This article introduces the basic concept of “affirmations” – a tool in self improvement in which we recite certain thoughts and beliefs so that they take root in our subconscious mind. I point out some of the limitations behind how this technique is normally practiced, and some of the things we can do so that new beliefs actually stick.
What are affirmations?
Affirmations are a popular tool in self improvement. The basic idea is that we can adopt healthy, positive, and productive beliefs if we recite a belief enough times to ourselves.
For example, if we repeat a thought like “I’m a smart and happy person” 20 times every morning, then we may begin to actually believe that about ourselves.
Reciting these beliefs is said to work because increased repetition of certain thought patterns (and neural pathways) is said to condition our brains to begin thinking in these new ways.
It’s kind of like working a muscle: the more repetitions you do, the stronger the thought will become.
Limitations of affirmations
I think there is some truth and usefulness to affirmations (I’ve shared some of my own affirmations with you guys before); however, I also think there are some limitations if we solely rely on affirmations to build new beliefs.
The reason I believe this is because our beliefs are very multi-faceted and dependent on a wide range of different factors – our moment-by-moment conscious thought is only the tip of the iceberg.
We can repeat a specific affirmation thousands of times inside our head, but if it doesn’t match up with our map of reality, then our unconscious mind will reject it.
Beliefs are not isolated thoughts that float through our head every now and then, they are embedded in a context of other information and mental processes.
Other factors that can influence our beliefs include:
Many beliefs have some kind of logic or rationality behind them. So if you repeat an affirmation like, “I’m happy,” but deep-down you hold other beliefs like, “No one likes me” or “I’m not good at anything,” your critical mind is going to reject that affirmation – because it’s irrational in the context of your other core beliefs.
No matter how many times you repeat that belief, your mind will rationalize it as untrue, because it doesn’t align with the deeper structure of your belief system.
Solution: Ask deeper questions and uncover the core beliefs that contribute to your thinking. Only until you challenge your deepest assumptions can you really begin to make significant changes to your perspective and attitude.
Our emotional experiences
Our beliefs are also greatly influenced by our emotional experience. For example, if we suffer from something big or taumatic, it is very unlikely that affirmations or reason alone can reverse our negative state of mind. This is because our beliefs resonate so strongly at an emotional level, that emotional experience triumphs logic reason. We may rationally understand that our beliefs don’t make sense, but we can’t let go of them because we have such a strong emotional attachment to them.
Solution: Healthy emotional processing can be tricky. But as a general theory, I think we need to learn how to accept and express/”let go” of our emotions in healthy ways. Being more aware and attuned to our emotions is the first step, and the second step is learning how to channel this emotional energy in transformative ways (such as through open dialogue, creativity, meditation, prayer, etc.)
Our knowledge and facts
Beliefs should ultimately reflect how reality actually works. The better our beliefs model the world, the more effective they will be in helping us navigate throughout life. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to pay attention to the facts. Reciting affirmations that aren’t congruent with reality can be unhealthy and dangerous.
Solution: Pay attention to the facts of reality, don’t dismiss science and empirical evidence, and be willing to let go of old beliefs and assumptions if you find information that contradicts them.
Our social influences
Our culture and social traditions can also play a massive role in our belief system, especially during early stages of our development. We grow up learning certain beliefs and values from our parents, teachers, priests, and other role models throughout our life.
Some of these beliefs may be useful, but some of it can also be out-dated and wrong.
Solution: We have to at least be mindful of where our beliefs come from. If we merely choose a belief because it is popular and socially acceptable – but it doesn’t match up with our own reason, emotional experience, and knowledge – then it is very unlikely that belief will help guide your life in a positive direction.
These are all important aspects of our beliefs that I think make the practice of affirmations a little more complex than some would like to believe.
The truth is that simply repeating an affirmation over and over again, without any context or meaning behind that affirmation, probably won’t be sufficient enough to implant that belief in our heads.
You should really only repeat affirmations if they hold some kind of truth or significance to you. An affirmation that is supported by your knowledge, experience, and reason is going to be vastly more powerful than an affirmation you just read about in a book or learned at church.
Ultimately, you should create affirmations that resonate with you, not something that someone told you is the correct affirmation to follow.
Discover more tools to daily growth in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement