but I can do it. It might this time I will give it a go’, are more likely to take risks and overcome fears,” Hall says.
Sense of self and identity can also edge in to close the gap, evolving to fit with affirmations, she says.
When creating your affirmations, use simple, powerful words woven in to brief phrases, words that carry feelings of gratitude, love, inspiration or enthusiasm and words you are willing to say for life, says Dr. John Demartini, author of The Values Factor: The Secret to Creating an Inspired and Fulfilling Life.
“When we affirm and focus on what truly inspires us and concentrate our affirmed thinking in the direction of our desired objects, we alter our internal world and as a result we view and act upon the external world differently,” says Dr. Demartini.
“For example ‘I am a master reader, whatever I read I retain’, or ‘I am a master of persistence and I do what it takes’, or ‘I do what I love and love what I do’.”
Life coach Alyce Pilgrim says the more engaged you are, the more beneficial the affirmation becomes.
“To give your affirmations more punch and make them more effective, get your whole body involved,” she says.
“Physiology makes up a large percentage of our psychology and how we feel, so if you are sitting down slumped and telling yourself that you are abundant, try aligning your body language with what you’re saying. Stand up, put your shoulders back, create a power pose that makes you feel confident and empowered and say your affirmation out loud like you mean it,” Pilgrim says.
If you’re making up your own affirmation, resist framing what you want in terms of what you don’t want – and avoid terms such as ‘always’ and ‘never’.
“Research shows that your mind cannot distinguish between imagination and reality, which has proved particularly useful with elite athletes,” says Hall. “When you imagine moving your arm, for example, the same parts of your brain are activated as when you actually more your arm. Similarly, seeing yourself doing well at a task is like actually practising the task.”
To amplify the effect, try visualising the real-world manifestation of your affirmation. “Under certain conditions, mental rehearsal can be a very influential practice. It’s much like being immersed in a scary film – your heart beats faster and you clench your muscles as though you’re in it,” Hall says.
Dr. Lydia Ievleva, psychologist and author of Imagine – Using Mental Imagery to Reach your Full Potential, says visualisation is more powerful than standalone affirmations.
“The reach of mental imagery extends far beyond words and is the major portal to your brain for transformation,” she says.
In time, visualisation can permanently change your brain.
“Neuroplasticity or cortical re-mapping describes the capacity of your nervous system to develop new neuronal connections,” says Dr Ievleva. “Whatever you imagine can become your new preferred repertoire.”