Look up “affirmations” on Psychology Today and you’ll see plenty of articles explaining why they don’t work. Read about them on Spirituality & Health, and it’s a bit of a different story. Since I’ve always associated affirmations with get-rich-quick gurus, new age pop wisdom, and Stewart Smalley, actually trying them has been easy to put off. At the most basic level, affirmations make sense in that I'm giving something specific in my life uninterrupted mindshare. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, the barking dog gets fed.....he who talks to himself manifests his intentions?
A Secret or a Brain Hack?
Many people associate affirmations to the cult classic book and film “The Secret", which is premised on the law of attraction. Whatever you think and ask the universe for, you will attract. Hey, whatever helps people out. My preferred way to view affirmations are as a hack for your Reticular Activating System (RAS). This is the part of your brain which filters out what it deems to be unnecessary information. Without your RAS, you’d be like a puppy on meth, with every single stimulus in your environment tugging at your attention. A good example of your RAS at work is when you are contemplating the purchase of a specific car. You’ve read the Consumer Reports, talked to friends and spent some time in the dealership. All of a sudden you see that car everywhere. Was there an explosion of ownership for that car in the last two weeks? Nope - your RAS had previously filtered out that input as unnecessary but because of your recent interest, you notice every single one on the street. Theoretically, you can make other things front and center for your brain by regularly verbalizing the focus of your interest.
Roll Your Own
When it comes to creating your personal affirmation(s), nothing is off limits. If you feel stuck, a good place to start is by writing a list of negative beliefs that you catch yourself ruminating on. They can be substantiated or totally out there, but not of any definitive truth. For example:
I’ll never get a job that excites me
I’ll never get out of debt
I don’t deserve happiness
I’ll never meet the right person for me
I’ll never get fit
I can’t get out of bed on time
Reframe this self-talk into its opposite. Even if you’ve never achieved such an outcome, frame the language as a positive with as much specificity as you can. Even if it feels silly.
I will find a job that ignites passion in me and aligns with my purpose here
Through discipline and strategy, I will be debt free in two years
I deserve absolute joy in my life
I will become the type of person I wish to attract in my life
I will achieve my goals of getting in great shape before summer
I will get up at 6am every morning without fail
Some choose to position these as if they have already happened. Such as "I have a job that I am passionate about and is totally aligned with my purpose."
You can be as general or narrow with this as you desire. A few of the things I’d like my RAS to stop filtering out are opportunities to stay focused, practice gratitude, exhibit deep commitment and assist others while being nice to myself along the way. Here is one of the affirmations I scripted for my 21 Day Challenge:
As are all of the billions of people on the planet, I am worthy of any achieving all that I set out to do and realizing my vision for my purpose here. These ambitions are enormous, as they should be. The only thing that separates me from achieving that vision is my level of commitment. From this moment on, I am 100% committed to being the person that manifests these massive goals. For this to happen, I understand that I will need to do what’s necessary, as opposed to what’s easy. Because I was born in the right time and place, I have been given countless opportunities to go way beyond just surviving, to be truly useful to others, and to make a difference in their lives. I will not squander this amazing opportunity. The general direction that my life takes is just a reflection of the many small decisions that I make every day. Today I will make those decisions that lead me down the path of my intent. The only time to do this is now. There is no guarantee of a tomorrow or any arbitrary date in the future. Today is my day. I will continue on this journey with the knowledge that I play a part in the larger framework of cause and effect. The energy I put out there, and the way I treat others, has a tangible ripple effect. Actions matter. I will help others and inspire them to help me. This level of compassion begins with myself. This journey can be a difficult one, and I intent do be kind to myself along the way. Today I choose to create the best day of my life.
Infusing a Little Magic
Made popular by Tony Robbins, an "incantation" is his version of an affirmation, but on steroids. Defined as “a series of words said as a magic spell or charm”, an incantation brings the flare of physical performance art into the words you speak. Like any good entertainer, you must first commit your bit to memory. When you’ve got that down, start getting into the physicality of the performance. Whether it’s beating your chest, jumping up and down or stomping your feet, the idea is to really get present in your body. As Tony says, “motion creates emotion”. Create the type of motion that reflects the emotion you are working to conjure. If it’s power, make powerful gestures. If it’s confidence, stand tall and evoke physical confidence. Really preform the hell out of it with your head, heart, voice and body.
One of the arguments against affirmations is that they are taking place in the domain of the conscious mind. So what’s the problem? An affirmation is commonly trying to break free of an old belief system or mental roadblock. Even if the rational thinking mind knows that this goal is completely attainable, the inner dialogue has been perpetually building a case as to why failure is imminent. Hence the reason for wanting to try an affirmation to begin with. My affirmation might be, “I will find my ideal romantic partner” and as I repeat this, my inner narrator may chime in with “No you won’t. You don’t deserve that. You’re not good enough. Here’s a list of all the reasons why that will never happen.” A subliminal message is one that is perceived unconsciously, meaning that the conscious mind is unable to engage in a dispute over it. This is based on the Freudian theory that the driving force of human behavior is rooted in cues taken from the unconscious mind. It all sounds pretty solid, especially if you're a fan of Freud. Yet I could not find any solid scientific data to back the efficacy of subliminal messages. That hasn’t slowed down the market for subliminal audio. As of the time of this writing, there are over 4,500 subliminal audio albums on Amazon. If it does have merit, it seems that the message would need to be pretty personal. The good news is it’s easy to make your own for free!
To keep with the very new age theme of this whole experiment, I started with this free nature sound web app. I chose a combination of forrest critters, wind chimes and a flute. I already feel like my guard is down in this relaxing enchanted forrest. Perfect. I exported a ten minute length of it and converted it to a MP3 file using another free web app. I then recorded my affirmation in Garage Band (you can also use Audacity for this if you have a PC). I dropped in my new age soundtrack and adjusted the volume on my voice track to be barely audible under the music. Based on the theory of subliminal messaging, it should work as long as my mind is engaged in something other than the message. The crunchy crystal flutes I chose just kind of blend into the background noise and I listen to it while performing tasks that are requiring my attention. I plan on experimenting with some very specific, singular behaviors to focus on, as opposed to my entire affirmation.
If anything, spending five minutes on these affirmations in the morning set a very positive tone for my day, and I felt it was well worth the small time commitment and potential embarrassment of somebody walking in the room. I’ll continue to experiment with these and the subliminal audio as well. Good luck and please let me know about your experiences as well!