Positive affirmations are everywhere.
As you may know, they’re short phrases you repeat to change yourself for the better. Like I’m confident. I’m worthy. I’m abundant.
Have you tried using one?
Positive affirmations seem like a brilliant idea: repeat one and.. voilà! All better.
So why do they sometimes feel like lies? Positive affirmations seem to work for everyone else. What gives?
I’ve been there.
My frustration with this self-help tool inspired me to find out why they didn’t work for me and what to do about it.
How do positive affirmations work?
According to Louise Hay, positive affirmations send the message to our mind that we’re taking responsibility for changes in our life.
Our internal dialogue—what we tell ourselves on a daily basis—plays an important role in our relationships, family, money, work and health.
Some people use the word mantras to talk about positive affirmations. But mantras are spiritual words or sounds (often in Sanskrit) that help us concentrate and deepen our meditation practice. Like om, love and peace.
Mantras aren’t used to consciously rewire our brain towards a certain outcome.
So, the premise of positive affirmations? If we focus on positive thoughts, we’ll attract positive experiences.
Even if you’re not into anything woo-woo, it makes sense that if we focus on positive thoughts, we’ll feel more empowered.
But it’s much more complex than that.
The #1 mistake people make about positive affirmations
Louise Hay says that we have to not only repeat or think positive affirmations as much as possible everyday, but we also have to feel good.
That’s a tall order for someone who struggles with their inner critic, that voice in our head that says we’re never good enough.
I remember how hopeless I felt when I used positive affirmations: You’re lying to yourself. Who does that? You’re dumb. So I gave up.
Then a light bulb went off: What if I embraced those negative thoughts? What could I learn?
If thinking I love myself all day makes you feel worse, take a step back. That’s a sign that you have deeply-ingrained beliefs that aren’t serving you. Beliefs like I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy. I’m a failure.
The biggest mistake people make about positive affirmations is slapping them on top of their negative beliefs. According to this Forbes article, positive affirmations work at the surface level of our conscious mind, while our beliefs live in our subconscious.
So if we believe deep down that we’re unworthy of success, our actions will be colored by that belief. As a result, it’ll be much more difficult for us to succeed.
But it’s not the end-all. We can use positive affirmations to highlight parts of us that need to be healed, so that we can live a more peaceful and fulfilling life.
10 steps to make positive affirmations work
1. Relax in a quiet spot
On your sofa, in an office chair or in bed, whatever you like. Make sure it’s quiet enough so that you can hear yourself thinking (you’ll see what I mean below).
2. Pick a positive affirmation
Some examples are: I love and accept myself. I’m beautiful. I’m worthy. I’m good enough. I’m confident.
3. Say the positive affirmation
You can say it in your mind or out loud. If you like to write, you can jot it down in your journal. Some people say the positive affirmation while looking at themselves in a mirror.
4. Observe your thoughts
Right after you say the positive affirmation, observe any thoughts, emotions, images or physical sensations that arise.
Simply notice any resistance. Do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach? Does your throat tighten? What emotions are you feeling? What thoughts or images race through your mind?
5. Allow your thoughts to flow
Resisting negative thoughts and emotions amplifies them. If we allow them to just be, they’ll often float away on their own. Brace yourself though for a barrage of put-downs like You can’t do it. Stop being silly, loser. Give up now.
Feeling overwhelmed? Try these 10 quick ways to calm down.
6. Contemplate why this positive affirmation feels false
So if you picked the positive affirmation, I’m good enough, ask yourself, Why do I think I’m NOT good enough? Consider the times you felt not good enough.
Did parents, caregivers or teachers neglect you? Did a classmate bully you as a kid? Does it seem impossible to satisfy your boss? Does your partner criticize your body?
7. Accept past hurts
It hurts so much, but even more so when we hang on. Take it from Anaïs Nin: And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Reckless sobbing and journaling are encouraged. 😉
8. Look out for signs that validate the positive affirmation
With the example of I’m good enough, pay attention to big and small things: I made a healthy breakfast and took a walk (I’m taking care of myself). I strive to do my best at work. I’m learning how to communicate better in my relationship.
Have fun with this! Treat it like a game and see how many moments you can catch throughout your day that validate the positive affirmation.
You can also make a more realistic and compassionate affirmation.
9. Enjoy how good it feels
You’ve excavated parts of yourself that needed to heal and took care of your emotional wounds. You’ve confronted painful emotions. And now you’re moving on to better things.
That’s no mean feat! Take the time to acknowledge your progress.
10. Repeat steps 3 to 9 until the positive affirmation feels true
Old beliefs die hard. It’s normal to cycle through the same issue a million times before you feel at peace with it. Each time you visit an emotional wound, you heal a little bit more.
Ultimately, proving our worthiness to ourselves or others has its limits though. Our inner critic tends to never be satisfied. That’s why it’s far more fulfilling to accept our shadow self and live by our values.
If you have trouble using positive affirmations…
Steps 5 to 8 are the most challenging. Don’t sweat it. Expect setbacks and try one of these tips below.
- Do NOT force yourself to think positively. It seems counterintuitive, but you won’t make progress if it feels fake. Allowing negative thoughts to flow heals, not self-deception (see next tip).
- Embrace your negative thoughts. Breathe deeply and listen lovingly to your negative thoughts as if you were holding a child crying over her bad day.
- Reframe your past. It’s not easy to sit with pain from a negative experience. Ask yourself, What has this experience taught me? Nothing is ever lost. Apply those lessons to your life and harvest the benefits.
- Be patient. Remember, you’re undoing years of old habits. Changing your mindset takes time and practice. Need personal guidance? Check out my 4-week, 1:1 coaching package The Self-Compassion Program.
So, are positive affirmations worth the effort?
Yes! If we use them as a tool to understand ourselves better, positive affirmations can shine some light on what needs to heal and which beliefs hold us back.
Forcing ourselves to fit into a positive affirmation is like squeezing our sweet body into a pair of too-small jeans. Then having the button fly off and ricochet us in the head.
Please don’t blind yourself.
Instead, use positive affirmations to gauge your mindset.
Accept where you are.
Let the truth set you free.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.