Simple way to make positive affirmations effective

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Jessie wants to feel more competent at work. But positive affirmations have made her feel worse. Unfortunately, she’s not using them the right way. Read on to learn the simple trick to make positive affirmations more effective.

We first met Jessie when she started using a range of positive affirmations to improve her self-esteem at work. For example, she repeated phrases like, “I am the most efficient and reliable worker in the office.”

But after weeks of practising these positive statements, she felt worse than ever about her job performance. Why exactly did this technique backfire so badly?

Most positive affirmations don’t work

The reason?

Unfortunately, Jessie’s brain couldn’t accept such wildly positive claims. They were too different to what she really thought about herself. That made her brain reject them right from the start.

Not only that, Jessie’s brain went a step further. It tried to prove that these positive statements were totally wrong. In other words, Jessie’s brain tried to make her believe that she was, in fact, incompetent. 

Jessie’s brain searched out all the evidence it had filed away that seemed to show she was incompetent.

Of course, because Jessie had low self-esteem, her views of herself were highly self-critical. So this so-called “evidence” was already negatively skewed. 

And what’s more, her brain ignored anything that showed her in a good light. Instead, it reminded her of every mistake she’d made at work over the past few years.

Soon Jessie was more convinced than ever that she was hopelessly incompetent.  

So how can Jessie make positive affirmations more effective, and see her competence more realistically?

Simple strategy to tame the brain

Firstly, Jessie needs to tame her brain’s tendency to fight against positive affirmations. 

And one simple strategy will help.

Jessie needs to narrow the gap between what she says, and what her brain “knows” is true about her. This internal conflict is triggering her brain into arguing back with negative judgments. 

If she can narrow this gap, her brain will stay calmer and more rational. It will more easily take in new, more positive information about her abilities.  

And you probably know yourself that you learn better when you’re calm, rather than upset or anxious.  

As an example:

Let’s say you feel small and insignificant. But you repeat over and over, “I am strong and powerful. I am more confident than everyone else.”

Right now, these affirmations are silly.

Your brain knows you don’t feel strong and powerful or confident. So it can’t accept these statements.

All the wishful thinking in the world won’t make your brain agree that these statements are true.

So the trick is to not use any exaggerated affirmations.

The brain realises straight away that they’re meaningless – too good to be true. The big gap between what you really believe, and these positive statements, sets up discomfort in the brain. 

This discomfort or anxiety is called cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance

Because this discomfort is so unpleasant, the brain tries to get rid of it.

Hence the brain tells you that you really are small and insignificant. By doing so, it discredits the new information you’re trying to feed it. It’s easier to do this than to learn new beliefs about yourself.

So if you use rosy, overblown positive statements, you’ll find it hard to shift negative beliefs about yourself.

Make positive affirmations effective

1 Resolve the tension

Therefore, reducing internal conflict will make positive affirmations more effective. And you can do this by making more realistic statements about yourself.

If you don’t lessen the gap by making more realistic statements, your brain will rebel. If your self-esteem is low, your brain will simply look for all the harsh and critical negatives that reinforce what it “knows” about you already. 

It will continue to feed you the so-called “negative reality” about yourself, the same as it has in the past. 

And yet, this is exactly what you’re trying to change.

2 Make sure the statements are true

So how can Jessie reduce this conflict within the brain, to make it more receptive?  

By telling the brain only the truth about herself.

She needs to remind herself of all the positive things she’s ever done, even if they only turned out mildly OK.  

Any statements Jessie repeats to herself need to be factual.

They need to describe actual goals she’s achieved in the past, no matter how small. They are not unproveable ideas like, “I’m the most intelligent and competent worker in the office.”

And Jessie can use any evidence to show she’s well-organised, competent and business-like.

She could even describe little actions such as: 

always getting to work on time

greeting her work colleagues each morning

emptying the bins regularly

leaving her desk tidy at the end of the day.

It doesn’t matter how small the task is, the important thing is to capture it on a list.

3 List positives, no matter how small

Jessie now starts a list of all the positive things she has ever done at work. 

The problem is that she can’t remember anything she’s succeeded at. Her self-esteem is so low, she believes she’s never really done anything well. So it does take some time to finish this first step.

However, she keeps at it for a few weeks, adding ideas as she thinks of them. She also asks a trusted colleague to chip in with some ideas about what she does well at work. 

4 Summarise into realistic statements

Then Jessie summarised her performance in a factual, realistic way as follows:

“I am punctual almost every day, and distribute office supplies to relevant staff as needed. I liaise between our sales and technical staff with few misunderstandings, and deal with customers respectfully. If there’s a problem, I call in the manager. I usually handle my colleagues’ requests for support within four hours. If I can’t, I let them know, and finalise the request as soon as I can.

Most people seem OK with my role. Only one person has complained over the past six months. But I’ve realised he complains about everyone, not just me.

My manager said at the last staff meeting he thought the office was running well. I think I can take some credit for that. Overall, I’m doing a fairly good job.”

5 No wishful thinking

Note that Jessie didn’t claim anything that wasn’t true. Nothing she’s saying about herself is exaggerated or unrealistic. Her statement is reasonable and moderate in tone.

And there’s no wishful thinking.

She’s not claiming to be the fastest, most brilliant or most competent worker. She’s not claiming that every single person was delighted with her work. And she’s admitting to occasional problems, which she usually solves.

Her summary is an accurate and honest statement based on the reality of her performance. Most importantly, it challenges her faulty perceptions of her performance.

6 Read over and over every day

Now Jessie slowly reads her list and this statement several times a day. This allows her brain to accept a more realistic assessment of her performance.

Jessie can see that in the past, she’s exaggerated how bad her mistakes were. In her mind, a few small problems morphed into huge disasters that happened “all the time.”

Listing her achievements lets her see her thinking had become distorted.

It shows that her belief she “always does the wrong thing” is itself wrong. She sees she ignores the positive things she’s achieved, and how blind she is to her actual competence.

So by sticking to the facts, she got around her brain’s negativity. Writing out her summary was a great reality check. Her brain couldn’t argue with it because it’s a reasonable and truthful statement of her performance.

7 Redo the exercise

Once Jessie’s self-image improves a little, she can redo the exercise. This time, she’ll find it easier to identify other successes she’s overlooked. She’ll also accept that her successes are due to her ability and hard work, rather than luck. 

Are you ready to try?

Are you ready to feel better about yourself? Following Jessie’s example will go a long way to help.

You can do this for any area of your life, not just work. Try it in the area of friendships, or a particular quality you want to work on. 

And yes, it does take a little effort. But you can do it a little bit at a time. Once you get into the swing of it, you’ll be glad you started.

So don’t wait. Make a start now!  

No magic bullet

Of course, this method isn’t a magic bullet to fix everything bad you think about yourself. 

Add to its effectiveness by challenging other negative thoughts. Gather the evidence that they’re not 100% true all the time.

For example, you may tell yourself you’re not very kind. To combat this thought, look for evidence that you do sometimes help others.

Challenge this negative self-talk every time it comes up. Remind yourself of the good things you’ve done.

Build on the positive qualities you have already, no matter how small. They will be there; you just have to look for them. Then commit to developing them further, bit by bit, day by day.

Stop fighting yourself. Using truthful statements about your positive qualities will reduce internal conflict.

Enhance your self-image with one simple strategy, and make positive affirmations more effective.

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