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Affirmations: The Why, What, How, and What If?

Practical tips for writing, using, and remembering self-affirmations.

Why Use Affirmations?

People use affirmations for a variety of purposes. Generally speaking, affirmations are used to reprogram the subconscious mind, to encourage us to believe certain things about ourselves or about the world and our place within it. They are also used to help us create the reality we want—often in terms of making (or attracting) wealth, love, beauty, and happiness.

According to Walter E. Jacobson, M.D., there is value in affirmations of this nature, because our subconscious mind plays a major role in the actualization of our lives and the manifestation of our desires. What we believe about ourselves at a subconscious level, he says, can have a significant impact on the outcome of events.

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At the simplest level, when we feel good about ourselves and have a positive attitude, our lives tend to run smoothly. Proponents of the “law of attraction” often refer to this is as raising our vibration such that when our vibration is positive, positive things—such as financial abundance, love, and renewed health—are magnetically drawn to us.

On the other hand when we feel bad about ourselves and have a negative attitude, we tend to engage in self-defeating behaviors which may cause negative outcomes, like financial mishap, interpersonal drama, or acute or chronic illness.

And, on a much more pragmatic level, recent scholarship from a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon suggests that self-affirmations actually buffer stress and improved problem-solving performance in underperforming and chronically stressed individuals.

 So What, Exactly, Are Affirmations (What do they look like?)

Affirmations are simply statements that are designed to create self-change in the individual using them. They can serve as inspiration, as well as simple reminders. They also can serve to focus attention on goals throughout the day, which, in and of itself, has the potential to promote positive and sustained self-change.

The formula for writing effective affirmations is actually quite simple.

1. Effective Affirmations are Written in First Person.

Begin your affirmations with the “I” or “I am....” These types of statements turn affirmations into statements of identity. Identity statements are powerful motivators for self-change. Examples of I statements would be, “I am secure and confident speaking in public,” “I enjoy eating healthy food,” “I love exercise,” “I am a loving and compassionate person.”

2. Affirmations Are Written in the Positive (as Opposed to the Negative).

Always state your affirmations in the positive. So, for example, instead saying, “I no longer enjoy the taste of cigarettes,” you might say, “I am completely free from cigarettes,” or “I am a healthy person and I love the way my body feels when I make healthy choices.”

3. Affirmations Have an Emotional Charge.

Embue your affirmations with feeling. Using emotional words in affirmations is important, because of the deep association we have between emotion words and somatic experiences. So instead of saying, “I spend time with my aging parents,” try: “I feel such love and gratitude spending time with my mother and father.” Or instead of “I only eat healthy food,” which sounds suspiciously chore-like, try: “I feel vibrant and alive when I make healthy choices for me.”

4. Affirmations are Written in the Present State.

Write your affirmations as if they are already happening. This means affirming, “I am happy and confident,” instead of “Two months from now, I will be happy and confident.” Or “I am sexy and attractive,” as opposed to, “When I lose these last ten pounds, I will be sexy and attractive.”

This is the step that causes most people to falter, because in some cases they feel silly writing or saying something that they actually don’t yet believe—at least at a conscious level—is true. But remember, the purpose behind affirmations is to rewrite your subconscious mind.

Many holistic traditions suggest that if you act as if something is true, if you experience the feelings associated with the outcome that you want, the more likely it is for the outcome to materialize. That is, if you believe that you are attractive and sexy, you will automatically engage in the behaviors associated with that (heightened self care), which will help you to attain your goals.

Additional tips for writing affirmations that work:

A review of websites on writing effective affirmations also caution against getting caught up in the how. Because if you believe that you are a certain way, you will—subconsciously—figure out a way to make it work.

They also point out that affirming your current successes (that is, the things that you consciously know to be true already) in addition to affirming those things you want to create may undercut any dissonance you have for making future-paced statements.

Further, many sources stress the important of writing your own affirmations—ones that speak to your deepest desires and using specific words or phrases that resonate with you personally.

They also suggest that you update your affirmations regularly, in order to preserve their emotional potency.

If you'd like to try your hand at writing your own, personal affirmations, there is an app called Affirmable that lets you easily create your own affirmations and work with them every day.

And because Affirmable fits easily in your back pocket, your purse, or your backpack it means that you'll always have them within easy reach. 

How Do You Use Affirmations?

Once you’ve come up with a set of affirmations, you must use them. In order to be effective, affirmations must be used daily—at a minimum.

Some recommendations suggest that you do affirmations first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Others recommend putting your affirmations on note cards and leaving them in plain sight: such as on your bathroom mirror, the steering wheel on your car, your computer monitor, or in your purse or wallet.

Different people also have different modes of using affirmations.

Some suggest that writing affirmations down on a daily basis is useful, because the act of writing something out is another mechanism through which the affirmation becomes part of the unconscious mind.

Others simply read or repeat affirmations from a list, a stack of cards, or most recently, from smart phone apps. Indeed, there are a number of phone apps for purchase that come pre-stocked with affirmations related to health, wealth, and relationships.

However, if you want to write your own affirmations, you might want to try Affirmable, which allows you to write, edit, and easily review your own affirmations.

As far as I can tell, this product is fairly unique in that allows you to “create and curate” affirmations that not only speak to your own specific needs (see above), but also are written in your own words. The interface is also easy to use and allows you to update affirmations with literally a touch of a button.

Using apps like Affirmable may also be better than pen and paper methods because 1) you’ll always have them with you and 2) you can program your phone to remind you to do them once, or several, times a day.

 What If? Do Affirmations Really Work?

Self-affirmations were first popularized in the 1920s and, since that time, have been trumpeted by coaches and self-help gurus around the world. But do they work?

References to Naploean Hill's now classic, Think and Grow Rich, aside, recent evidence suggests that, yes, affirmations do work. As mentioned above, a recent study from Carnegie Mellon reveals that self-affirmations can protect against the damaging effects of stress on problem-solving performance and counteracts ego-depletion. Self-affirmations also enhance our task-related performances and make us more receptive to our mistakes. Additionally, self-affirmations have also been shown to assist regular users in rewriting self-fulfilling prophecies pertaining to social rejection.

I began this blog post citing the work of psychiatrist and author, Walter Jacobsen, M.D. It seems suitable, given that this is a blog on relationships, to end with Dr. Jacobson as well. With regards to using self-affirmations in relationships he writes: “If we tend to be self-centered, selfish, and withholding towards others, our relationships are likely to be unsatisfying and unsustainable, we might affirm and remind ourselves throughout the day to be generous of spirit, to be of service to others, and to share our blessings the best we can.”

If you'd like an easy way into using affirmations in your daily life, you can check out the Affirmable app at the App Store. It's quick, easy, and perhaps even more importantly, you can set an alarm.

Kathryn Lively, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Dartmouth College and is co-author of Selves, Symbols, and Social Reality.

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