Learn the Words for the Time You Will Need Them

Following Through

An “affirmation” is a positive statement about your own knowledge, skill, or values, which you memorize in some way. Some common examples are:

  • I am a good person.
  • I know enough to do this job.
  • I can take the next step.

Some self-help books recommend you collect such statements and repeat them to yourself morning, noon, and night until you believe them.

On the surface, “affirmations” seem like a silly attempt to brainwash yourself. The idea was lampooned beautifully in the show Friends. Chandler (a male) gets a tape from one of his female friends to help him quit smoking. We then see a scene of Chandler asleep, while the tape plays, “I am a strong and confident woman.” In a later scene, we see the effect. Chandler is chatting with crossed legs and other body language of a woman.

Saying it doesn’t make it so. I don’t advocate brainwashing of any sort. In my view, the necessary prerequisite of using affirmations is that you already believe the statement is true.

Nor is an affirmation properly used to shout down negative thoughts. I don’t think you should censor any thoughts.

In my view, which I haven’t heard anywhere else, an affirmation is a simple tool that helps you start the process of changing your value system. When you already believe the affirmation is true, then memorizing it has a particular benefit: it ensures that you will easily remember the idea in a relevant situation, so that you can choose to act differently than you would have otherwise.

It is easier to memorize a positive phrase than it is to reprogram your motivation. This is why there is a place for “affirmations” in self-development.

Remembering what you know is not always so easy

Just because you believe something is true doesn’t mean you will remember it at the crucial time.

Take for example someone with social anxiety who is trying to make new friends. Call him Stan. Stan may know intellectually that other people are potential friends. He may understand intellectually the way to make friends is to listen carefully to what they say and be curious about them. Will  he remember this the next time he’s in a social situation feeling paralysis? Probably not.

You know you need an affirmation if you see a pattern in which you predict you will spiral down into a vicious cycle of fear and despair. For example, Stan may have seen a pattern in the past. The thought, “I don’t know anyone here” led him to think “they’re not going to like me,” “they’re not going to talk with me,” and then “I’m going to be miserable.” Guess whether Stan is good company when he gets on this track? Nobody enjoys talking with him, they walk away, and he is miserable. These kinds of negative thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

When you are trying to change old patterns, you need some extra help to make sure that you don’t just fall into the same groove you have always fallen into.

The right words make a difference

If Stan had thought about this pattern and what he wanted to do differently, he could have memorized counteracting statements such as:

  • People are potential friends
  • I like listening to understand people
  • I can be curious about what people say

His goal would be to load these ideas up in his memory banks, so they would be likely to get triggered in parallel with the negative thoughts. “I don’t know anyone here” could trigger “People are potential friends.” “They’re not going to talk with me” could trigger “I like listening to understand people.” “I’m going to be miserable” could even be tied to “I can be curious about what people say.”

By programming multiple conflicting thoughts to occur to him, he has given himself a chance to notice the conflict and make a conscious choice that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

The rational purpose of an affirmation is to remind you of your good intentions, the good advice you have heard, and the doability of the next steps you need to take.

A proper affirmation orients you to take constructive action

A properly formulated affirmation will help direct your mind toward values you can act to gain and keep, right now. It will help you take an incremental step toward gaining values, right now. It makes it easy to shift the momentum and initiate a virtuous cycle of action.

Of course, this is only the case if you formulate the affirmation correctly. The positive statement needs to do three things:

First, it needs to connect logically to the problem you expect to face. For example, if you are an experienced writer worried about writer’s block, you might use an affirmation like, “I can write easily and well.”

Second, it needs to trigger a value-laden emotion in you. This is one reason the affirmation needs to be true. If you don’t believe you can write easily and well, the line “I can write easily and well” will trigger doubt, not confidence. You may need to adjust the formulation so it is true and motivating to you. For example, a beginning writer might use “I am learning to write easily and well.”

Finally, the thought needs to trigger in your mind constructive steps you can take. As an experienced writer, when I remind myself “I can write easily and well,” I bring up a whole system of non-fiction writing tools that I’ve developed. I remember that I have a gazillion ways to make my writing easier and clearer.

But not every suggested affirmation will bring up action. For one thing, an affirmation needs to be positive. “Don’t be stopped by writer’s block” would not work. Such a sentence tells you what not to do. But what should you do? If you’re feeling stopped, it is no help at all.

Whether a particular affirmation works for you depends on your state of knowledge and skill. A beginning writer may or may not find “I can write easily and well” or “I am learning to write easily and well” to be an effective affirmation. He might need something easier like “I can put my thoughts on paper,” which he’s sure he can do and suggests a constructive next step.

Similarly, some of the really popular affirmations like “I am worthy of love” and “I am on my side” would not work unless you had thought about them in advance, so that you really believed the statement at some intellectual level, and bringing in that thought helped you see constructive steps to take.

An affirmation needs to help you take a constructive step because that’s how you make a long-term change in your value system. When you have a negative impulse and you pause, you reduce that motivation a bit. When you then choose to go after a constructive value, you strengthen future constructive impulses. These incremental changes add up over time to major motivational shifts.

There is an art to choosing a good affirmation. And there are many ways to load them up in your mind so that the words are there when you need them. In the Thinking Lab, I teach a method called “Positive Reinforcement” that I learned from Jerrold Mundis, which is particularly good for clearing out negative thoughts and helping you go forward.

All of these methods help you program an alert — a conscious alert — to help you follow through on your intentions. To paraphrase Francisco D’Anconia from Atlas Shrugged, they give you the words for the time when you will need them.

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