Do Affirmations Really Work?
Introduction To Bad Samaritans
A few years ago I was in a rough place. I was struggling with my finances along with balancing university life and my physical and mental health.
Enter Rhonda Byrne.
By chance, I happened to find a documentary on Netflix called “The Secret”. I watched it from beginning to end with complete attention.
Finally, I had answers!
It was obvious that I just needed to get more positivity into my life. My negative attitude was obviously “manifesting” this negative life.
It was so simple that I couldn’t believe that no one had ever told me this. After all, the documentary claimed that this had been known for millennia.
I tossed my scientific mind to the side and embraced a “benevolent, omnipotent universe” and I think you can guess what happened next.
I continued to struggle financially for the next three years. Happiness did not abound in my life as was foretold. I did not attract – either by magic or “quantum science” – the woman of my dreams. In fact, a convincing argument could be made that my life deteriorated further after my dabbling with positive thinking and the Law of Attraction.
Fast forward to today and I cannot blame Rhonda Byrne or her peers for how sideways my life went.
Instead, I understand that there are good and bad Samaritans in the world. The bad Samaritans are people with noble intentions who are throwing water on the chip oil fire.
In this blog series, I want to explore the ideas and beliefs of these Bad Samaritans with a critical eye, pointing out the flaws in their ideas and making suggestions on how we can actually and practically improve our lives.
To begin with, I wanted to explore the question “do affirmations really work”?
What Are Affirmations?
So, let’s start off with a broad definition of what affirmations are.
I did some research on what a few different popular blogs and websites thought affirmations were. Coupled with what I have read myself in the past and what I have gleaned from books, this is what I found.
Affirmations are anything which we repeatedly say to ourselves. This can be either out loud or in our thoughts. They are sentences aimed to affect the conscious and subconscious mind.
According to SuccessConsciousness.com, the words that we say to ourselves automatically bring up related mental images in the mind. Over time, repeated messages influence behaviour, habits, actions and reactions.
These affirmations can also either be negatively or positively charged. Depending on their “charge”, they can bring either negative or positive results in your life.
Louise Hay says that an affirmation “opens the door to the path of change“. By affirming, you are taking responsibility for your thoughts and, by extension, your life.
Moreover, affirmations can either create or eliminate.
To use affirmations correctly, you must follow these three rules:
- Positive – your affirmation must be stated in the positive
- Present – your affirmation must be stated in the present tense
- Practice – you must follow your affirmation practice every day
If you follow these rules consistently, then you will begin to see the effects in your life very soon.
It sounds so simple and, at a basic level, it even sounds correct.
We see positive, happy, successful people on TV and the news all the time. But are they successful and happy because they are positive or are they positive because they are successful?
How Do Affirmations Really Work?
We now understand what affirmations allegedly are. However, we’ve not yet explored how they actually work.
This is a tricky question because, depending on who you ask, you’ll get a markedly different answer. Generally speaking though, there are three main schools of thought on this in my experience:
- Spiritualists – very little belief in science, strong belief in spirituality
- Self-Help Gurus – some belief in science, some belief in spirituality
- Scientists – a strong belief in science, very little belief in spirituality
Each group has their own lens through which they see the world so I’ll touch on each’s understanding of how affirmations work beginning with…
The spiritualist understanding of affirmations largely comes from the Law of Attraction.
The guiding principle of this doctrine is that “like attracts like”. Therefore, if you hold positive thoughts in mind and speak positive affirmations, you can create positive results in your life.
When you speak or think your affirmations you positively charge your thoughts. This positive charge attracts its physical counterpart into your life.
However, there is no set amount of time that this could take. There is also no way to know where the positive results will come from. Since we couldn’t know when and where the results will be coming, then there is no way to speed up the results either.
You have to have faith in the process and trust that the results will come. Continuous daily practise is the only way to guarantee results.
Almost every self-help book that I have ever read, and I’ve read a considerable, touts the importance of positive affirmations.
Working from the analogy that the brain is like a computer, self-help gurus think of affirmations as direct commands to the “subconscious mind”.
An affirmation programs the brain at an unconscious level.
When you repeat affirmations over and over then they are picked up by the Reticular Activating System (RAS). Over time, these repeated words become part of our identity. The RAS then becomes programmed to strive towards the physical manifestations of our affirmations.
Self-help gurus believe that affirmations are like seeds that you plant in the mind. Therefore, if you plant positive thoughts you’ll receive positive outcomes and the same is true for negativity.
