I wake up this morning 6 minutes before my alarm clock goes off. I do not open my eyes and pretend to be asleep. For whom, I don’t know. Maybe if I look like I’m asleep, another work day won’t come knocking. 6 minutes. “Every second counts,” they tell me. Decisions. Decisions. Do I scroll through Instagram, stare at the ceiling, or do my breathing exercises and positive affirmations? Anyways…
Do those even work???
Do positive affirmations really work? Well, according to neuroscientists, it depends. Whether or not positive affirmations are effective primarily relies on two things: (1) the individual’s willingness to self-reflect and revisit personal values and (2) the individual's willingness to align behavior with these values (Cascio; O’Donnel; Tinney, 2016). At first glance, it may sound challenging. But, in reality, it’s just about discovering what’s important to you, making moves, and telling yourself daily that you are worthy and capable enough to do so. To better explain, here are five steps to creating positive affirmations that truly work.
1. Find core values and reflect on them (What do you want, what is important to you, and why?)
Coverphoto cred: Daily Californian
If self-affirmations are meant to affirm one’s self-worth, we must first understand what worth means to us (i.e what do we deem to be valuable?). “By reflecting on core values, we’re better able to see ourselves and what we truly want"(Cascio; O’Donnel; Tinney, 2016. In the midst of social media and the pressure to conform, this can be difficult sometimes. So remember, core values are different for everyone. They can range from hard work and ambition to creativity and adventurousness. It’s all about your worldview, what matters to you, and who you would ultimately like to be.
So, how do we discover this? First, start with discovering or revisiting your core values. “Core values can give individuals a broader view of the self. Core values allow individuals to move beyond specific threats to self-integrity or self-competence.”(Cascio; O’Donnel; Tinney, 2016)
More simply, core values help you see yourself and stand strong in who you are despite adversity, toxicity, or negativity.
2. Align behavior with those values.
Once you’ve gained awareness of your core values, it then becomes easier to move with intention and toward the things you want in life. Likewise, in the journal of social cognitive and affective neuroscience, researchers explain how a lack of self-awareness makes it very difficult to change one’s behavior(Cascio; O’Donnel; Tinney, 2016). Basically, it’s more difficult to change habits if you don’t reflect on them.
Given that, many people report feeling no change in confidence or sense of direction after repeating an affirmation. And likewise, they see no change in their behavior or decisions upon saying positive affirmations. As mentioned before, finding out one’s motives is the foundation of purposeful action. For example, change is a purposeful action. So, if you speak a positive affirmation like “I am capable,” it’s very helpful to know what you want to be capable of and why. Once you have this in the back of your mind, you have direction, and you can think about the steps you want to take in the pursuit of happiness.
So yes, self-affirmations help us make moves, but we have to know our destination first.
3. Reward behavior that is aligned with your values
When you take steps that align with your core values, reward yourself. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to buy something, it just means that you should acknowledge and applaud yourself. Every step you take towards a core value deserves to be celebrated. Doing this actually helps you remain consistent. So for example, if you’ve been trying to be more confident, and you took the step to buy that dress, you can tell yourself, “I am confident.”
When you affirm yourself after a positive action, your mental reward centers go off and your brain is incentivized to do it again. Researchers state, “affirmations may increase focus on sources of positive value to individuals. Successful “self-affirmation interventions often rely on individuals reflecting on personal core values and rewarding experiences. This creates a that engages neural mechanisms associated with reward and positive valuation. A recent meta-analysis demonstrates that brain regions most prominently involved in reward and positive valuation include the ventral striatum (VS) and ventral medial prefrontal cortex”(Shintaro, 2017).
“Moreover, the most important function of the prefrontal cortex is the executive function. The prefrontal cortex performs a variety of executive functions and, decision-making is one of the most important” (Cascio; O’Donnel; Tinney, 2016)
So, when you affirm or even compliment yourself after a new and positive decision or step, you are actively changing the way you make decisions.
4. Verbally affirm that you are capable of your values
Photo cred: istock
Have you ever tried to take a step in a new direction, and perhaps things didn’t go as planned? Did you end up feeling like “Okay, never again.” This is why it’s important to build yourself and your mental state up to prepare for change. This, affirmations are a great tool for building the self. “Self-affirmations may allow for more efficient use of psychological resources needed to deal with the incoming threats. This has been demonstrated in studies that examine the success of self-affirmation interventions in counteracting manipulations,” situations, and thoughts that might deplete self-esteem(Cascio; O’Donnel; Tinney, 2016).
More simply, through knowing who we are, we’re able to better withstand external or internal threats to our self esteem. So, mentally revisit positive times where you felt aligned with your values, and use those memories to verbally affirm yourself repeatedly long before you’re faced with a high-pressure situation or a big change.
“Once again, self-worth is the internal sense of being good enough and worthy of love and belonging from others. Self-worth is often confused with self-esteem, which relies on external factors such as successes and achievements to define worth and can often be inconsistent leading to someone struggling with feeling worthy” (Neff, 2009).
Likewise, chastising, criticizing, and reprimanding yourself won’t make you more likely to repeat an action or “do better.” On the contrary, it might make you less likely to repeat the action. So, if self-critical thoughts are an area of concern, “self-compassion is a wonderful place to start. Self-compassion is the ability to be kind to yourself and actually say and do kind things towards ourselves the same way we would a good friend versus being self-critical.” Ultimately, acquiring self-compassion as a core valueprotects “overall psychological wellbeing”(Cascio; O’Donnel; Tinney, 2016). Affirmations are a great way to express self-compassion. “Self-affirmations are successful because a person’s overall perspective and reduce the effect of negative emotions. So essentially, they help us see the big picture instead of just one moment of time, and they help us cope better with negative emotions”(Neff, 2009).
So yes, decisions are important. However, our decisions need to make sense to us and align with our core values. Self-discovery is not a race, and while every second counts, so does every step, no matter the time it takes.
Cascio; O’Donnel; Tinney. “Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation.”The journal of social cognitive and affective neuroscience. April 2016.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4814782/
Funahashi, Shintaro. Prefrontal Contribution to Decision-Making under Free-Choice Conditions. Frontiers in Neuroscience Journal. June 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5526964/#:~:text=The%20most%20important%20function%20of,one%20of%20the%20most%20important
Neff, Kristin. The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself. Journal of Human Development. Oxford University Press. June 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2790748/