Can saying positive statements really impact the way we think and behave? Here we look into the science behind it all, and the steps you can take if you want to dip your toe into the world of affirmations
"I am enough.” “I love myself exactly as I am.” As I speak these words to myself in the mirror, I truly believe them. Yes, I feel a tiny bit silly, but the important thing is I believe them. Positive affirmations have a bad rep, prompting sceptical eyerolls and disgruntled sighs. But is there actually something to them?
I spoke with Nicola Rae-Wickham, creative mentor and NLP practitioner, to find out more about affirmations and how we can use them to actually create change in our lives.
What are affirmations?
According to Nicola, we make affirmations all the time, but they’re usually negative ones like: “I can’t” or “I’m not good enough”. I’m sure we can all relate to that voice of our inner critic ringing in our ears.
In his book, Putting the Power of Your Subconscious Mind to Work, Dr Joseph Murphy explains that our subconscious mind processes negative thoughts just like goals. If we’re constantly thinking to ourselves “I never have enough money,” then our subconscious will perceive it as a goal to never have enough money.
However, as Nicola explains: “Positive affirmations are statements we repeat that empower and support us.”
How do they work?
To understand more about how affirmations work, we must first look at the way the brain takes in information. “Our minds take in a great deal of information all the time,” Nicola says. “Millions of pieces of information per second, and it simply cannot handle all that comes its way. So it has a filter system.”
This filter system is called the reticular activating system (RAS) and if we didn’t have it, well, let’s just say our minds would quickly become overwhelmed. Nicola says this system distorts, deletes and generalises the information we receive through a number of different ways, including memories, values, beliefs and language. Elaborating, she says: “Language is one of the ways our mind is influenced and we can use it to help us get the results we want. It is this information that impacts our behaviour.”
By repeating positive affirmations, we are essentially telling ourselves that what we’re saying is important to us. “Affirmations present your mind with an alternative narrative which seeps in on both an unconscious and conscious level.”
According to Nicola, this repetition actually impacts us on a physiological level. This is why you’ll hear people telling you affirmations work best if you use them repeatedly.
“There is a myth that you can simply say an affirmation and it will somehow work its magic, but affirmations don't work unless you do,” Nicola emphasises. “You need to repeat the affirmation in your mind, out loud or in writing regularly, and you have to try to evoke the feeling as you do it.”
This is an important point; as powerful as affirmations can be, they aren’t magic. If you’re trying to change a deep-seated negative belief like “I’m not worthy of love”, you may need support from a counsellor to uproot the belief. When you’ve done this deeper work, you’re more likely to believe the positive affirmations you’re telling yourself.
Deciding to let affirmations in
“I see positive affirmations like mini decisions – a decision to change the way you speak to yourself, a decision to focus on empowering self-talk, and a decision to reclaim your self-worth,” Nicola says.
This decision can have profound effects. I remember vividly making the same decision several years ago after recovering from anorexia and self-harm. This decision (along with therapy and years of self-exploration) is why I’m able to look at myself in the mirror today and say “I love myself exactly as I am” without flinching.
Nicola explains that affirmations allow you to turn your inner critic into an inner cheerleader, and I think that’s something we can all get on board with.
Make affirmations work for you:
Make a list of any negative or limiting beliefs you have and see if you can spot any themes. Are they centred around your appearance? Your worthiness? Your financial situation? Turn this into one statement (such as, “I’m unworthy”) and ask yourself how helpful this statement is.
Write down a counter statement. This could be as simple as “I am worthy,” or as elaborate as “I am worthy of love and all the amazing things life has to offer.” See which type of statement resonates most with you.
Use this as your positive affirmation. Set yourself a goal of saying it out loud to yourself a couple of times a day. How about in the mirror before you brush your teeth in the morning and evening? When you say it, change your posture, stand confidently, and really try to embody the statement.
Persevere! It’s likely that you’ll feel a little uncomfortable at first, but if you keep practising, it’ll start to come naturally.
If you find it very difficult, or feel upset when saying the positive affirmation, take a step back and ask yourself if you would benefit from support. Counsellors and coaches can work with you to overcome stumbling blocks and move past limiting beliefs.