Powerful Self-Programming – Affirming a New Reality

How do you feel about affirmations? I know I used to have a negative feeling towards the concept and would always think back to the old Saturday Night Live Stuart Smalley’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it people like me.”  Silly, right?

Let me ask you another question: Would you stand for anyone talking to you the brutal way you talk to yourself sometimes? 

What I would like to do is talk about affirmations in the greater context of self-talk and self-worth.  When handled properly and authentically, it is a powerful way to program our nonconscious brain to set us up for more desirable outcomes than we are currently getting. 

Regular readers of the blog know that I’ve been on an intentional personal development journey since 2002. Along the way, I’ve adopted quite a few strategies to help improve my quality of life. Over this time, I’ve studied Self-programming and experimented along the way. And what I’ve found is that affirmations in and of themselves are not that effective. However, if you pair them with powerful purpose and meaning, incorporate some visualization, and most importantly start to align your actions, then the sky is the limit. 

Let’s identify the problem

We are really talking about the quality of your self-talk, which has substantial implications on your self-worth. Easy example: In the past, and sometimes in the present, I’d spill something, maybe a glass of wine or maybe water, and the first thing that pops in my head would be “you idiot”! And you can chuckle at that, but if you really think about it we probably do this negative inner dialogue a little bit more often than is good for us, which reinforces things in our nonconscious that can cause these issues even when we aren’t aware. What is it for you? What do you say to yourself when you make a mistake? Or when you make and then break a commitment to yourself?  If we aren’t careful, we can start believing some of the little jabs we give ourselves over time.

Reframe mistakes and be intentional with commitments

If you get to the end of this and decide that affirmations are not something you’re willing to try or ready to try, then please still take away the value in being kinder to yourself as you go about your day. Some of you treat others with grace and compassion and then beat yourself up mentally anytime you get something wrong. Please don’t miss this: Mistakes are opportunities for growth. Challenges mean you are doing life right. You are growing in resilience and problem-solving along the way. All of these are prerequisites for major success. And, let’s give some thought to what we are committing to do. Then, think through the process on what it will take to get there. Making promises to oneself and consistently breaking those promises can cause us a crisis of integrity. Check out our work on focus and overcoming fear if these are keeping you from keeping your promises. 

One part of the solution

If you are part of the One To Grow On community, you may remember our work through the Morning Kickstart – and affirmations are one component of an amazing start to your day. One component. For me, simply affirming something over and over again does nothing, unless it is combined with visualization and then taking action. Consistent action. With this in mind, there is science behind affirmations helping us create a better mindset and better quality of life, so let’s dive in here to what some of the research says:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology was used to measure two parts of the brain associated with
    • (1) self-related processing and 
    • (2) rewards following self-affirmation activities.
  • They found a measurable significant increase in brain activity in both of these regions, concluding that self-affirmations affect brain activity. From Psychology Today, Cascio, C. N., et al. (2016). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2016, 621–629.

  • An impactful (Self-affirmation) intervention acts like almost any formative experience. It works not in isolation but rather like a turning point in a story, an event that sets in motion accumulating consequences. Geoffrey L. Cohen and David K. Sherman, Stanford Graduate School of Education (Elder 1998).

  • Motivational positive affirmations can also help bolster confidence, activating certain areas of the brain associated with reward in order to remind people of their self-worth, according to a study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. (Positive Affirmations And How To Use Them, Forbes Health, Mara Santilli and Judy Ho, PHD)

  • There are times when sources of self-affirmation may be few, or threats to the self may run especially high. Times of high need can be identified, making possible well-timed self-affirmation interventions. Stressful transitions and choice points, for example, mark such timely moments. Self-affirmations given at these times can help people navigate difficulties and set them on a better path. Their confidence in their ability to overcome future difficulties may grow and thus buttress coping and resilience for the next adversity, in a self-reinforcing narrative Geoffrey L. Cohen and David K. Sherman (Cohen et al. 2009).

