Affirmations can work for some people, but there is a catch. The effectiveness of an affirmation depends on how one feels about oneself when uttering a positive self-statement.
Psychological researcher Joanne V. Wood at the University of Waterloo in Canada discovered that a person's level of self-esteem determines whether a positive affirmation will be psychologically acceptable. If someone has high self-esteem, a statement such as "I am lovable" fits with their self conception. But for low self-esteem individuals, the positive self-statement is negated by deeply held feelings of unworthiness. Repeating an affirmation such as "I am lovable" tends to be counterproductive for these individuals. Typically, this is what happens: A stream of thought arises in reaction to the positive affirmation. "I am loveable? Is that why I was treated so badly by my ex? Is that why my relationships always fail?” Rather than create uplift, the reactivity to affirmations generates even more distress: “Oh – those are negative thoughts! I can't do this right. See, I'm hopeless, and probably unlovable, too!" Rather than helping the person with low self-esteem, affirmations make them feel worse.
Dr. Wood also found that accepting–and not judging–contradictory thoughts was key. A non-judgmental attitude towards the process was beneficial for both low and high self-esteem individuals. It turns out that the struggle against contradictory thoughts –and berating oneself for not staying positive–reinforced negative self-esteem.
This research provides guidance on how to use affirmations effectively. Here are five tips:
Start with a Less Global Positive Statement
For someone worried about running out of money at the end of the month, repeating “I have a million dollars in the bank,” is not helpful. Rather than creating a sense of positive expectancy regarding personal finances, the “million dollars” statement accentuates awareness of the gap between what is wanted and what current conditions have provided. A better set of affirmations might be: “I have more than enough money to support me today. I feel so good to have bus fare in my purse, and more! I am grateful that Spirit is providing the things I need to live an abundant life today.”
Get in a Good Mood Before Starting Affirmations
Cultivating a good mood before speaking affirmations will help to activate them. When we focus on something that makes us feel good–a photo of a loved one, or a pet, or something beautiful–we raise our vibration. Elevating one’s mood lessens the possibility that counter-thoughts will rise up to contradict positive statements. After centering in this way, repeat your affirmations. Ten affirmations are good, a hundred are better. It is important to do this daily.
Let Go and Do Not Judge Contradictory Thoughts
If a contradictory thought intrudes, pause and take a deep breath. Inhale fully and feel the breath expand the lungs in all directions. Then, on your exhalation, let go of the thought. If the negative thought persists, a simple mental statement can release it. Tell the thought: “I don’t need you right now. Good-bye!” Feel your muscles relax, and return to your affirmations.
If Affirmations Create Stress, Stop. Mindfulness Meditation is a Better Option
Meditation instructors know how to train people to let go of thoughts, without judgement, and become centered. For those just starting a meditation practice, a group meditation can be helpful. There are many free meditation classes; sometimes they are offered at the public library or a local community center. Group meditation provides a structure, social support, and some basic instruction. An alternative to group meditation classes, if they are unavailable or inconvenient, is a guided meditation recording. Most well-known meditation teachers have free podcasts or tracks to download. Another great option is to use a meditation timer app for your smartphone or tablet. Insight Timer (insighttimer.com) is a popular free app that is used by an international community of meditators from many different traditions. The app includes over one thousand guided meditation recordings in addition to the timer.
Affirmations Too Easy? Go Big!
When we incorporate many modalities into a spiritual practice–meditation, journaling, yoga–reciting affirmations may begin to feel rudimentary. Instead of dropping the practice, take the next step forward! Move beyond “positive self-statements” and create affirmations that are blessings for those around you. Claim perfect health for the delivery person. Affirm the kindness of your child’s teacher. Acknowledge and praise the beauty of a spring day.
The greatest reward is when we use affirmations to create a sacred mental space. This is the gateway to something deeper and more profound. Some call it spiritual mind treatment, some call it communing with the Universe, some call it prayer. Here’s a lovely prayer that has great power:
(Say:) The Spirit within me makes all things new. Every negative thought or condition is erased from my experience. I am aware of my union with Good. I am conscious of my oneness with Life. I expect more happiness and more harmony than ever before! I walk in the joy of ever increasing good!
Maryjane Osa, PhD, is a sociologist, speaker, and educator. She is writing a book about the "spiritual but not religious" cultural trend in American society. Maryjane is a spiritual practitioner working in the New Thought tradition.