Do Affirmations Really Work?

It’s easy to understand why affirmations are so wildly popular, because they inject positivity or reassurance into our minds. But I have a hard time with affirmations. I don’t walk around saying affirmations to myself. I don’t look at myself in the mirror and tell myself “I love you” during my morning routine. Usually it’s more like “Hurry up, or Is it morning already? I need to remember to drink more water”. 

If I’m honest, sometimes it just feels like superficial fluff. 

The thing is, I know there’s something to it. And I want to believe that affirmations work. But as with anything in my life, and of course you with my podcast, I needed to know HOW they work so that I could figure out a way to make them work BETTER and for them to feel more AUTHENTIC.

What is an affirmation?

Affirmations are essentially positive statements or phrases. People typically use them to motivate themselves or boost self-esteem, and challenge negative self-talk. 

If you think about your thoughts and self-talk, it shapes your perception and your experience of life and the world around you. What if I told you that 80% our self talk is negative. 

So it makes sense that we might want to change our thoughts into more encouraging ones. 

And there is research to show that they ‘work’, depending on what you’re using them for and how you do them. Studies to show that affirmations actually decrease stress, enhance performance, help resilience, improve academic results, help problem-solving and a lot more. 

But at the same time for some reason, I have a hard time adopting affirmations into my routine, and even my personality. It just feels silly. Even sometimes artificial.

Why affirmations are hard to do

Here’s one of the challenges with affirmations. If it feels like a goal, or something that you hope for but don’t actually meet up to, no matter how much you want it to be true, it still might not feel great to say it. And then you’re more likely to stop saying it after a few tries.  

It feels sort of like the phrase “fake it, til you make it”. When does the ‘fake it’ part end, and the ‘make it’ part actually begin?

So that’s the dilemma. We know that affirmations can work. In theory, we want them to work. 

  • But how and when do they work? 
  • How can we make them work better? 
  • And how do we move from dreaming about a reality where the affirmation is true, to actually internalizing the phrases and sentences that we want to believe.

It turns out that affirmations do certain things to the brain. And if we can harness those beneficial effects, we can actually get more benefit from our affirmations. And then maybe we can stick with them and really use them to make a positive change in our lives.

Affirmations can work in different ways depending on how you use them. 

Much of the research comes from self-affirmation theory which is the idea that people are motivated to maintain a positive self-view. How we perceive ourselves, our behaviours, our abilities, and unique characteristics, who we are or who we believe ourselves to be. When this self-concept is threatened, we can use self-affirmations to restore our feelings of competence and value and feel good again about who we are.

There’s more to it than that though, because our thoughts are complex and are impacted not only by our self-concept but also our experiences, our social standing, our sense of power, our ideals and expectations, and more.

In a nutshell, affirmations can help by creating positive thoughts, self-coaching and self-motivating, restructuring or reframing negative thinking patterns or by helping to maintain your self-integrity.  They can also help us stay open to being flexible, and open-minded rather than rigid and defensive. 

Researchers have actually found neural evidence to support that affirmations feel rewarding and pleasurable to the brain. And that affirmations can act as a defense mechanism by reminding us of the things in life that we cherish, thereby broadening the foundation of our self-worth and our abilities to respond to stressful situations. 

Do affirmations have real power?

Here’s my disclaimer: Affirmations are a tool, you still need to do the deeper work.  Saying I’m happy isn’t going to make you happy if you are holding onto difficult emotions without processing them. Telling yourself I release negativity, isn’t going to make you release negativity if you haven’t learned how to acknowledge and express your feelings. 

Knowing that, if you’re still going to give it a real try and if you, like me, want your affirmations to really be a good fit, and feel genuine, here we go. 

I’ve distilled down my deep dive into affirmations into three strategies. Three really important things that you can focus on when coming up with your own, personal affirmations to make them really resonate with you, and hopefully to have a true impact on your life.

  1. First, really look at your core personal values. 

We’ve talked about values before, like in the burnout episode. And I think with any kind of personal growth it’s important to really understand yourself. So take a moment and   

Here are some examples: 

Do you value loyalty, honesty, family, determination, generosity, courage, connection or something else? 

Once you have an idea of your values, pick your top one. Which one is the most important to  Now think about why it’s important to you. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that when your affirmations are aligned to your personal values, they impact you on a deeper level. 

Affirming different types of values

Not only are your affirmations more meaningful when they align with your personal values but in fact, there is evidence to show that affirming different types of values might offer different benefits.