Therefore, I would submit that written or verbal affirmations are a good beginning. But the greatest self-affirming behavior is then aligning your actions, overcoming the challenges, and stacking wins. All of these together create the most powerful programming of all.  Let’s bring it all together into some actionable guidance:

  1. Affirmations should be stated in the positive. The Reticular Activating System is sensitive, and if you repeat affirmations using negative language you may end up getting more of what you don’t want!  Robin Sharma said “What you focus on grows, what you think about expands, and what you dwell upon determines your destiny.” 

  • NO: I do not smoke. I am a non-smoker. 
  • YES: I make healthy decisions and take care of my body.

  1. Affirmations should be stated in present tense, and also aligned with reality (even if it’s a stretch). If you make $55,000 per year and have a net worth of $100,000, you may decide to include a financial affirmation in your approach. To state in the current tense that you are a millionaire may feel inauthentic. According to CJ Bathgate, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the Division of Neurology and Behavioral Health at National Jewish Health. “It’s important to make sure these statements are grounded in reality and your values, however, and are not overly optimistic, to avoid toxic positivity and feeding yourself thoughts that aren’t necessarily true or useful.” So in this specific example:

  • NO: I am a millionaire.
  • YES: I take bold and consistent action to grow my net worth into the millions.

  1. If you can link a “WHY” with your affirmation, it becomes more powerful.

  • YES: I develop my leadership skills every day so I can best serve my team.
  • YES: I focus on what matters most to be productive at work and have more quality time with family.

  1. Affirmations need to be made consistently, and are most powerful when written down. There are many ways to do this. Some write affirmations repeatedly 10-20 times per day in a journal, as there is a powerful mind/body connection when something is written down. Others will write short essays each day about their affirmations. Some do affirmation work in front of a mirror. Others repeat their affirmations out loud or to themselves. There are resources you can use and many books on the subject that go into more detail, the key is to try some of them and see what resonates.
  2. Affirmations can be made across the FORBES categories. Remember the source of many goals for who you are becoming or what you want to achieve can relate to Family, Occupation, Recreation, Body and health, Exercise, and Spirituality.
  3. Affirmations should be created by you. There are examples here, and some examples in the book. If something hits home with you, you will still want to put your own words to it. The best affirmations are created by you based on your core values and dreams. If you are unsure where to start, Google Wayne Dyer or Louise Hay affirmations and I promise you will have some serious content to generate your own ideas.
  4. Affirmations should incorporate visualization. This one is big. Once you start affirming something, try and spend some time visualizing the result of what success would look like. For example, if I am affirming that I will kill it in my board meeting presentation that will be a career maker, I might (in addition to affirmation and lots of preparation), visualize myself walking into the room, bringing great energy, connecting with people, nailing the content, and answering questions with confidence. There is science behind visualization and our ability to get a certain level of “practice” as we go through the motions in our minds. This includes all five senses, consider what the room will look like, what the coffee smells like, how you are dressed, the poise with which you carry yourself, nods of approval from the audience, the feel of the clicker in your hands, etc.
  5. Affirmations should inspire us to take action. Here is where I see the biggest disconnect for people with affirmations. If your actions don’t start to line up with what you are telling yourself, you can end up with an integrity issue and the result would not be good. As I go through affirmations and visualization, I expect that my actions will start to align, and will make efforts to do so. Affirmations may help me get the mindset right to take me from point A to point B and beyond, but I still need to take action (of course) to make it happen.   

Do you have experience with affirmations? I credit this part of my morning routine with helping me with quite a few health and career goals, not to mention family goals.

Jessica and I were given a less than 5% chance of getting pregnant. I was willing to try anything, so I started affirming one year before we got the amazing news, “I am a strong and caring father, who nurtures our children.” Now, if this isn’t a great example of an affirmation that then requires some fantastic action, I don’t know what is!

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