7 Reasons Positive Affirmations Aren’t Working For You

I recently read The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. Elrod advocates using “positive affirmations” to adopt positive behaviors that lead to life changes.

Positive affirmations are generally statements that start with “I am…” and then include a positive word (e.g. “I am honest.”). My definition of positive affirmation includes any memorable phrase, quote, or statement designed to promote behavior leading to a positive result. Therefore when I say “I’m a healthy vegan athlete and I’m ripped like Rich Roll,” that is a positive affirmation, but when I do as bestselling author Ryan Holiday recommends and tell myself “ego is the enemy,” that is also a positive affirmation.

I use affirmations to help me in all my roles. As a proponent of self-directed learning and homeschooling, I had the opportunity to deliver a TEDx talk to an audience of over 1,000 in Hong Kong. At the time that was the largest audience I had ever spoken to, and I was nervous. To boost my confidence I used affirmations like:

  • I love public speaking.
  • I love speaking in front of large groups.
  • I love speaking when it’s being recorded and will go up permanently on YouTube for all the world to see.
  • I especially love doing all the above when I’ve only had two hours of sleep because I was up until 3 am finishing my slides for my talk and then getting in some last minute practice, even though this is exactly what I swore two months before I absolutely would not do.

While affirmations can be helpful, they don’t always work. Here are 6 reasons positive affirmations fail, and what you can do to make sure they work for you to help you achieve your goals and maximize your potential within your most important roles. Your affirmations are failing because:

1. You’re Just Going Through the Motions

I grew up in the United States and as a youngster said the Pledge of Allegiance every day in my school classes with my hand over my heart. Why did I say the Pledge? Because that’s what everyone around me was doing. What did the words mean to me? Nothing–I never thought about them.

You may start out reciting positive affirmations and see changes in your behavior and your life at first, but then as the affirmations become rote you ignore them and they lose their effect. The words are coming out of your mouth but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re engrained in your heart and mind.

What to do instead: Set a reminder in your calendar, no more than monthly and no less than annually, to review your affirmations and for each one ask the question “How has this affirmation changed my behavior in a tangible way since the review?” If you can’t think of a real result you’ve achieved from the affirmation make a goal related to it along with action steps to achieve that goal. This will give your affirmation the weight of action and you’ll find it more meaningful when you repeat it.

2. You Don’t Really Want Your Affirmation to Be True

The problem with affirming something about yourself is that you’re committing yourself to action, and you may not really want to do what you’re committing to do, and so you may feel that affirmation is insincere. For example, let’s say that my affirmation is “I eat healthful foods.” But what if I don’t really want to eat healthful foods? What if what I really want to do is eat Swedish Fish morning, noon, and night? What if what I really want to be able to say is “I eat candy all day and yet I’m ripped like Bruce Lee”?

What to do instead: The interesting thing about sincerity is that you can trick yourself into it by wanting to want what you should want. If I feel insincere saying “I eat healthful foods” or even “I want to eat healthful foods” I can say “I want to want to eat healthful foods.” I’ve used this trick time and time again and it works for me, that is, it changes how I feel and leads to positive changes in behavior that produce the outcomes I want.

3. You Feel Like You’re Lying to Yourself

As humans we are great liars. “To thine own self be true,” is easier said than done. But we are also great at detecting deception in ourselves. Even if we are not consciously aware we’re lying to ourselves our subconscious knows it, and we can sabotage the effectiveness of affirmations. As life coach Ann Smith explains in her blog post The Affirmation That Isn’t Affirming:

When my problem is a pain in my knee, saying, “Even though my knee hurts, I deeply and completely accept myself,” sounds true. I do accept myself even though my knee hurts. There is no resistance to getting over this knee pain problem.

But if I hurt my knee by kicking the dog for which I feel deep regret and shame, I would not accept myself, would I? Then that set-up statement doesn’t sound true. I don’t accept myself even though my knee hurts because I know I hurt my knee in a deplorable manner for which I condemn myself.

And that’s when the customary affirmation isn’t affirming. I cannot say, in this instance, that I accept myself. It just isn’t true. If I say it mechanically […] I will wince inside. I will feel a resistance toward the affirmation.