Affirming self-transcendent values, for example, can work differently than self-enhancing values. 

So for example, thinking about your family and loved ones (something that transcends beyond you, something you value outside of yourself) can have a different emotional benefits than thinking about how you are an honest person (which is a characteristic that you might value in yourself, but it’s focussed on you only). So experimenting with affirmations that address different types of values can be helpful. 

Self-transcendent values are ones related to empathy, compassion, supporting others, relationships.  Self-enhancement values include ones related to success or status, achievements or appearance. 

What is surprising is that affirming those values, either in a statement or a moment of reflection, can strengthen your resilience in other areas of life. 

Think about this, if you’re in a stressful situation, say you feel emotionally threatened. Someone made a negative comment about you. You didn’t perform well at work, you’re embarrassed about something. Someone judged you based on your appearance or your pronouns. Something made you feel pushed or vulnerable or threatened, and it cut at your sense of self. 

This type of interaction creates a psychological powerlessness and that in turn, impairs your cognitive control – or your ability to select your thoughts, emotions and behaviours the way you would want to. 

But affirming your core values can help to restore and repair your self-identity and your self-worth.

Even if those core values have nothing to do with the immediate stress.  

Does it make the situation better or go away? No, remember affirmations are just a tool. But they’re a quick and easy and possibly powerful tool if you can really internalize them.

Affirmations and Anxiety

There was a research study that looked at how people cope with uncertainty. Which, if you’ve taken my workshop on anxiety you’ll know that uncertainty is a huge part of why humans feel stress and worry. Now this was a research study so they had to simulate the uncertainty of life, and they used a gambling exercise which is probably not applicable here but the idea was one group chose a value that they cherished most (for example, community/social network, financial wealth, art/creativity and knowledge). And they reflected and wrote about why it was important to them. The other group wrote about which value they cherished least. And then both groups faced this uncertainty exercise. 

Can you guess what happened? 

Turns out that the group that reflected on their core values managed the uncertainty better. The buoyancy that the positive thoughts brought, allowed more of their brain power to be directed to the problem and task at hand. 

Basically, their thoughts were fortified with these values that they affirmed and they were better able to cope with the stress of that moment. Even though the gambling had nothing to do with their values. 

By the way, if you use this strategy at a casino and win, you can buy me lunch 🙂

My point is that if you’re trying out affirmations, you don’t need to use one that applies to that situation.   If you’re feeling stressed at work, affirming your family values could help you feel content in a way that will translate to your work life. 

The important piece here is to find something that matches and aligns with your core values. 

2. The second part to making your affirmations work for you is to make sure you believe it.

It sounds obvious but this is actually a big one. 

How many times have you said something to yourself, wanting to believe it but having a hard time? 

I am enough 

I belong here

I am smart

I am beautiful 

I deserve love

Affirmations target the conscious level of your mind. It’s one thing to use them as a reminder (Where focus goes, energy flows OR be kind to all kinds). But when you’re trying to ingrain a positive thought into your subconscious, it’s a different story.

If what you’re trying to affirm is different from a negative belief that you hold deeply, then instead of reprogramming your thinking, you’ll have an internal struggle and you’ll likely push the affirmation away.

I think one of the reasons affirmations appeal to us is because we want to believe them. We want to believe. I am worthy. I am enough. I deserve love. 

But for many reasons (be it media, society, history), we don’t often believe those things. We’re drawn to these affirmations so that we can hopefully change our internal dialogue. So that we can remind ourselves that we are worthy, and enough and that we do deserve love. 

I don’t know how it works for you, but I know for me, when I’m feeling good and motivated and excited, it’s much easier to feel connected to those words. When I’m feeling down or having a hard day, it’s not so easy.

Sometimes we use affirmations to help us say what we want to believe. But I think there are times we need to believe what we say, and perhaps grow that into something more over time. 

So far we’ve covered aligning your affirmation with your core personal values, and making sure you believe that your affirmation is true.

3. The next thing you can do to help make your affirmations work for you in a more significant way is to pay attention to time. Now this one is tricky. 

Most sources say that affirmations shouldn’t be in the past tense (eg. I was confident), at least not as an affirmation. It might help with thinking more positively to remember when you were confident and how to become confident again, and we’ll talk about positivity in the next episode, but for now we’re going to focus on the here and now … and the future. 

One technique is to do your affirmations in the present tense because it feels more real, like it’s happening. 

