Affirmations seem to work better for some people than for others, but why is that?
Some swear by the positive impact their affirmations have made on their life and, there can be no doubt that a well placed, affirmation has the ability to ‘re-set’ the brain for positivity. This is because your brain doesn't know the difference between what is real and what is not, so what you choose to say to yourself is very important.
More importantly, your brain is neuro-plastic which means it is able to change and rewire itself. This is good news. It means you are not destined to be the person you have always been and is why, when my new clients express a desire to work on discovering who they are, I respectfully suggest it may be more appropriate to focus on who they would actually like to be.
The trouble is, we have a pre programmed negativity bias that can sabotage our very best efforts to make positive changes. We are hard wired to focus on the negatives as a kind of self preservation exercise, which can certainly save our skin by making sure we avoid risks or situations where we might fail. Sometimes, it can feel like a real ‘internal battle’ of belief systems.
And many of us have been negatively programmed as children with statements such as ‘you’re slow, lazy, fat or clumsy’. These ‘sticky’ beliefs stay in our subconscious minds and we may not even be aware of them. But, while they sit there, they create cognitive dissonance when we try to make changes which conflict with the self image we've built up from a young age.
Neuroscientist, Dr Michael Merzanich refers to a ‘critical period’ when the human brain initially configures itself. Current research indicates that up to age 10, there is no ‘off switch’ for incoming data. We are like a computer downloading the output from our environment, whether that is good or bad.
Worryingly, this is when we are drawing up our internal frames of reference. After that age, we are largely consolidating the information we have previously uploaded, to use as an internalised ‘map’ which we then refer to, to navigate the world in which we find ourselves. After age 10, the brain plasticity ‘switch’ is flicked, reducing our capacity for learning from new experience, as a range of powerful internal filters now come into play.
Assuming your negative beliefs may have been there for many, many years, it would be unrealistic to expect a positive affirmation, if repeated only once or twice, to make a significant difference immediately. Regular work and repetition will be needed to build and reinforce new neural structures for them to become encoded and embedded. Now you can strengthen your mental muscles much as you would your biceps and triceps by regular trips to the gym.
As Dr Merzenich explained in his groundbreaking 2004 TED Talk:
‘….in your future is brain aerobics. Get ready for it. It’s going to be a part of every life, not too far in the future. Just like physical exercise is a part of every well organized life in the contemporary period….
….Now that you know, now that science is telling us that you are in charge, that it’s under your control, that your happiness, your well-being, your abilities, your capacities, are capable of continuous modification, continuous improvement, and you’re the responsible agent and party.
Of course a lot of people will ignore this advice. It will be a long time before they really understand it.’
Making a start
You might need to begin by rooting out the negatives first of all.
Try making a list of your perceived negative qualities, including the kind of criticisms others have levelled at you, whether parents, siblings, your boss or your peers. Accept that we are all imperfect and all have flaws, and we all need to be forgiving of ourselves on the long and winding road to becoming the person we want to be.
Once you have acknowledged those negatives beliefs and made a decision to let them go, screw them up and throw them away. Now write out something more positive and empowering.
When you have the positive affirmations you are happy with, you will need to actually speak them out loud for several minutes, several times a day for them to really grow new roots. Brushing your teeth in the morning, looking in the mirror, can be the perfect time.
Anchor the affirmations firmly in your mind and body to the word 'STOP'. As soon as you say STOP, you become fully present and can make a conscious decision to shift your mind-set.
Use the word STOP as an IT password. Then, every time you type it or use it, STOP brings you to mindful awareness when you can repeat the positive affirmations again.
Positive self statements are powerful tools for raising hope, expectation and self esteem. Getting the right ones for you is key. Remember they must be personal, powerful, positive and present tense.
If you are having trouble coming up with the right ones, take inspiration from the 59 character strengths listed below to help you add real punch, create your most powerful affirmation yet and to unlock the potential of your amazing neuro-plastic brain.
59 character strengths
1. I am creative
2. I am original
3. I am adaptable
4. I am ingenious
5. I am interested
6. I am open
7. I can think things through
8. I am open-minded
9. I love learning
10. I love mastering new skills and topics
11. I love to build knowledge
12. I can see things from different angles
13. I can see the big picture
14. I do not shrink from fear
15. I speak up for what is right
16. I am persistent
17. I am industrious
18. I finish what I start
19. I am honest
20. I am authentic
21. I have integrity
22. I am enthusiastic
23. I have energy
24. I can love and be loved
25. I can build close relationships
26. I am generous
27. I am kind
28. I have care and compassion
29. I am altruistic
30. I am empathic
31. I understand what makes other people tick
32. I am socially responsible
33. I am loyal
34. I am a team player
35. I value justice
36. I am fair
37. I am an organiser
38. I encourage others
39. I accept others' shortcomings
40. I give people a second chance
41. I can forgive
42. I am modest
43. I can let my accomplishments speak for themselves
44. I do not take undue risks
45. I have self-control
46. I am disciplined
47. I manage my impulses and emotions
48. I appreciate beauty and excellence
49. I am grateful for the good I express thanks
50. I feel blessed
51. I am optimistic
52. I have hope for the future
53. I am future focused
54. I am playful
55. I bring smiles to others
56. I am light-hearted
57. I have faith
58. I have purpose
59. My life has meaning