What to do instead: First, stop kicking dogs and commit to never kick a dog again. Ah, but as with other things this is also easier said than done. That is, maybe it’s easy to literally not kick dogs, but what if kicking dogs is a metaphor for yelling at your child, talking negatively about a client to a coworker, or getting into a heated political argument on Facebook? If I do one of these things and then say “I deeply and completely accept myself” I feel dishonest unless I also say the following:

  1. I’m ashamed of my bad behavior.
  2. I don’t want to do it again.
  3. I will not do it again, or at the very least I will keep working at not doing this until I succeed or die trying.
  4. If necessary, I will find help to stop doing this.

The more committed we are to correcting the negative behavior, the more able we are to truly accept ourselves despite our faults.

4. You’re Trying to Do Too Much

I hesitated to bring this one up because at least half of us are trying to do too little rather than too much. The other half are women. Call me sexist or a slave to stereotypes if you will, but my life experience is that many women try to do everything and are racked with guilt when they can’t do it all perfectly. I’m sure some men are this way, but my experience is that men are all too good at saying “Oh well, so it didn’t work, at least I tried.” For over-achievers merely entertaining the idea that they may be trying to do too much causes a mental breakdown of sorts and thoughts like “But I could be doing more!” or “I could be doing this better!” and “If I’m willing to not demand total perfection in myself, I might as well just give up on everything and lounge around in sweatpants eating ice cream and watching Seinfeld Season 5!” For these folks it’s all or nothing–there is no room to be at 99% and still accept oneself.

What to do instead: Dr. Brené Brown had this to say about perfectionists when she was interviewed by Oprah:

People who are walking around as perfectionists are ultimately afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are.

In her Forbes article How To Stop Perfectionism From Running Your Life, Nicole Varvitsiotes says she starts her fight against perfectionism by doing a reality self-check and asking the following five questions:

  1. Are my thoughts factual, or are they my interpretations?
  2. Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
  3. Is this situation as bad as I’m making it out to be?
  4. What’s the worst thing that could happen? How likely is that to happen?
  5. Will this matter in five years? At the pivotal moments of my life (read: moving abroad or childbirth), will this moment actually matter?

She continues, “By the end of it, I’ve either forgotten what started my funk or come to realize that I was building elaborate falsities in my mind while awaiting validation.”

But more important than the “how” of dealing with perfectionism is the “why.” To paraphrase Nietzsche:

He who has a good enough “why” can figure out the “how”.

Why do you need to overcome perfectionism? Because it’s negative behavior. First, it represents a false reality that we can become perfect. Second, when we fail, it tells us we’re hopeless failures. The end results are stress, anxiety, guilt, paralysis, and limited potential. Here’s an example from my own life.

For years I told clients the biggest mistake they were making was to not do anything at all. Instead, they should take The Lean Startup approach–dive in, do quick and dirty experiments, see what works and what doesn’t, then double down on what works. The founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, put it this way when speaking to startups:

If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.

Good advice, right?

But I wasn’t following my own advice. I knew I should do more video, but I was afraid.

I like writing.

Writing is easy.

I accidentally hit the publish button on this blog post before I was done writing the words you’re reading right now. No problem, I left it published and finished writing it, then saved my changes.

With video, you can’t go in and edit the details so easily.

With writing, I can make myself look good.

With video, people see the real me. They see my face, my imperfect skin, my unshaven beard, and my poorly combed hair. They hear me make mistakes. Doing retakes is a pain plus then I feel scripted, etc. Ugh. It’s embarrassing.

Writing? Easy.

Video? Hard.

Regardless, I swallowed my pride, embraced the awkwardness, and began filming videos of myself.

Here’s my first video on the Influencer Inc YouTube channel. Professional? No. But within the first week a few hundred people saw it and my marketing agency got a lead because of it.

Dang it.

Where would I be today if I had started doing this three years ago? But my perfectionism held me back.

5. You’re Saying it Wrong

The way we say it matters.

A lot of affirmations begin with “I am…” or “I will…” and for some people that feels like a lie, or that they’re saying too much, or it just feels weird and awkward. So they give up.