I am confident vs I will be confident

I am confident feels more tangible vs I will be confident feels more abstract. And there is value to this strategy because it pairs well with visualization and actually can stimulate certain parts of the brain such that your brain imagines it to be true. Expert athletes use imagery and visualization in this way. 

If you’re using a present tense affirmation, “I am confident” it’s helpful if you can really feel it, imagine it, visualize it, own it. 

Now if you want to take it up a notch, you can add a future oriented affirmation. Interestingly, researchers have found that self-affirmation brain activity is also stimulated with future-oriented thinking. 

For example, “Imagine a time in the future when you feel confident, imagine a time in the future when you’ve succeeded at something important to you”, “Think about a time in the future when you are having fun with your family”.  

Stepping into your affirmation, in the present and future, and imagining it there, can help you move closer to that reality.

So, let’s recap. To be clear, I think there is some value in saying positive statements even if you don’t quite believe them, even if they feel a bit silly and even if you’re faking it for now. 

Making Affirmations Stronger

But if you want to get the most out of them, perhaps try one or all of these strategies. 

So take a moment here and pause, think about an affirmation that resonates with you. It should be positively focussed, connected to your values either your values about yourself as a person or values that reflect your care for others, social values. Something you can really get behind. And see how you feel after using it.

  1. Understand, reflect on and connect to your core values
  2. Examine your inner beliefs to see if you agree with your affirmations
  3. Take time and tense into consideration – present and future

Here are some that I like:

“I’m willing to try new things”

“I am grateful for my loved ones”

“I am capable of learning and growing”

“Someone is happier or healthier because of me”

“I care for others”

“There is good in the world”

If you’re still having a hard time, it’s OK. This is a process for all of us and it’s not always the same for each person. I also discovered that ironically, positive affirmations seem to work better for people when they are already feeling good or if they already have great self-esteem. Well that’s wonderful if you’re in that group but what if you’re not? Well, I have some more tips. 

Instead of a positively focussed affirmation, you can start with something more neutral.

Instead of ‘I’m getting better every day”, you can try “I have had better days but I’ve also had worse. Today I’m OK”. Instead of “I’m happy with my life” you can say “I am working on accepting myself as I am”.

Or you can ask yourself a question.

Instead of “I am succeeding” you can try “How could I improve my success?” “Could I be good at this?”

And the last option is, you can try talking to yourself in the third person. Reframing into the third person is a way of distancing yourself so your brain can regulate your emotions, and it allows you to hear the sentence differently, usually it even conveys more confidence. Almost like talking to a coach, or a  best friend. 

Positive Affirmations For Life

Be your own affirmation Sherlock Holmes. 

Have you ever heard that we tend to find proof that we’re right? As humans, we have a tendency to see more of and believe more of what already confirms our beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias. If you think something like “Nothing ever goes smoothly for me” then you start to find examples of when things messed up in your life. 

Our thoughts are so often challenged with negativity and stress. Positive thoughts, and affirmations are outnumbered by all of the past struggles and current challenges you face. If you’re using affirmations to build a new narrative, to create a new perspective of yourself, you need to support those positive thoughts, with repetition and proof.  

So, if you’re using affirmations to help your sense of self or to reprogram negative thoughts, try to actively seek out examples to prove to yourself that the positive perspective is true. 

Maybe your affirmation is “I am open to opportunities”, try actually looking for opportunities. Or try looking at things that happen as an opportunity. Once you see evidence of your affirmation coming true, it’ll be easier to add to that positivity and it might spiral in a good way to more positive thinking. 

If you want to feel strong, support your thought of being strong by searching for times when you feel strong, when you have been strong, when you are stronger than you were before.

Let’s take an example. “I am a good mom” sometimes that feels untrue. Maybe you lost your patience, maybe you felt like you weren’t there on time, maybe you hoped to get more laundry done. None of those things make you a bad mom but you might feel like they do. So we can add some evidence. We don’t say I’m a good mom because I’m patient or present or finishing my chores. Maybe we say something like “I’m a good mom because I love my child”. I am kind because I care. I am resilient because I am here.

If you can find evidence to support your affirmation, it can help to really internalize it. If you can’t find a ‘because’ statement, perhaps you can look for proof of your affirmation being true. 

I am loved. Look for moments where you felt loved, where someone showed you love or kindness.

I am creative. Think about how you’re creative and times when you were creative or how you can be creative.

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