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  • July 12, 2022 5 min read

    In an era of mental health awareness, personal development, and self-care, there’s no shortage of tips and advice when it comes to looking out for our well being and becoming a better person. Whether they’re in the form of books, blogs, TedTalks, or social media posts, you name it: someone somewhere has a thing or two to say about how to become our best self. 

    Even though these “how-to’s” and guides can be very different, what’s similar in this sea of advice is this: how to get started. The most common suggestion is by shifting our self-talk into something more positive: making changes to the way we converse with ourselves. Self-talk is important because it shapes what we believe about ourselves and everything else around us which can affect our self-image and the manner we react to other people, situations, and the world

    To make our self-talk better, one popular and controversial strategy—and we say “controversial” because there are as many critics of it as there are believers—is the use of positive affirmations. Positive Psychology defines it as “positive phrases or statements used to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts”; people either say them aloud (often in front of a mirror and directly to their reflection) or write the words down so that they can reread them later.

    As opposed to more complicated methods that take a lot of effort in order to work, positive affirmations are simple and easy. In fact, there’s an abundance of positive statements everywhere on the Internet and it’s a matter of choosing which ones apply to you. 

    But here’s the thing: simple and easy doesn’t always mean effective so this begs an answer to a very important question. Do positive affirmations actually work? We did some digging and looked into the relevant science that says they do—and don’t. 

     

    1. The issue with internal conflict. 

    According to PsychCentral, positive affirmations don’t work because “they target the conscious level of your mind, but not the unconscious.” In a way, this makes sense: if our unconscious mind has influence over certain things like our beliefs, behavior, feelings, and motivations, to truly change, we need to make an impact on our subconscious—something that positive affirmations don’t do.  

    Here’s an example: imagine a person writing the following down in their journal: “I am confident.” Unfortunately, this is something that they’re still working on. In reality, they don’t feel confident at all. Instead of becoming a positive and uplifting message, repeating this affirmation, one that their subconscious mind does not support, causes an internal struggle. As a result, this practice does more harm than good because such conflict goes on to emphasize what a person is not as opposed to what they can or want to be. 

    However, a study indicates that affirmations may also have the ability to “restore self-competence by allowing individuals to reflect on sources of self-worth, such as core values.” It can help us zoom out so we can look at the more general, overall perspective we hold about ourselves. By doing so, we’re able to see what’s good about who we are, which can reduce the negative effect of whatever it is that makes us feel lacking. 

    We can look at it this way: though positive affirmations can have the tendency to show us what we’re not, it can also serve as a reminder of our potential. And it’s this, the positive visualization of what we can be, that will ultimately help us overcome whatever is holding us back from being greater. Simply put, in our daily struggle of replacing our negative self-talk with something kinder, we can win. 

     

    2. The importance of having the right mindset.  

    When it comes to positive affirmations, choosing the right words is important. The way we phrase them can play a role in the type of mindset we end up having, which can determine whether or not we become successful in our goal to speak to ourselves with more compassion. It’s not just about making sure the language is supportive or empathetic either: since the end goal is to use positive affirmations to enforce a desirable change, our affirmations need to use language that encourages growth. 

    In this insightful TedTalk by Eduardo Briceno, co-founder and CEO of Mindset Works, he talks about two kinds of mindsets: fixed, where people see “intelligence and abilities as fixed”, and growth, where the same things are considered “qualities that can be developed.” 

    A fixed mindset focuses only on the black and white: I’m good or I’m not good, or I’m so stupid. The language emphasizes something definite and leaves no room for change. In contrast, a growth mindset frames outcomes and situations in ways that focus on improvement: I can do better tomorrow even if I didn’t do very well today. I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but I can learn. 

    If we want positive affirmations to be more effective, it’s vital that we use words that highlight progress. Of course it’s always great to become something specific—tell ourselves we’re beautiful or intelligent, for example—but we don’t want to be stuck just being intelligent or beautiful. Positive self-talk is not just about saying nice things: it’s also about speaking to ourselves in a way that actually encourages us to change and grow for the better. 

     

    3. Taking advantage of the brain.  

    One of the many things our brain is good at is neuroplasticity. When it needs to, it has “the ability to change and adapt to different circumstances” throughout our life by rewiring, and even restructuring, itself. With this ability in mind, it means we can use affirmations to do the same thing, rewire our brains in order to enforce a positive change. But how? By taking advantage of the fact that our mind has difficulty differentiating between what’s true and what’s not. 

    Research shows that just imagining ourselves jumping activates the same areas of the brain that light up if we do actually jump. Therefore, the key here is to trick the brain into turning our positive affirmations into reality by visualizing what we’re trying to manifest. But it’s not just about repetition: there should be a part of us that believes in what we’re saying. The more detailed our vision is when we imagine it, the better—but take note: this is not a magic trick. In order to make what we’re saying happen, we still have to do the work. 

    So if our aim is to show self compassion by practicing kindness whenever we have an internal conversation, affirming statements alone, no matter how many times we write it down in our journals, won’t get the job done. Outside our use of affirmations, we have to actually be mindful about things like the language we use and the words we use to refer to ourselves and what we do. 

     

    Conclusion

    Believer or otherwise, it’s undeniable that positive affirmations have worked for many, especially for people who know exactly how to effectively use them. By looking inwards and with lots of practice, you can tweak this self-help strategy in a way that works best for you.

    Have you tried positive affirmations before? Did you say it out loud in front of a mirror, write them in your journal, or read them from a list? If you haven’t, what’s holding you back? We’d love to hear what you think—leave us a comment below! 

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