By Enicia Fisher
(As published in LA Yoga Magazine)
You may cringe when you hear the words, “think positive.” Especially when things are tough! I know I recoil when I hear snippets of positivity that seem to me a form of spiritual bypassing. However, I’ve learned to embrace the practice of positive affirmations after learning and experiencing their benefits.
We will talk about the how and why of creating personally meaningful positive affirmations that work for you. In the process, watch yourself evolve and thrive, as you add them to your repertoire of spiritual and personal growth practices.
The practice of reciting affirmations reflects the confluence of yoga philosophy and modern psychology, with backup by neuroscience.
My Story of Positive Affirmations
I’ve been including affirmations and intentions in my personal spiritual practice for over a decade now. While some life events have seemed like a “magical” unfoldment of my affirmations, looking back I can see how the positive statements I crafted for myself guided me in making choices and decisions. Perhaps some of these even allowed the magical and serendipitous into my life.
Besides bringing in new and welcome experiences, the practices of affirmations and intentions helped me grow as a person.
The practice of positive affirmations has helped me embody empowering qualities and traits and enabled me to outgrow or transcend limited beliefs.
To me, this personal growth is the most valuable part of the practice, even more than the “magical” things that have unfolded in my life. The practice of positive affirmations in alignment with my core self and values has created lasting change that prompts continued progress in the path of pursuing my dreams and desires.
More important than “manifesting” a desired object, experience, or relationship, the greatest benefit of using affirmations and intentions in daily life has been becoming a person highly aware of and living in integrity with my core self and values.
Affirmations that Work as a Form of Self-Empowerment
Affirmations and intentions are a form of self-empowerment. that cultivates personal growth and change through enlisting the psyche as well as the mind-body connection, using conscious thought to override the often limiting belief system of the subconscious.
Affirmations give us the opportunity to articulate our values and sense of self and “rewrite the script” of core beliefs.
This helps us direct our actions and choices, and sets us up to receive new and positive opportunities.
We can use this for exponential positive change.
Mahatma Gandhi distilled the process with his famous inspirational words. “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”
The Psychology of Affirmations that Work
One of the key psychological theories related to positive affirmations is “self-affirmation theory” proposed by Claude Steele in 1988. This theory elucidates that people, across cultures and historical periods, are motivated to maintain self-integrity, or a perception of themselves as good, virtuous, and able to influence important outcomes.
As two professors from Stanford and UCSB explain, our sense of self-efficacy and self-integrity can be maintained by telling ourselves what we believe or value (aka positive affirmations). “Affirmations have been shown to improve education, health, and relationship outcomes, with benefits that sometimes persist for months and years. Like other interventions and experiences, self-affirmations can have lasting benefits when they touch off a cycle of adaptive potential, a positive feedback loop … that propagates adaptive outcomes over time” (Cohen & Sherman).
Self-affirmations help people “maintain the integrity of the self, a global sense of personal adequacy.”When people write about core personal values in their affirmations, the “intervention” of self-affirmations “bring about a more expansive view of the self and its resources.”
Through self-affirmation, we create and maintain a narrative about ourselves in which we are flexible, moral, and capable. We create our self-identity as an ever-evolving and growing person adopting a range of identities and roles, while remaining true to an inner system of core values.
If our sense of self can evolve and change, our definition of success can also evolve … which serves our growth.
A Personal Story of Affirmations
When I was 15, my definition of success was winning the election for Junior Class President and making a lot of friends. A few decades later, I define success as the freedom to engage in work that is authentic to my core values while receiving compensation commensurate to the quality of my offerings, my skills and experience.
I may not have all the things that others in my social circles would label “success” at this stage in life. (Such as owning a house, driving a luxury car, et cetera.). But I’m able to reframe my situation with the acknowledgment that I have a lot of freedom in my life, which is one of my core values.
This is the psychology of self-affirmations at work.
