Every other wellness guru or spiritual teacher tells you to repeat affirmations.
“I am a forgiving soul who chooses love.”
“I radiate with compassion.”
“I am beautiful and everyone loves me.”
If you’ve ever tried affirmations and still felt like dropping off your kids at a park and disappearing forever, you’re not alone.
That’s because while every wellness expert is doling out affirmation suggestions, they’re not telling you how to actually make it effective.
But there is a way!
First, what IS an affirmation?
Most variations of the definition go something like this:
“An affirmation is a positive statement of how you see the best version of yourself.”
By that definition, it’s not a statement about who you actually feel like now. (Hence, the “I am a forgiving soul” even though you fantasize about kicking your husband in the shins.)
But, according to Louise Hay, the late and revered self-help genius:
“An affirmation is really anything you say or think.” That’s right—even if what you’re thinking is negative. (Just to be clear, when you tell yourself you suck, that’s an affirmation.)
The key is this next part Louise says: “When I talk about doing affirmations, I mean consciously choosing words that will either help eliminate something from your life or help create something new in your life.”
Knowing that an affirmation is a goal for the future, not the present, is the first step into making it work for you.
This is an important distinction. Because the problem with affirmations for most people is that they don’t really believe what they’re saying because they look at themselves NOW and don’t trust whatever they are repeating to themselves is, in fact, true.
So is there real science behind affirmations?
This makes me happy, because it means if I get it right, this very simple, non-time-consuming act could help me feel better. And it’s free!
Let’s look at the research.
In this study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers Christopher Cascio and Emily Falk used MRI machines to find that affirmations activate the brain’s “reward centers,” the same ones that react to doing fun things like winning a raffle or eating delicious food. They also concluded that affirmation stimulates activity in the parts of the brain that control “self-related processing,” which help manage your emotions when faced with negative info.
“Affirmation takes advantage of our reward circuits, which can be quite powerful,” says Cascio. “Many studies have shown that these circuits can do things like dampen pain and help us maintain balance in the face of threats.”
In another study, this one published in PLOS ONE, a short self-affirmation helped decrease the effects of stress, which helped boost performance when participants were faced with a creative problem-solving task.
David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, who led the study, stated on the university site: “People under high stress can foster better problem-solving simply by taking a moment beforehand to think about something that is important to them… It’s an easy-to-use and portable strategy you can roll out before you enter that high-pressure performance situation.”
These studies are promising. But why is it that repeating “I am a loving person” just doesn’t seem to make me feel any more loving?
Here’s how to do it right.
How can you use mantras so they actually make a difference?
Say your name or “you” instead of “I”
Be like Julius Caesar (minus the treacherous friends) and don’t become a narcissist. But science shows distancing yourself from yourself can help affirmations work better.
Ethan Kross, a researcher for this study, had gave volunteers only five minutes before giving a speech. He asked some of them to address themselves as “I” while others used their own names or “you.”
Kross told NPR.org that the “I” group was more freaked out before the speech, while the “you” or name group was more rational and less emotionally fraught.
A quote from that NPR article: “People who used ‘I’ had a mental monologue that sounded something like, ‘Oh, my god, how am I going do this? I can’t prepare a speech in five minutes without notes. It takes days for me to prepare a speech!’
People who used their own names, on the other hand, were more likely to give themselves support and advice, saying things like, ‘Ethan, you can do this. You’ve given a ton of speeches before.’”
Start with affirmations you actually believe, at least sort of
Affirmations don’t work unless you believe them, or believe in the possibility that they’ll become true at some point.
Let’s go back to: “I am a forgiving soul who chooses love.”
Blindly, robotically repeating this to yourself won’t do shit if you’re about to explode into a blind rage and totally convinced you’ll never forgive that nosy neighbor who told your kids not to eat your cupcakes.
If this is something you want in your future, think about all the times this statement was true. Think about—or better yet, write down—all the times you’ve forgiven someone, even if it took you years.
As you go through this exercise, your brain will absorb the fact: You ARE a forgiving soul who chooses love. It’s not easy for you, but it can happen! Look, you’ve done it before!
When you repeat your affirmations, do it when you’re out of an angry mindspace. Think about all those instances you were forgiving, then repeat the affirmation to yourself.
The key here is you are trying to believe in the reality of the statement.
Try it yourself
If you’re curious about affirmations, try creating one for yourself (just one to start) and stick with it for three or four weeks. Let me know what happens!