Creating Effective Affirmations

Date: 11/10/2010

This is an article written by NLP trainer Steve Andreas and appeared on his blog:


Posted: 28 Oct 2010 04:05 PM PDT

“Sea stars [starfish] can be pests to fishermen who make their living on the capture of clams and other mollusks at sea, as sea stars prey on these. The fishermen would think they had killed the sea stars by chopping them up and disposing of them at sea, but each fragment would regenerate into a complete adult, ultimately leading to their increased numbers, until the issue was better understood.” —Wikipedia

Many people recommend repeatedly saying positive affirmations to themselves, as a way to change their beliefs about themselves and improve their lives. Affirmations originated in the work of Emile Coue (1857-1926) who advocated saying the following sentence repeatedly, until it became an unconscious background mantra: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”

There is a serious problem with this particular affirmation in the repeated word, “every.” It will never be true that every day and every way I am getting better. Reality just isn’t like that. Even if I am getting marvelously better in many ways, it won’t be in all ways. Most of us have an internal voice that listens for universal statements and challenges them—and those who don’t have that kind of voice would be better off having one!

If I say Coue’s statement to myself, it stimulates my internal voice to find the exceptions to that universal generalization. It might say sarcastically, “Yeah, right! How about the way you snapped at your wife this morning—is that better? How about that sore knee that flared up yesterday, so that you’re hobbling around this morning—is that better? I don’t think so!”

So even if the idea of affirmations might be worth pursuing, we need to be very careful about the words that we say to ourselves, or they may backfire and produce opposite results. Any universal words, like “all,” “every,” “always,” will usually stir up an antagonistic voice, and that may result in decreasing your optimism! But there are other problems with affirmations that may not be immediately apparent. One web site says the following about affirmations:

The idea behind these techniques is pretty simple. Most of us grow up learning to put ourselves down for any real or imagined error. We grow up believing certain things about ourselves or comparing ourselves negatively to others. The use of positive affirmations is a technique to change that negative self-talk into something more positive.

The goal of having internal voices that are positive sounds very attractive. However, if we examine this prescription a little closer, the idea of adding positive affirmations presents a few problems. If we assume, as the quote does, that most of us “grow up learning to put ourselves down for any real or imagined error” what will happen when we introduce a new voice that is positive and supportive? There will be inevitable conflict between these opposite views. In addition, the old put-down voice is likely to redouble its efforts to disagree with the supportive voice. That may result in our putting ourselves down even more than we did before adding in an affirmation.

According to Wikipedia, “For an affirmation to be effective, it needs to be present tense, positive, personal and specific,” and another site offers the following examples:

“I am healthy, happy, wise and free”

“I am surrounded by people who love me.”

These examples match the four criteria mentioned in wikipedia, but they don’t quite match my reality.
Although “I am healthy, happy, wise and free” doesn’t have a universal “all” in it, it is implied, and I don’t know of anyone who is always healthy, happy, wise, or free. If I say this to myself when I am sick, sad, stupid, or feeling stuck, that will contradict what I experience, and it won’t be very useful.

How often is it true that you are surrounded by people who love you? You might have several people around you at home who love you very much, but at work or in the grocery store there are probably at least a few others who are indifferent, and some others may even be antagonistic.

If an affirmation doesn’t fit with your reality, the part of you that keeps track of reality will be aroused to question it, again defeating the purpose of the affirmation. However, if we create internal voices that are a bit more subtle in exactly what words they use, there are ways around this difficulty.

A Happy World

The interesting instruction that follows was posted about a year ago on an email newsgroup by Vikas Dikshit, an NLP-trained educator and trainer in Pune, India:

About 18 months ago a young woman asked me for help for her depression. She was visiting a psychiatrist and had been taking some medicine for depression for the preceding few months.

I suggested to her that she look around and mentally say to herself, “I am sitting on this happy chair. There is this happy table. And these are happy windows with happy curtains.” I made her do this for about ten minutes. I suggested she do this every day for about ten or fifteen minutes.

After fifteen days she called to say that she was feeling great now. After about two months she visited the psychiatrist and he stopped her medicine. She continues to call occasionally, and reports that she still feels great. The most recent one was when she was in my town about ten days ago.

