Focus On The Positive: The Science Behind Affirmations And How To Make Them Work For You
Before you roll your eyes, quickly scroll to the next post and grumble “ugh, not another unicorns and rainbows positivity piece, I will positively puke,” I’m here to tell you that this will be a different take on affirmations, focusing on the neuroscience behind the new-age practice, and why you shouldn’t believe everything you hear about yourself from your own brain.
Believe me, I used to be the biggest skeptic when it came to positive psychology – “life doesn’t work like that” I would muse, knowingly. I’ve had my fair share of bad luck, bad genes, and a healthy dose of anxiety, which means I tend to always view the worst case scenario as the most likely.
But after many years of meditation, mindfulness practice, and good old-fashioned therapy (as well as some coaching of my own), my views have shifted, and I’m here to explain why so that you can harness the power of positive affirmations to effect transformation in your own life.
First, The Bad News
Our brains evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago with a bias towards negativity. This tendency protected us from being eaten by saber-toothed tigers and generally kept us in a constant state of vigilance, yet alive. Since it was important, evolutionarily, to pay attention to negative stimuli and react accordingly, this trait has stuck around and we tend to remember negative things more than positive ones – just like the one wrong answer you got on the test, or that one guy who dumped you unceremoniously.
But does this mean we need to stay in cavewoman survival mode and let negativity determine our decisions? Nope. The unique thing about the human brain is its capacity for change and flexibility, or neuroplasticity – it’s more like Play-Do than granite, and you can consciously influence the way your mind works.
What are affirmations? They are quite simply, positive statements that are used to influence the brain to take on a more optimistic outlook on life. We know that the brain is like a muscle in a sense, and the more you strengthen certain pathways, the stronger they become – so if you are constantly obsessing over your shortcomings and negative thoughts about yourself, you will flex that muscle and it will become your default way of being in the world.
Over time, those negative messages (that nagging voice in your head telling you that you don’t deserve that promotion, that you will never lose those five pounds, and that your ex was right about you…) will become truth: our thoughts become our reality. But oftentimes, our brain cannot tell the difference between fantasy and fact – case in point, when you watch a particularly sad movie, you may weep for fictional characters.
So, what if we could influence our brain and the path of our lives by simply focusing on the positive? Even if there was no obvious positive there in that moment, perhaps we could create it?
When you engage in positive affirmations you are training your brain to see and believe those positive thoughts as though they were reality (just like when you are contemplating buying a blue Mini-Cooper and suddenly every car on the road just happens to be a blue Mini-Cooper). Cognitive bias at work, but working in your favor.
Characteristics of Positive Affirmations
In order for positive affirmations to work, there are several characteristics that will likely yield better outcomes. But no matter what positive thought you choose, if repeated regularly, it should result in a positive shift in your life, mood, and circumstance.
A good affirmation should be:
Brief: The brain will not process and remember long complex paragraphs, so try to keep affirmations to one short sentence, easily remembered and repeated, like “I love the way I look.”
Positive: (try flipping a negative on its head). If you start with “I never meet decent men” you can flip it around to “I meet men who are attractive and perfect for me.” This technique can even work with deep-seated beliefs carried over from childhood, like “I’m a terrible dancer” to “I can dance with passion” or for personality traits that you aren’t particularly fond of “I’m such a stressed out person” to “I am calm and in control.” It may feel very uncomfortable and artificial at first, but just work with me, here…
Present tense and first-person: (think "I AM" rather than "I AM GOING TO..."). For affirmations to work, they have to be grounded in the present and not too forward-looking otherwise they may seem unattainable rather than fully realized.
Broad OR specific: It's up to you. They can be general characteristics like “I am an organized person” (if you are feeling like your life is chaotic) or “I perform very well in interviews” (if you have a big job interview coming up and you fear you will blow it).
Written down in a visible location: I like a Post-it on a bathroom mirror! Ideally, somewhere you will pass it often, not out of sight out of mind, which leads to the last characteristic…
Repeated often: you want to repeat your Positive Affirmation several times a day, either out loud or in your head (I find out loud particularly cringe-worthy and yet super effective).
Are you ready to try positive affirmations? Get a Post-it note, a pen, and a dream and get crafting…perhaps the only thing that’s been standing between you and your goals is…you!
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