Positive affirmations - why do they work & how to use them?
"I'm not good enough. I’ll never succeed.”
“I suck at public speaking (or math)."
“I’ll never be as happy and successful as my friends (or colleagues or neighbors)."
Have you ever caught yourself ruminating over something similar? Most of us are frequently visited by negative thoughts, which influence our mood and confidence. The problem with negative thoughts is that they can become self-fulfilling prophecies. There’s this great quote from Henry Ford that captures this idea well: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you're right.”
So why not try to reverse the game and use positive, empowering, and uplifting thoughts? Here’s where positive affirmations come in, as they’re the ideal tool to train your mind and reverse the negative beliefs and self-talk.
In this article, I’ll talk about positive affirmations in more detail, explain what they are and aren’t, why and how to use them, look at the science behind them, and give a set of 25 affirmations you can try out for yourself to make a positive change in your thoughts and life.
Reading time: 9 min
What are positive affirmations?
Positive affirmations are described by the Psychology Dictionary as brief phrases, repeated frequently, which are designed to encourage positive, happy feelings, thoughts, and attitudes.
Put simply, they’re positive statements that challenge negative, self-sabotaging, or unhelpful thoughts. They hold no spiritual or religious meaning in the traditional sense and can be used for many purposes.
Some might say affirmations sound like "wishful thinking." Instead, you can think of them as exercises for your mind and outlook. What you repeat to yourself over and over again rewires your brain and becomes your reality. It just happens over time, bit by bit, the same way you build muscle when exercising physically.
Why and when to use positive affirmations?
You can use affirmations whenever you want to make a positive change in your life. They’re helpful when you’re not at your best: when you need support and a boost in self-esteem, whether facing excess stress, high demands at work, higher levels of insecurity, grief, or life setbacks.
But that’s not the whole story. They're also useful when you ARE at your best and want to improve even more: develop some good habits, exercise and meditate more, notice more of the small daily joys, and appreciate the people around you more, be more productive, excel at work, etc. The list is endless.
Some of the direct benefits of positive affirmations are:
- Increase in positivity.
- Increase in self-confidence.
- Improvement in self-esteem.
- Control of negative feelings such as frustration, anger, or impatience.
- Resilience to stress (which leads to better health)
- Improved productivity.
- Improved academic achievement.
- Increased ability to overcome a bad habit.
- Help in achieving goals.
The list is not conclusive and each of these benefits has a whole row of positive sub-benefits, so you get the idea of how this might create an upward spiral in your life.
Even simply being able to reframe your situation in a more positive way can make all the difference to how you feel and react. For example, the feeling of excitement and anxiety are somewhat similar and you can convince you’re feeling one instead of the other. Or take another example. Your significant other says something that feels like nagging. But instead of feeling annoyed and getting upset, you can reframe it - clearly, he or she cares about you and is concerned, trying to do what’s good for you.
Do positive affirmations work? And why?
Yes. There is no magic–it is scientifically proven. The practice and popularity of positive affirmations are based on widely accepted and well-established psychological theories.
First, let’s talk about Neuroplasticity. Your brain has a wonderful ability to change and adapt to different circumstances throughout your life. Basically, how you use your brain will alter your brain. Thinking patterns - both positive and negative - will run certain “train tracks” into your brain. The more you use the same track, the deeper, automatic, and easier it gets. So what you practice, you become. And that’s why and how affirmations work. They will create “positive train tracks” and alter the negative ones.
According to positivepsychology.com "affirmations are designed to encourage an optimistic mindset. And optimism in itself is a powerful thing. In terms of reducing negative thoughts, affirmations have been shown to help with the tendency to linger on negative experiences.
When we are able to deal with negative messages and replace them with positive statements, we can construct more adaptive, hopeful narratives about who we are and what we can accomplish. The idea of affirmations as a means of introducing new and adaptive cognitive processes is very much the underlying premise of cognitive restructuring."
There are empirical studies based on the idea that you can maintain your sense of self-integrity (your concept of yourself as a good, moral person) by affirming what you believe in positive ways. The most important thing, according to self-affirmation theory, is that your affirmations reflect your core personal values. There is little point in repeating something arbitrary to yourself if it doesn’t resonate with your own sense of what you believe to be good, moral, and worthwhile.
The fifth concept I’d bring out, explains why visualization works. It’s the fact that your brain is not that great at figuring out the difference between reality and imagination. And this can be surprisingly useful.
According to healthline.com "Creating a mental image of yourself doing something — like acing a nerve-wracking interview or conquering your fear of heights by bungee jumping — activates many of the same brain areas that actually experiencing these situations would. Regular repetition of affirming statements about yourself can encourage your brain to take these positive affirmations as fact. When you truly believe you can do something, your actions often follow."
What positive affirmations don’t do?
First, a medical reminder: positive affirmations are not designed to be cures for anxiety or depression, nor are they a substitute for clinical treatment of those conditions. So definitely seek the help of a medical professional, if that's the case!
Second, positive affirmations don’t work without practice. You have to use them to rewire your brain. I want to return to the metaphor of exercise. It isn’t enough to just own a pair of running shoes or to look at them intensively, or even to read about running (ok, knowing the theory is helpful but it doesn’t replace actually practicing).
And third, positive affirmations don’t seem to work equally well for all people. The thing is, positive affirmations seem to ironically work the best for people who already have great self-esteem. If that’s the case with you, then of course it doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from them. Quite the contrary - as I mentioned above, affirmations can help you turn something good into excellence and push the extra mile. But if you are anxious or even depressed and suffering from low self-esteem, then affirmations might not just work. Or even cause more damage than good. I will add some tips and tricks on how to work around that phenomenon, but first, let’s have a closer look at what causes this effect.