I can choose to articulate it in the following way. “I enjoy freedom and success as I engage in meaningful work, and I receive abundant compensation commensurate with my skills and experience.” This positive affirmation helps me override the beliefs of limitation, financial insecurity, and fears of the future.
Affirmations can help override negative self-talk or self-sabotaging beliefs.
Affirmations can potentially help us “re-write” the subconscious patterning by replacing them with more empowering narratives.
Self-affirmation theory confirms that my ability to view aspects of myself as positive allows me to adapt to different situations.
Adaptability is an asset working in today’s culture of constant change and the sometimes dramatic upheavals we are all experiencing.
Affirmations can help us integrate new ways of thinking, which is the premise of cognitive restructuring in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Next time you meet with your therapist, ask about co-creating a positive affirmation as a tool in addressing a thought pattern that makes you feel limited!
The Neuroscience of Affirmations
Besides the research of psychologists, neuroscientists acknowledge that positive affirmations can affect the brain itself. According to a study published by Oxford University, MRIs suggest that certain neural pathways are activated when people practice self-affirmations (Cascio et al).
Affirmations engage parts of the human brain that process positive valuation, information about our self, and rewards. People who use affirmations show increased activity in neural networks, especially when reflecting on core values and when related to the future.
The “neuroplasticity” of the brain can further amplify the results of self-affirmation by reinforcing a positive outlook on life.
Yoga Philosophy and Affirmations
People who practice yoga love it when modern psychology and science “backs up” the teachings of the ancient philosophy and teachings of yoga. Setting an intention is a common practice in yoga classes. But the practice of positive affirmations also derives from the focus on development of self-awareness, the foundation of yogic wisdom.
Yoga originally developed as a practice and way of life based on becoming aware of one’s inner self and finding equanimity amidst the ever-changing fluctuation of thoughts and emotions.
The primary purpose of yoga asana practice is to allow a person to “take a seat.” This leads to meditation and stillness. The intention behind asana and meditation within the yoga tradition of India is to cultivate inner equanimity and observation of thought patterns, while discovering the essence of self, or identity.
This inner awareness is a foundation for mental health and well-being. When a person is familiar with who they are at their core, their essential self, they can notice when they are off-track or “out of alignment” with their self and values.
Awareness is the first step for self-regulation.
Affirmations are one of the many practices, along with asana, breathwork, meditation and mindfulness, that help us come back “home” to our essential self, our values and purposes.
Psychotherapist and yoga teacher Gretchen Suarez explains it further: Yoga gives a person “the chance to explore personal and psychological patterns and … the opportunity to establish and cultivate a relationship with their inner awareness…. A yoga practice will certainly improve the look and health of your body, but the true benefit is becoming aware of who you are and know, accept, and love yourself unconditionally.”
What are Affirmations?
The definition of affirmations gives a clue as to why they are so powerful.
Simply put, an affirmation is a positive phrase or statement that is used to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts.
The Psychology Dictionary describes affirmations, in the context of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as “a brief phrase which is spoken again and again…to plant seeds of happy and positive notions, conceptions, and attitudes into one’s psyche.”
Psychologists note that the most effective affirmations are created by a person for themselves and reflect their particular values and identity (Sherman). Affirmations give people the opportunity to identify their core self and values–who they are, who they want to become, what is important to them, what really matters in the larger context of life.
Affirmations are not just superficial self-esteem boosters. They give a person a chance to regain perspective and confidence that they can overcome challenges.
How do Affirmations Work?
Positive affirmations put the spotlight on a person’s sense of adequacy and values. Affirmations affect motivation and can set in motion a series of events that reinforce the feeling of self-adequacy. Affirmations assist in big accomplishments and small everyday acts, which can have large effects over time.
When applied to challenging situations, affirmations can ease stress and help a person make positive choices. A person’s confidence in their ability to overcome future challenges grows and contributes to a person’s “self-reinforcing narrative” (Cohen et al).
