Friday, June 29, 2012

Why Affirmations Don't Work

Affirmations can work. Don't get huffy with me just yet. Yes, they can, if they are worded and used in a way your brain accepts.

Ay, there's the rub, as Hamlet said. And that, my friends, is exactly why affirmations usually don't work. Let me explain.

Despite our affirmations, our brains have built-in bull$h!t detectors. We have a really hard time believing the lies we tell ourselves, which is why denial ends up being so bad for us. Telling ourselves the same lie over and over - unless we're all psychotic - tends not to work. And pictures of flowers or rainbows or the cosmos or a cactus aren't going to help, which is why motivational posters so often fail to motivate. And our doubts, the universe, attraction theories, or any secret you have to pay to read won't change any of that, because at the very core it's all about our brains.

A few things get in the way and cause problems:
·         Most people claim to be open-minded, but the reality is, about 4.8% of the population actually is. For the rest of the world, we only accept facts that support what we already believe. Illogical, but there you go. That's problem one. Affirmations, by definition, are simply true statements. And if the facts (truth) don't support what we already believe (not-necessarily-truth), we usually reject it. 
·         We are truly our own worst enemies. The way we think about ourselves - deep down - is nearly always more negative than reality, and we tend to be petty and mean with our self talk. And that self-perception is very strongly connected to our belief system. If those affirmations go against what we believe, we'll be just as unkind to the stupid affirmations.
·         You've heard of cognitive dissonance? That kicks in when what we observe doesn't match what we believe. Actions only speak louder than words when we're being rational. And at this point, since this isn't a rational part of the brain we're dealing with, guess which side we take! Yep, we ignore any facts we need to so we can cling to our beliefs. (Which, by the way, applies to more than just affirmations. It includes politics, religion, and sports.)

So what happens, when you latch onto an affirmation like "All is well in my life" is this:
1.      You already don't believe it, or you wouldn't have chosen the affirmation to try to force yourself to believe it.
2.      Your brain knows this, as well as all the things that are not well in your life.
3.      The more you say it, the more your brain will argue with you about how it's not true.
4.      Your brain will allow that certain things are well. "Your shoes look great with that outfit, 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 may or may not be rational. 
And before it really got off the ground, your affirmation crashed and burned.

To create affirmations that have a fighting chance:
·         Word them in the present tense, but as actively happening now rather than as an achieved state. When you say that something is, and your brain knows better, it rebels, as explained above. Saying "I will ..." is fine with your brain, because someday maybe you will. But that doesn't generate much motivation. Better might be "Today I'm working on ..." or "Such-and-such is constantly improving...."
·         Be truthful. Saying "I am slim and fit" when they took a wall off your house yesterday to get you out isn't truthful. If it's a process, acknowledge it and phrase it that way. "I am becoming more slim and fit." If you took one tiny baby step toward that goal, that makes it true, and your brain will accept it.
·         Be flexible. Saying "I speak and think positively" doesn't give you any room for expressing negative emotions. Denying frustration, sadness, guilt, anger, or whatever can create a lot of stress, and that's not good. Instead, "I strive to see the positive every day" allows for progress while not being so inflexible that it forces you into denial.
·         Be less absolute. If you say "Everyone likes me" to build some self-esteem, what happens when someone doesn't? An alternative would be "I'm likable." It allows for the rare but inevitable exception.
·         Keep yourself in the affirmation. When you say "every problem has a solution," it's in the present tense, it might be technically true, but you also aren't relating it to your life. And once you do, it may cease to be true or general. Maybe you could say "I believe every problem has a solution, and I do my best to find it."

NOTE: there are those who say an affirmation should only be about the end result. For example, if you want to make more money, you should never say "I am getting rich" because it's still perceived as a negative, and you should only say "I am rich now." As an affirmation, it's doomed to fail. BUT, as part as a visualization exercise, it's perfectly fine! That's allowing a more primitive part of your brain to internalize concepts you want it to use and operate with. Visualizing what your goal achievement will be like is a great way to keep yourself working on it. Just don't confuse imagination with affirmation.

By the way, I'm here if you need a coach.

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