What to do instead: There may be more to this than just mere awkwardness, and a scientific reason to change the words you use. In her post Why Positive Affirmations Don’t Work, psychologist Dr. Sophie Henshaw references a study by Drs. Senay, Albarracín, and Noguchi, published in the journal Psychological Science, and called…wait for it, Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense.

Sophie explains:

Four groups of participants were asked to solve anagrams. Before completing the task, the researchers told them that they were interested in handwriting practices and asked them to write 20 times on a sheet of paper either: “I will,” “Will I,” “I” or “Will.” The group that wrote “Will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as any of the other groups.

From this and similar studies the researchers conducted, they found that asking ourselves is far more powerful than telling ourselves something when we wish to create successful end results.

Sophie goes on to say that that questions can lead to action in ways statements may not. If you’re finding that making statements isn’t working because you don’t believe them, or they’re too easy to ignore, try turning your statements into questions and see if that does a better job for you.

6. Your Positive Affirmations are Outnumbered

Does your day look like this?

  1. Wake up.
  2. Read quickly through 50 affirmations. Total time invested = 5 minutes.
  3. Spend the rest of the 16 hours of your waking day telling yourself 5,000 times, in one way or another, what a loser you are, how you’re surrounded by losers, and how miserable your life is.

Yeah, that’s called the positive affirmation pizza.

Or…maybe eating a burnt pizza doesn’t give you the true pizza experience.

What to do instead: Don’t blame affirmations for not working if you’re not really giving them a chance. Give it a real try.

But what does it mean to give affirmations a real try? Saying 100 affirmations instead of 50? Squeezing your eyes shut while you say them and really trying to mean them when you say them? Well, actually yes, quantity is part of it. If you’re saying your affirmations 100 times instead of 50 that’s not enough, but if you create a mental trigger so that each time you have a negative thought you catch yourself and say “Wait, no, I refuse to get down on myself, I’m going to say the positive version instead,” then you can replace the negative affirmations with positive ones and leave no room or time to dwell on the negative stuff.

But what if I really am a bad person and all the negative stuff I tell myself about myself is true?

That takes us back to #3 above–stop doing bad stuff. That’s the point of affirmations–they aren’t magical, they don’t change the world, they change our behaviors from ones that generate negative results to ones that generate positive results. But maybe for some people baby steps are needed. “[Don’t] throw a whitewash of positivity over a mountain of negative thinking,” Carmen Isáis says in her HuffPost article Why Positive Affirmations Don’t Work, “Instead, the first step would be to bust up and clean out the negative thinking that is already there. Is this possible? Of course, it is.”

Carmen recommends that if you’re a super negative person and positive affirmations are just too much for you to tell yourself, start with neutral affirmations. She says:

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.”

She continues:

By introducing neutral statements, and making certain these statements are reality-based, your brain will not have to deal with the confrontation and the triggering of bad feelings in order 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. This neutral path provides sturdier footing for positive thinking to begin to tread lightly upon.

If you’ve tried positive affirmations to manifest destiny and they didn’t work, give neutral affirmations a try first, and let me know if that pizza tastes better.

7. You’re Not Actually Doing Anything

Someone made me watch a DVD of The Secret several years ago and while I found it mostly harmless I had two problems with it; 1) I don’t trust men in light-colored suits, and 2) the DVD seemed to peddle the idea that if you simply think about what you want, a “law of attraction” will magically bring it to you. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall any mention of actually DOING ANYTHING.

Yes, part of the point of positive affirmations is they’re supposed to make it easier for you to change your behaviors, almost as though you weren’t trying at all, but maybe you’re really, really good at making sure that no matter how many positive affirmations you say, you never actually change your behavior.

What to do instead: As the Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.” Or as my dad told me when I was young, if you fail to plan you plan to fail. The point of affirmations isn’t that they do all the work for you, rather they help you change your behavior to get better results. Affirmations should be accompanies by goals, plans, programs, schedules, and other tools that will help make those affirmations reality.

What Next?

I just wrote a new blog post on how to find your true self using affirmations. Read How 15 Positive Affirmations Can Change Your Life and get a template on how to create affirmations that work.

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