Affirmations do not take away a challenge or stressor. But they help a person place it in a larger context so they can rise to the occasion and find more creative solutions to problems. This may make events seem less stressful, while also helping a person focus on their priorities, which can create a self-reinforcing cycle of positive change.
Affirmations also help people learn from their mistakes and reassure people that they have integrity and are “okay” despite the adversity they may be facing.
Affirmations give people confidence to approach problems instead of avoiding or giving up. Practicing them can reinforce a person’s self-concept as someone who can overcome difficulties successfully.
Affirmations help a person construct a self-narrative of adequacy.
This in turn strengthens their confidence and resolve for the next adversity, which then reinforces the narrative of adequacy and success.
In this way, affirmations can have significant and long-term effects. When affirmations reinforce psychological processes, their effects can grow over time and can even bring about a turning point that sets off a series of reciprocally reinforcing events, creating a positive feedback loop that can increase a person’s potential (Cohen et al).
As seen with students and athletes, affirmations not only help a person’s performance and self-assessment, but also affect others’ positive expectations of them. This can create an additional positive feedback and reward system, and bringing more opportunities.
Affirmations have proven to have lasting benefits in education, health, and relationships. These are areas where problems typically emerge over time and grow when unaddressed.
Affirmations can trigger a positive cycle or interrupt a negative one. The interactive processes of using positive affirmations (even if done by only one person in a relationship!) can bring about positive and lasting change in academic and career performance, health, and the quality of relationships (Wilson & Linville).
Benefits of Affirmations
Research from psychology and neuroscience suggests that the practice of positive self-affirmations offers many benefits. Positive affirmations are shown to have the following benefits.
Decrease stress and improved health and well-being.
Increase rates of physical exercise.
Ability for us to face challenges with less resistance and more success.
Make us less likely to dismiss or avoid health concerns.
Encourage us to make positive behavioral changes. These can include, but are not limited to exercising, quitting smoking, or eating more fruit and vegetables.
Boost achievement in education and career.
Help us cope with illness, maintain hopefulness, and improve recovery.
Lessen rumination and other harmful thinking, including negative self-talk.
Empower us to make better life choices.
Help us postpone short-term gratifications for the sake of long-term goals.
Reduce our tendency to linger on negative experiences and instead encourage an optimistic mindset.
Putting it into Practice: How to Craft Affirmations that Work for You
We know what affirmations are. We have endorsement from psychology professors and ancient yoga philosophy, along with backing by neuroscience, and we know the benefits.
Like yoga, affirmation practice is not an out-of-the-box, one-size-fits-all practice.
The affirmations that work for one person may not work for you. Not everyone shares the same values or has the same priorities and goals.
How do we craft our own affirmations that will work?
While an affirmation might seem like magical thinking, the key factor to its efficacy is that it helps a person identify and align with their core self and values. It affirms who a person is (or strives to be) in terms of their abilities, values, relationships, and life goals.
Affirmations are more successful when they are focused on what a person wants to do, who they want to be or become, or what qualities they will embody.
Some Basic Tips for Crafting Affirmations that Work
1. Keep it Positive
Effective affirmations are stated in a positive way of what one wants to be or experience, rather than fixated on the past, on a negative, or on what one wishes to avoid.
2. Be Specific and Clear
Be clear rather than vague. But avoid fixating on specific things or certain events (or even people). For example, instead of “I am happy to drive my new luxury electric car,” a more effective affirmation might be, “I enjoy a life of luxury and ecological awareness.”
3. Keep it Simple
Write an affirmation that is brief and easy to remember. Choose no more than 1-2 sentences. Use everyday language.
How to Begin a Daily Affirmation Practice
Identify the core values that resonate most with you.
Ask yourself some of the following question to get started on identifying your core values.
Do you value freedom over security, or vice versa?
Do you identify most with compassion and generosity, or persistence and power?