Why affirmations and low self-esteem don’t work together well?
Canadian researcher Dr. Joanne Wood and her team at the University of Waterloo conducted an experiment where they asked the participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves. They found that those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts about themselves. In fact, the subjects were in a better mood thinking negative thoughts, than they were when asked to focus on positive affirmations. Yes, these people felt better when they spoke badly about themselves.
The researchers suggest that positive praise and affirmations, such as "I am a lovable person" was in strong dissonance with the mindset of those with low self-esteem. This led to feelings of conflict and just feeling bad. Which then led to more negative thoughts about themselves.
How to hack affirmations to make them work better with low self-esteem?
Dr. Wood advises to slow things down and practice "going neutral" before "going positive.”
Instead of: "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”
Try: "I have had better days, but I have also had worse. Today I am OK.”
Instead of: "I am beautiful, happy, and love myself.”
Try: "I am working on accepting me as I am."
Two more ideas: frame the affirmation as a question or in the future tense.
Instead of: “I am whole and complete just the way I am.”
Try: “I will be whole and complete just the way I am.”
Or: “Could I be whole and complete just the way I am?”
By introducing neutral statements, turning the statements into questions, or projecting them into the future, and making certain they are reality-based, your brain will not have to deal with the confrontation and the triggering of bad feelings to maintain the status quo. Instead, the well-worn neural pathways that make up your pattern of negative thinking can take a rest, as a new path of neutrality develops.
How to practice affirmations daily?
To get the most benefit from affirmations, you’ll want to start a regular practice and make it a habit, that’s something that all the different sources can agree upon. How often and how exactly is much more open to debate and differing opinions.
Here’s a summary of common advice:
- Start with 3 to 5 minutes at least twice a day. Upon waking up and getting into bed, for example. Or when you're putting on your makeup or shaving so that you can look at yourself in the mirror as you repeat the positive statement. Using an existing habit or action as a cue makes it much easier to form the new habit.
- Repeat each affirmation about 10 times. Listen to yourself saying it, believe it to be true. “Breathe" into the affirmation while you are saying it. You want to move from the concept of the affirmation to a real, positive embodiment of the quality you seek.
- Ask a trusted loved one or a coach to help. Listening to someone else repeat your affirmations may help reinforce your belief in them.
- Combine it with other positive thinking and goal-setting techniques. For instance, affirmations work particularly well alongside visualization, helping you give additional life and vividness to what you’re saying. Bold Tuesday’s Vision Board Reimagined offers a great way to combine affirmation cards into your vision board, so you can link the two practices together.
- Be patient. It may take some time before you notice any changes, so stick with your practice!
Where to get the affirmations from?
First, you can just come up with your own. All you need is creativity! The benefit here is that the affirmations you have created are 100% in tune with your values and address what you need the most.
Second, just google it. You will find a lot of online resources. We will also give you a handful of examples for inspiration just below. The benefit here is that you will get fresh ideas and they might help you see the world from a different perspective.
Third, there are various affirmation card decks that you can buy. The usual benefits of those are the visually appealing design (which does encourage you to use them more often) and well-curated contents. Most of the decks come in about playing card size, so they're good for carrying with you - e.g. for putting your “affirmation of the day” in your wallet.
Bold Tuesday has a selection of affirmation cards (called the Motivational Cards) on various themes such as “Balance”, “Wealth”, and “Gratitude” which are the most traditional affirmations of the selection (some others are more positive quote or coaching questions based - hence the general name Motivational Cards). The first one helps to find inner peace and reduce stress, the second helps to change your beliefs about money, and the third helps to practice daily gratitude. Each deck consists of 52 cards, which can be beautifully combined with Bold Tuesday’s vision board.
25 powerful positive affirmations
Here is a selection of 25 powerful positive affirmations that you can try for yourself. They are collected from the three decks by Bold Tuesday that I mentioned above: “Balance”, “Wealth”, and “Gratitude”. Use the knowledge of this blog post to make the most of them and really make them work for you. Happy self-transformations!
- I am whole and complete.
- I am exactly where I need to be now.
- I feel calmer and more at peace with each exhale.
- I am loved and deserve love just the way I am.
- I feel empowered, in control, and confident.
- I am at peace with myself.
- I focus on what I can change and let go of everything else.
- I accept all my feelings without judgment.
- I take things one step at a time.
- I matter, no matter what.
- I accept myself.
- My thoughts and feelings are valid.
- I release all negative feelings about money.
- I welcome abundance into my life.
- I open my mind to everything life has to offer.
- My success brings happiness both to me and those close to me.
- I feel financially secure and at peace.
- Opportunities are all around me.
- I am grateful for my imagination, creativity, and all the great ideas I come up with.
- I am grateful for the kind and loving people in my life.
- I am grateful for all the experiences that make me who I am.
- I am grateful for my resilience and strength.
- I am grateful for the challenges that help me grow.
- I am grateful for having a sense of purpose and meaning.
- I am grateful for my ability to learn and improve.
Positive affirmations are more than just wishful thinking–there is a fair bit of science behind them. Repeating an affirmation can help boost your motivation, confidence, resilience to stress, and general outlook on life, to name just a few of the benefits. They can lift you up when you’re feeling down, but they can also help improve what’s already good. And you still have to take some action yourself. Think of affirmations as a step toward change, not the change itself.
And don’t forget to check out Bold Tuesday's Motivational Cards to take your positive affirming to the next level!
Kairi Kuuskor is the co-founder and designer of Bold Tuesday - a company that aims to help you live a better life. To do that they create vision boards, motivational cards, notebooks and other self-development tools with an emphasis on high quality and great design.