We all know that positive thinking helps us succeed. It keeps us oriented toward our goals and moves us forward. But what about affirmations? They’re just another form of thinking positively and keeping our doubts at bay, aren’t they? Well, maybe not.
As a psychotherapist who’s been in practice for over 30 years, I have my doubts about affirmations leading us to success. I started out encouraging clients to use them to overcome their fears and misgivings. But soon I found that they weren’t working as well as I’d hoped.
In fact, most clients “forgot” to do them no matter how many times they set an intention to do so. And, for many, saying or writing affirmations actually raised their reservations and anxiety levels rather than reduced them.
Why Affirmations Don’t Work: A Realization
Eventually, I recognized what was wrong: why affirmations don’t work is because of the (mostly) unconscious mixed feelings people naturally have about what they need to do to succeed.
Truth is, humans are brimming with internal contradictions and ambivalence. We are programmed by evolution to ignore, minimize, and underestimate our “don’t want to” feelings when we also have “want to” feelings. If humans didn’t do this, they’d never get anywhere.
Let’s look at some examples. We may affirm, “I am happy eating healthy foods, I want to exercise regularly, I will discipline the kids with a quiet voice, I will take better care of myself.” However, lurking beneath these lofty aspirations are opposing beliefs such as:
- “The only way I know how to comfort myself is with sweets,”
- “I hate how my fat body looks in workout clothes,”
- “If I don’t yell at the kids, they won’t listen to me” and,
- “I’m such a screw up that I don’t deserve to treat myself well.”
Left unacknowledged and unaddressed, these fears are sure to scuttle even the best laid plans.
Mental conflicts have many names: opposing beliefs, ambivalence, conflicting, contradictory, or mixed feelings. It doesn’t matter what you call them; they are alive and well and living inside all of us to greater or lesser extent. Sometimes, they flutter into awareness. But, more often than not, they lie in wait outside consciousness.
In part, this is due to most of us trying to will ourselves to feel gung-ho about making positive choices and following through with them. We fear that our “negative” feelings will just get in the way and believe that if we simply ignore them, they’ll disappear.
Now that you know why affirmations don’t work, does this mean that there are NO strategies for meeting our goals? Absolutely not. What works is to stop and explore the underbelly of desire, which is generally based in fear. Here are six techniques to help you do that and move you forward.
6 Techniques That Work When Affirmations Don’t:
1) Accept thoughts or feelings that impede success.
Give yourself permission to acknowledge and accept that there’s nothing wrong with you mentally, just because you haven’t been able to reach your goals. Most of your dreams realistic and healthy, even the ones that you’ve been trying to attain for seemingly forever.
Understand that you’re not suffering from mental illness, but from mental conflict. Remember: this is why affirmations don’t work. So start by taking heart. Know that having mixed or conflicting feelings is natural, normal, and entirely human.
2) Identify specific barriers.
Write down the thoughts and feelings that stand in the way of reaching your goal, say, not wanting to give up that bowl of ice cream while you’re watching the evening news.
Your reasons may be simply born of habit. The fact that you and your spouse share a bonding experience digging into the Haagen Daz at the end of a long day, or that the activity reminds you of how you and your mother used to sit next to each other and have dessert in front of the TV at night after your father died.
3) Assess the intensity of your conflict.
Categorize whether your mixed feelings are major or minor by writing them down. Evaluate them by the amount and intensity of your reasons for not wanting to reach a certain goal.
A minor conflict might be how every workday morning, you awaken and fervently wish that you could roll over and catch a few more zzz’s rather than get up. An example of a major conflict is deciding whether to leave a job or a marriage. You can’t expect to put the same effort into resolving major conflicts as you do into minor ones.
4) Eliminate barrier thinking and feelings.
For every reason that has prevented you from reaching your goal, come up with ways to overcome or resolve it:
- Take some time and brainstorm ideas.
- Write them out. Test them out.
- Talk with friends.
- Read self-help books.
- Seek the advice of a therapist or life coach to guide you.
- Make changes in your routine or environment.
Clear the brush in order to have an easier path to success.
5) Check in with yourself.
Ask yourself periodically if there are any remnants of fears hanging around that are preventing you from reaching your goal. Tend to them with care and compassion. Remind yourself why you need not be fearful, or why it’s okay to tolerate discomfort.
If you were made fun of as a child because you were fat and you’re afraid the same thing will happen to you now at the gym, tell yourself that most people won’t say anything directly to you. That you really have NO idea what people are thinking about you (in fact, they may be impressed that you’re out there exercising). As an adult, you can handle an unkind comment better than you could have as a child.
6) Enjoy pride.
Too many people are uncomfortable feeling pride. That is the major barrier they have to attaining or maintaining success. Maybe they were raised to believe that feeling pride is sinful, selfish, or grandiose.
Whatever the case, make sure that you’re not ambivalent about feeling proud of yourself as you progress, or when you’ve reached your goal. This is when what we call self-sabotage appears to swoop in. Because we’re uncomfortable being proud of our achievements, we negate or undo them.
Instead, recognize that pride is a positive feeling that you deserve to feel – especially when you have worked hard to reach a goal.
If affirmations work for you, well, then, by all means, continue using them. But if they haven’t panned out, don’t blame yourself. You haven’t failed with affirmations. They’ve failed YOU. Instead, give the six strategies above a try.