As far as I can tell, the idea of positive affirmations as portrayed by spiritualists and self-help gurus, seems to be chalked up to something called Confirmation Bias.
We see this bias all the time, for example when you are thinking about someone and then they phone you out of the blue.
Sorry, you’re probably not psychic.
Confirmation bias is when someone is so focused on an outcome that they disregard any evidence to the contrary. All they look for is the confirmation of their expectation. Ultimately, they will grasp at the slightest of evidence to “prove” that they are right – in their mind anyway.
I’ve seen this many times with people who believe that their prayers have been answered. It doesn’t matter how many prayers have been unanswered, just one is enough to confirm the belief.
As for self-help gurus and their falling back on the reticular activating system, I will say this: a coating of science does not make something scientific or any less wrong.
The RAS is simply an attention gateway. It has evolved to keep us alive, but not necessarily happy and successful. The RAS likely has better things to do than respond to positive affirmations.
This is a biological system that cannot simply be “hacked”.
Affirmations, like prayers, do not work most of the time. Yet people cling to the few instances that they do come true – likely a random outcome – as if the universe has their back.
This is likely just a confirmation bias effect at work.
As disappointing as it is to say, there is no golden ticket or shortcut to the good life.
Can Affirmations Do More Harm Than Good?
When I was researching for this post I found a fascinating quote in a psychological article. Speaking of ideas such as positive affirmations the researcher said: “The tendency of pursuing [these self-help methods] for happiness may produce transient feel-good effects but eventually these effects fade, leaving individuals confused and discouraged.”
This left me thinking about some of the potential problems that self-help techniques such as positive affirmations can have on us all.
Even though the gurus who promote these techniques tell us that we can take control, we are actually just surrendering more of our power to a universe which doesn’t even know we are here unless we ply it with the right quality and quantity of “good vibrations”.
Over time, as happened with me, a person will learn that they have absolutely no control at all. Some may shrug it off and look for a new “god”. Others will press on, convinced that they just haven’t done enough yet or shown enough belief. However, for some people this is a fast-track path to depression and feelings of worthlessness and lack of control.
The entire responsibility of the system falls on the individual’s shoulders. If they don’t issue the required amount of correct affirmations, then there is no hope for them. It perpetuates a particularly harsh victim-blaming complex.
Ultimately, it feeds a cycle of self-blame which can do serious damage to an individual.
That’s how it happened for me and it took a long time for me to unpack that feeling and do something about it.
So can affirmations do more harm than good?
However, it should be stated that this will not be the case for everyone but it should never be ignored or discounted.
So, what can we do?
Alternatives To Affirmations
I’ve seen a lot of rebuttal articles. The tendency of someone in my position is to pull down a belief without presenting a viable alternative.
So, I want to address a couple of possible alternatives to positive affirmations and why I believe they could be superior to the former.
I make no promises with these techniques nor do I claim some mystical force will aid you if you use them. However, they could be a possible first step towards making small, but noticeable changes in your life.
My main issue with affirmations is that they can be self-delusional e.g. I am financially free or I am a millionaire.
So, what if we were to take the delusions out of it and focus on reality?
I came up with the idea of reality affirmations where the object is to know where you stand, but affirm that you are working towards your goal.
For example, I am working hard to become financially free.
With reality affirmations, you aren’t simply shutting out the negative. You are accepting it and accepting where you stand. However, you are also acknowledging that you have the power to make a change in your life.
The key to these affirmations is that they are based in reality but not anchored.
Give them a try, let me know what you think.
My secondary issue with positive affirmations is that they do not encourage action.
They promise a shortcut where all you have to do is say your affirmations a few times a day and then wait for the results.
However, I believe the key to achieving your goals is to take action.
Action-based living is the only method I have ever seen have fairly consistent results. It doesn’t guarantee that you will achieve your goal, nothing can do that.
But you are far more likely to achieve your goal if you are taking steps towards it than if you are just waiting for something to happen.
Affirmations promote inaction and that is not the way forward.
If you focus on taking one small step in the right direction every day, pretty soon those steps will add up.
Coupling action-based living with reality affirmations could be an incredibly powerful motivational tool to get you moving. Though it can’t guarantee the results, I believe it is always better to take action than to wait for life to happen to you.
For most people, affirmations are harmless. They don’t move you forward though in some cases they can move you backwards.
It’s far better to put your faith in yourself and take action today towards your goals.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Alternatively, you can head over to my Facebook page Ben Yearwood Blog and keep the conversation going there.
If you liked this post, then you may also like my post on why self-help gurus are failing you.
Until next time.