Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could just think hard enough about what you want, and it would come true?
Too unrealistic? Well, okay then, what if all you had to do was say some magic words to make your dreams come true?
While mostly we realise that this kind of stuff only happens in fairytales or the movies, there’s still this part of us that wishes it was this easy to create what you want in your life. And there are plenty of people out there selling the idea that using affirmations can bring your dreams to you (and if it doesn’t work, well you just weren’t trying hard enough).
Just to be super clear, when I’m talking about affirmations, I’m talking about the idea that if you repeat often enough (in front of a mirror, written down, spoken aloud) what you want, in the present tense, as though it were already happening, you will get it. The reasons why you might get it range from invoking the law of attraction (like attracts like) to the idea that your brain can’t tell what information is ‘true’ or ‘false’ so whatever you tell it, it will believe (kind of like a toddler or a love sick teenager).
Saying affirmations can actually work to bring you closer to what you want. Not necessarily for the reasons above, but because, science. You just need to follow these 3 simple hacks.
Hack 1: Actually believe you can have what you’re asking for (i.e. you may need to be more realistic).
Let’s say you want a million dollars. You want it enough to create an affirmation around it, something like ‘I now easily and effortlessly have one million dollars in my bank account’. But do you really believe you can have this? I’m not talking about how much you want it, but how much you believe it. Here’s the difference:
A student who lives off ramen noodles really wants a million dollars but isn’t quite sure how that could be possible for him. He badly wants to not be poor, but he doesn’t really believe he can manifest a million dollars.
A student with rich entrepreneur parents wants a million dollars. She believes she can have a million dollars and is sure it’s possible (not because she can just ask her parents for it, but because in her world, she sees opportunities and options to create big wealth).
If you don’t believe your affirmation (no matter how much you’d like to believe it), then repeating the affirmation will actually take you further from your goal. This is because when you repeat/say the affirmation, your mind responds by bringing up all the reasons the statement isn’t true. This is worse than if you’d never said the affirmation at all, because your mind tends to go on along its train of disconfirming thinking for much longer than you say the affirmation. This effect has been demonstrated in psychological research studies. Researchers asked depressed people to repeat positive statements about themselves. Their brain reacted by bringing up all the reasons the statement wasn’t true, and by the end of the experiment, they rated their level of depression as being worse than at the start of the study.
Take home message: If you don’t believe what you’re telling yourself, stop saying it. You’re making things worse. Instead, choose something you can believe in, that your mind won’t argue against. Ramen noodle student would be better off trying to manifest $100, and then deciding to respond to that life-drawing modelling ad. If it seems achievable, it becomes motivating. Which leads us on to hack 2:
Hack 2: Affirmations are reminders, not magic wands.
The best affirmations help you keep on track with goals you are actively working to achieve. You cannot just say something and expect it to come true. However, if you say it, and because you’re saying it, you feel compelled to work harder on what you want, then affirmations will work for you. That’s because they’re working to increase your motivation.
Back to our students: If either student just sits in their room saying they already have a million dollars, it’s not going to just show up. But if they can tell themselves this throughout the day, and it acts as a reminder to write a business plan, apply for a better job, to ask their parents for some cash, to ask their friends if they want to invest in their business idea, or get a student loan to help them with their goal, then it may seem like these opportunities are magically appearing because of what they were thinking.
In reality, it’s due to selection bias. We all have selection bias because the world creates way too much sensory stimulation, more than our brains can handle. We deal with the overload of information by ignoring what seems irrelevant, and noticing more of what is important at the time. This way of dealing with our world is ‘selection bias’. It’s why you only notice how many pregnant ladies there are in the mall when you’re pregnant. It’s why it seems like every second car on the road is a Mazda 6 once you’re thinking of buying one.
Related: The goals you choose are hopefully things you care about enough to act on. It’s no good asking for a lot of money if you don’t really care about money, if you’re not motivated by money, if you won’t take action, push outside your comfort zone and be willing to do things differently for money. Be sure you choose to affirm a goal that really matters, in your heart, to you. Because otherwise you won’t act consistently enough. And (secret), that’s what’s actually going to bring what you want to you – your actions, not the words themselves.
Take Home Message: It’s fine to repeat affirmations throughout the day. But whenever you do, think to yourself – is there something I could be doing about this right now? You’re better off spending your time asking your partner about their day and really listening to them than hiding in the bathroom repeating ‘I now have an amazing relationship.’
Hack 3: Affirmations are great when you’re bored, but visualising is better.
Let’s face it: Most of the time, the inside of our heads is not particularly exciting or interesting. We’re obsessing over what our boss said to us, gloating about what a bargain our pants were, worrying about if our partner was distant over breakfast, or composing a Facebook post in our head instead of paying attention to real life.
So for those times when you’re not focussed on actively solving a problem, you can’t get yourself to be mindful any longer, and haven’t got any creative ideas to muse upon, then you might as well use your thinking for good, rather than mundane. If the alternatives are between pointless thinking and affirmations, then by all means, affirm away. It’ll keep your goal front of mind and your brain primed to see opportunities to reach that goal, and might actually spark a creative thought or two on alternate ways to get there. But as soon as there’s actual action to be taken, ditch the affirmations for it.
A better alternative for these times though is to engage in ‘visualising’ which is also touted as being helpful to bring your goals to you. It means to see yourself acting as if your dream/goal/ affirmation had already come true. This idea has more psychological research backing for it than affirmations: particularly if you’re the kind of person who learns better from seeing or doing, rather than just reading about things.
Visualisation has solid psychological evidence for enhancing performance. It’s known as ‘mental rehearsal’ and a lot of research has been done with regards to its usefulness for sports performance. Research has shown that your mind does have trouble distinguishing between imagination and reality. When you imagine moving your arm, the same parts of your brain are activated as when you actually move your arm. Similarly, seeing yourself doing well at a task is like actually practising the task, it does improve your performance (though not by as much as actually doing the task).
How do you make visualisation really effective? Make sure you make the images in your mind are as real as possible – involve all your senses when imagining. Being able to visualise yourself really clearly effects how much improvement you’ll see. Visualise whilst relaxed yet focused. See yourself completing the task as you would like to, in the first person (i.e. through your eyes, not as though watching yourself in a movie). And practise regularly.
Take Home Message: Use affirmations when you’re bored and can’t actively work towards what you want. But even better, focus on visualising really clearly the result you’re after – the benefits are much greater.
So there you have it – 3 different ways to make sure you’re using affirmations to actually help you get what you want.
If you’re left feeling unsure of what a really good affirmation sounds like, then subscribe to the blog. That way you’ll be sure to catch next week’s blog post, which will take you through the specifics of which words, when, and how to use them, to create your own super effective affirmation!
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.