In my post describing the Four Plus Three personal development framework, I indicated that one of my favoured personal development techniques is the use of positive affirmations. In this post I will discuss their benefits, the pitfalls many fall into when creating them and share a method for designing your own positive affirmations.
Whilst positive affirmations have been used over the centuries, they have at their core, the principles of positive psychology, pioneered by the likes of Martin Seligman in the late 1990’s. They are essentially mechanisms for focusing our minds on positive, life-affirming, aspirational goals. The idea behind using positive affirmations and positive psychology in general, is a desire to keep one’s mind focused on the present, stimulate higher levels of energy and make one’s goals seem more achievable.
Motivation and courage are both useful outcomes of using positive affirmations well. Positive affirmations also help in the reprogramming of our belief systems. I say ‘help’ because I don’t believe that positive affirmations on their own can change deeply held beliefs. It takes a combination of strategies to do this, one of which is to use well constructed, enthusiastically wielded, positive affirmations.
Earl Nightingale said that “we become what we think about, most of the time.” Some take this to mean we can become anything we want, just so long as we think strongly enough and believe it enough. Of course, this simply isn’t true. See my discussion on finding a life purpose for my views on latent skills and talent.
What is true, is that we can positively affect our disposition and propensity to achieve greater happiness and success (however one might define this), when we keep our thoughts more positive; essentially, when we display more optimism.
So, what are positive affirmations? In essence they are short statements that can be recalled and recited when we are in need of a boost of positive intent, focus, courage or motivation to act. Positive affirmations can be for personal use or used to help others. A marathon runner might say “I can do this!” and her coach might say “Yes, you can do this!”, before the start of an event.
Positive affirmations can be a reminder of a reality already achieved or a statement of intent. The positive affirmation “I love climbing mountains!” could be used to remind me that I feel better when I regularly engage in this sport and that I really should dig out my boots. It may also be a statement of intent for someone who intends to become a mountaineer and needs to encourage themselves to take the first step.
I’m not going to review the physiological mechanisms through which positive affirmations affect our motivation and propensity to act as this would fill a book. It is enough to state here that the processing of emotion, language and attention all play their part, as does subconscious decision making.
A word of caution is needed here because the same physiological processes that allow the use of positive affirmations to positively affect our behaviour, are also susceptible to negative thoughts. When Earl Nightingale said “we become what we think about, most of time” he was referring to our negative thoughts too. In every day life, if our thoughts are predominantly negative towards our self and our prospects of success, we are more likely to create current and future realities matching these thoughts.
Over the years I have used many positive affirmations to help in all areas of my life, particularly with the achievement of my goals. Some have stuck with me and are old favourites that I call upon on a regular basis. I will share my all time favourite at the end of this post.
Let’s turn now to the pitfalls many people come across when creating positive affirmations. Having read widely in the field of personal development, I’ve come across many authors suggesting ready-made positive affirmations and some who recommend methods for their creation. Whilst some of the ready-made affirmations have been useful to me personally, I have found many to be lacking emotional impact and some to be inherently flawed. I have not yet come across a recommended method for creating positive affirmations that doesn’t leave open the risk of creating an end product that is lacking impact or actually risks the opposite to what is intended becoming reality.
Here are three of the most common pitfalls to be mindful of when creating positive affirmations:
- Some affirmations are too generic. They are not about you. A statement such as “Life is great” may have a positive effect. However, making it personal signals to the subconscious that the affirmation is most unequivocally about you! So try “My life is great!” or “I love my life!” See how much better that feels.
- Others use words that are the opposite to that which is desired. For example “I am not a big drinker”. Research into how we understand and comprehend language¹ indicates that we tune into the subject, doing and describing words in sentences (in that order). There is a risk that the subconscious hears “I, drinker, big”. Try “I enjoy a balanced, healthy intake of nourishment!” or “My body is a temple!” (couldn’t resist that one, sorry). Neither of these alternatives mention drinking alcohol, but the attainment of either goal is likely to lead to a subconscious choice to reduce alcohol intake.
- Many affirmations are making statements about the future, such as “I will be famous!” or “My self esteem is rising!”. These are indeed goals, but I find that my subconscious (which research indicates is the real seat of decision making) reacts better to affirmations that are assumed to already be true, even if they aren’t. My Sales Director used to extol us to “Fake it ‘till you make it!”. By this he was meaning we should assume positive intent and adopt the habits of someone who has already achieved their goals. For me, this meant dressing, talking and acting like a seasoned Financial Services advisor, even when only weeks into the role. I’ve used this philosophy on many occasions since, particularly when entering into new situations.
Signaling that a goal is already achieved sends an important message to our goal-seeking, opportunity-spotting, sensory and decision-making brain. It effectively says “this is my current position, this is who I am now”. In saying this it creates dissonance, a worrying gap, between what the subconscious mind knows to be true (that you are not this person yet) and what it is hearing (that you are).
This dissonance can result in one of two things. Either the subconscious believes the affirmation and takes action to close the gap, or it doesn’t and it acts to maintain the status quo. You will know which it is as soon as you use the affirmation. You will know whether you believe it or not. Your emotional reaction will tell you. Do you feel embarrassment and fear at having to take action, or do you feel excitement and anticipation?
Increasing the chances of the latter being the case, depends largely on whether the goal implicit in the affirmation is realistic. It also depends on whether you can invoke sufficient enthusiasm and vivid imagery when it is used.
This brings us to a technique for creating affirmations that avoids the pitfalls described above and takes advantage of our emotional, language and attention seeking, mainly subconscious, processes.
Created some time ago, this technique has stood me in good stead over the years. To remember the technique, make a note of the acronym P.R.A.I.S.E.
Positive – Use words that only refer to the desired state. Don’t include words that invoke images of what you are trying to move away from.
Remember it – Make it short, punchy and memorable. You will need to use the affirmation regularly, sometimes repeating it several times. You may need to say it (in your head) in the gap between an interviewer’s question and your, now more impactful, response.
Already achieved – Fake it ‘till you make it. Tell the subconscious that this is your current reality. Let your subconscious mind work out ways to help you close the gap between current reality and desired end state.
I am, I have… – Make it personal, about you.
See it – Visualise the end state as already achieved. What are you doing? How are you feeling? What benefits are you enjoying? How are you celebrating? Make this as vivid as you can. Practicing visualisation improves the vividness and speed with which images can be created.
Emphasise! – Put as much enthusiasm into saying these affirmation. Say them out loud if possible. Use gesticulation to add energy and drama. Use emotive words such as “love” or “adore.”
I said earlier I would share my favourite affirmation. I’ll skip the story of when this first came in extremely useful for me, suffice to say it was a desperate situation and I needed to call upon every ounce of self-esteem and courage. It wasn’t the only tool at my disposal at the time, but I know it certainly played a significant part in helping me find success in an almost impossible situation.
The affirmation isn’t actually one of mine. It was ‘gifted’ by Susan Jeffers² in her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Here it is:
I am powerful and I am loving
I am powerful and I am loved
I am powerful and I love it!
¹ Pinker, S (1995) The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. Penguin, London.
² Jeffers, S (2007) Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway: How to Turn Your Fear and Indecision into Confidence and Action. Random House, London.