How to Create Positive Affirmations That Really Work

If you do them correctly, positive self-affirmations can change your life.

Posted Dec 31, 2020

Caroline Veronez/Unsplash
Source: Caroline Veronez/Unsplash

I used to think positive affirmations, such as I am brave, were a silly New-Age concept that amounted to little more than wishful, magical thinking. Then I became a cognitive psychologist, and I realized that your inner dialogue is a profoundly powerful force that ultimately determines the outcome of your life.

What you say to yourself matters because it is the basis of your actions, and your actions create your life experiences. Your inner dialogue is also the foundation for your emotional experiences. You can either say things to yourself that create emotions that feel good or emotions that feel bad. You are the only one who can choose your inner dialogue.

Research has demonstrated that positive affirmations can have a positive effect on a range of behaviors and responses, including decreasing stress, improving health-related behavior such as healthy eating and exercise, helping people to cope more effectively with perceived threats, and even improving academic performance. 1-3

Where I see most people having difficulty with positive affirmations is when they are trying to make a positive self-statement about something that they really don’t believe is true. This is because the brain generally resists large leaps in thought. Saying to yourself, I am brave, when you feel terrified, scared, and anxious on the inside feels like you are lying to yourself and can activate a lot of what I like to call resistant thinking, which can actually make things worse. Resistant thoughts would be something along the lines of—This is stupid; I feel like a phony saying this to myself; this is never going to work for me; etc.

Another downside to saying a statement to yourself that you really don’t believe would be the likelihood of activating evidence in your mind for why your new affirmation isn’t true—Of course, I’m not brave; I always faint when I think of giving a presentation; the last time that happened during a meeting at work, I practically wanted to die.  

The more effective approach is to create an affirmation that feels like an improvement from where you are but is still within the realm of what you believe to be true. If you’re working on trying to get over a fear of public speaking, then thoughts such as I am building my confidence, and with practice, I will get better would be less of a leap than, I am a great speaker, and they will elicit fewer self-sabotaging, resistant thoughts. 

Finding a thought that doesn’t require taking too big of a leap can be more difficult than it seems. Our brains naturally want to go straight to the finish line, which is why if you’re feeling really insecure, and you are trying to come up with a positive affirmation to improve how you feel, then you are going to want to reach for I am confident.  So that’s OK, but look at your new affirmation, and ask yourself: On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being not at all, how much do I believe my new affirmation is true? If you are at 6 or less, I would suggest trying to scale back a bit and instead create an affirmation that is an improvement from where you are but still on the way to where you want to be, such as I am working on improving my self-confidence day by day.

Some phrases that may help you to choose an improved thought without leaping too far include:

  • I am capable of…
  • I can learn to…
  • I am working on…
  • I can start…
  • I can be aware…
  • I am trying…

Then, to really internalize your affirmation as something you believe to be true, try writing down some evidence for why it is already true. I am working on improving my self-confidence day by day, and here is what I am doing: I am reading books on self-confidence; I am working on not listening to my inner critic; I am working with a therapist; I am practicing taking more risks. Another example might be, I am capable of trusting myself, and here are some examples of my life that show me that...

As you begin to work with the improved thought as your affirmation and collect the evidence that it is true in your life already, your ability to believe in your affirmation will grow. As you start to have a firm belief (7 or higher) that your affirmation is true, then keep reaching for improved thoughts and collecting the evidence, and you will incrementally be able to move from I hate myself to Sometimes I’m not so bad to I love myself, except this time, you will be able to own it completely and authentically be those amazing self-statements.  

References

1. Sherman, D. (2013). Self‐Affirmation: Understanding the Effects. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Volume: 7 issue 11, page(s): 834-845

2. Clayton R. Critcher & David Dunning (2015). Self-Affirmations Provide a Broader Perspective on Self-Threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Volume: 41 issue: 1, page(s): 3-18

3. Kristin Layous, Eden M. Davis, Julio Garcia, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns , Jonathan E. Cook , Geoffrey L. Cohen. (2017). Feeling left out but affirmed: Protecting against the negative effects of low belonging in college. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 69, 227-231