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XOMU: Positive affirmations that actually work
Three small shifts that help your brain see these affirmations as true
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Positive affirmations can be an incredibly powerful tool to retrain the brain, but they can also majorly backfire. Looking in the mirror and saying, "I am strong, I am powerful" on a morning when I feel anything but strong or powerful makes my brain smirk and call bullsh*t. Because affirmations speak to the conscious mind, if your subconscious holds a different set of beliefs, it can set off an internal war—and when that happens, my brain can get mean: "Keep telling yourself that, Melissa, but we both know it’s not true."
The good news is that I’ve discovered three alternatives to positive affirmations that work with the brain, not against, and provide a gentler and far more effective way to shift your subconscious thought patterns.
1. Make it a question
When someone says "affirmation," we usually think of declarations, like, "I am going to ace this interview" or "today I will be happy." But if your subconscious brain is worried about the interview or doesn’t feel happy, those declarations won’t hold much weight.
Instead, turn your declaration into a question. This feels less challenging to your brain, and primes you to look for evidence to support the positive outcome you want to see.
Using this technique, you’d ask yourself, "How could I be good at interviews? When have I been good in an interview?" Now, your brain is thinking about all of the ways you could be great (arriving early, researching the company, preparing follow-up questions). And even if there is just one piece of evidence to support that you can be good, it helps debunk the stressful thought, "I’m terrible at interviews."
For the second one, you might ask, "How have I been happy in the past? What kinds of things have brought me joy?" Now you’re thinking, "Oh, using the fresh Sharpie, actually sitting down for lunch, and making time to read before bed makes me happy, let’s build some of those things in." Or maybe you ask, "How could I be happy today?" Even if it’s a hard day, your brain is looking for ways to squeeze in a moment of pleasure.
2. Use if-firmations
Another alternative to positive affirmations are if-firmations. (I didn’t make this up, but I wish I had! These have been shared by many therapists on Instagram.) Instead of offering a declarative statement like "I am good at setting boundaries" (which the brain might call B.S. on), you’d say, "What if I am capable of setting and holding boundaries?" Instead of "I will overcome any financial obstacles that stand in my way" you’d say, "What if I am capable of overcoming my financial obstacles?"
This shifts the focus from declaratory to curious—and now the brain is looking for evidence that you might, in fact, be capable of these things or blessed in these ways. This works for so many things you want to enforce: that you trust your own body (what if I trusted my own body?), that I will put my own needs first (what if I put my own needs first?), that I am good enough (what if I was good enough?)
The gentle nature of the inquisition feels far more welcoming than a harsh declarative statement, and the question opens you up to possibilities or nuance you didn’t know existed before you asked.
This is one I did make up. It’s seen me through some of my hardest days, and is the one I pull out when things look the darkest. I don’t declare or question, I remember.
Instead of saying, "I am powerful," I say, "I am remembering how powerful I am." Instead of, "I am worthy of love," I say, "I am remembering my worth and value." Instead of, "I deserve to be happy," I say, "I am remembering how truly deserving I am of happiness."
Remember is such a formidable word in this context. It indicates that this thing I am seeking has always been with me, in me, and for me. It implies a sense of entitlement—that this thing I seek shall be mine, because it has always belonged to me. It shows me grace, because the process of remembering takes time, and often starts subconsciously. And it allows space for me to feel the full expression of what I want, because that space is already being held.
Mix, match, and affirm
Sure, some days I can wake up and say, "I am strong, I am powerful," and feel it in my bones. But affirmations need successful repetition to truly have an impact. So if you’ve been stuck in declarative statements for far too long, I hope one of these other techniques will help you get curious, ask "what if," and remember everything you need to move you forward.
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