About a year after this email, Vikas writes that his client still feels great, and that he has used the same method—or variations of it—successfully with a number of other clients. Although this method sounds far too simple to have any effect, it employs some very subtle aspects of language.

The simplest way to understand this process is that it is the same as what all of us often do, but used in a more helpful way. If someone talks about a “crappy day,” they aren’t really talking about the day; they are talking about their feelings. When someone speaks of a “cheerful fire,” are they talking about the fire, or about how they feel? When someone talks about happy curtains, that implies that they are feeling happy.

Since all the sentences are about some aspect of the world being happy, there is no conflict between saying that when the person is not feeling happy. An unhappy person can still talk about happy curtains. This is very different from the “I am happy” affirmation, which will contradict someone’s present state if they are unhappy.

This process directs your attention to things around you in the present moment, just as any useful meditation does. Since you have limited attention, this will simultaneously withdraw your attention from whatever you have been attending to that was making you unhappy, including any negative self-talk that has been going on in your mind.

The word “happy” is a trigger for that state, so using it tends to elicit happy feelings, no matter what it describes, even a chair or a table. When I describe the curtains as “happy,” that connects happiness with the curtains—and with everything else around me that I describe with that word. After that, each time I look at the curtains—and the other things around me—I will think of the word “happy,” and that will tend to elicit that happy feeling. If everything around me is labeled in this way, I will soon be surrounded by things that are now associated with the word “happy,” and elicit that feeling state.

There is usually a correspondence or equivalence between someone’s internal state and what they perceive around them. A happy person lives in a happy world, and a sad person lives in a sad world. A sad person tends to notice sad events around them, while a happy person tends to notice the happy things. Vikas’ method uses this equivalence in the reverse direction to bring about a change in mood. Noticing happy things implies feeling happy.

However, you need to be very cautious if you include other people in your happy observations, and notice what kind of response it elicits in you, because that may create a contrast that is not helpful. If I notice a happy child, that may make me feel happy, because I am not a child—just as I am not a chair or curtain. But if I notice other adults being happy, that contrast with my present state may deepen my unhappiness. If others around me are happy, when I am unhappy, that can make my unhappiness even worse. So it is much safer to not include other people at all—or even children or animals—and just use inanimate objects.

Another way of thinking about this method is that it is an example of the hypnotic language pattern called “selectional restriction.” Since a window can’t be happy, your mind will unconsciously attempt to make meaning out of the word “happy” by applying it to something else. If you are alone, you are the only other available possibility, and even if you are with others, you are still a possibility. All this processing will occur completely unconsciously, so it can’t be countered by your conscious thinking.

Of course despite all this wonderful understanding, this process can be completely nullified if someone uses a voice tone that is sarcastic, scornful, or dismissive, as we explored in chapter 2. But if you use a tone that is ordinary, simply reporting your experience “objectively,” or one that expresses even a little bit of pleasure, it will work. Whether you do this with yourself, or with someone else, you can notice the tonality, and change it if it does not support the method.

You can also use this method with any other useful adjective, such as “calm” or “peaceful” for someone who is too easily agitated, “loving” for someone who feels angry, or “balanced” or “centered” for someone who feels scattered or chaotic. Simply identify the problem mood, think of its opposite, and then select an adjective that expresses this opposite mood to put in the place of “happy.”

For instance, if someone is often fearful or anxious, the opposite of that is safe, and they can use this word to describe the world around them. “I see the safe chair,” “Those are safe curtains,” “This is a safe computer,” etc.

Be sure that you choose an opposite experience, not something in the mid-range of a continuum. For instance, if you are often critical and rejecting, the opposite of that would be welcoming or loving, not accepting, which is too neutral.

Try this now. Think of an unpleasant state that you sometimes slip into. . . .

Then think of its opposite, a positive state that you would like to have in its place. . . .

Then use this word to describe the things around you, either internally, or out loud. Continue to do this for several minutes, and notice how it changes your response. . . .

This method is an affirmation that will work, and won’t arouse other conflicting voices to disagree with it.

This article is excerpted from Help With Negative Self-talk, chapter 4, “Talking to Yourself Positively.”