Why Positive Affirmations and Visualizations Don't Work and How to Fix It
Long before New Age, mainstream productions made them popular, affirmations and visualizations were used routinely in behavioral psychology to help people overcome crippling anxiety, enhance self-awareness, and overcome subconscious, self-sabotaging thought patterns and behaviors.
Unfortunately, when these topics went mainstream, they were over-simplified to make them palatable to the masses who are forever parting with their money in the quest for an easy fix or simple solution.
The results have been mixed. When people use them properly, these techniques inspire and change lives for the better. Unfortunately, when people don't use them properly, they don't work at all, and it can create or worsen a sense of despair or hopelessness. This is where “mumbo jumbo” in pretty packaging leads people astray, despite good intentions.
Affirmations Don't Work
You've heard the rhetoric. If you tell yourself something positive and repeat it numerous times daily, you will believe it and it will become your reality. In theory, this is true. The Law of Attraction that is all the rage is not a new thing. What we direct our energy towards manifests. This belief, however, has been way, way over-simplified in mainstream products.
The premise of affirmations is that you are changing how you think, thereby directing positive energy towards an intention. This is a good thing. It is the foundation for changing lives for the better.
This conscious level of intent is a spark; it ignites enthusiasm to take action. Without positive, constructive action, it doesn't matter how much you tell yourself something. If you fail at lighting the spark, the follow-through doesn't happen.
Why Your Affirmations Fail
If you start off immediately with a positive affirmation that you do not find believable, guess what happens?
The part of you that recognizes it as being untrue resists the message, sometimes passionately! Then, not only have you not “installed” the new mental programming, you're reinforcing old self-sabotaging thought patterns and making them stronger. Uh-oh!
Here is an example:
Martha is 80 pounds overweight. She struggles to breathe when she climbs a flight of stairs. Her health has increasingly become worse and she knows her actions over the years have caused this. Her problems not only surround her physical condition, but also the emotional reasons she turns to food, the guilt she feels afterwords, and how miserable she feels in her body. Then there are the mental thought processes that plague her with negative self-talk. She looks in the mirror and her inner critic screams things at her like “fat," “gross,” “ugly,” etc..
There are a whole lot of things going on with this scenario beyond just a need for Martha to get her weight under control. Over the years, she's developed many negative emotions, thoughts and habits that have sabotaged many areas of her life and self-esteem. This is something a simple positive mantra alone is not going to fix.
One day, while feeling a bit overwhelmed, Martha flips on a TV program where they talk in the most basic terms about affirmations and positive self-talk. She feels inspired by this and decides to give this a try, but all she has been exposed to is the over-simplified message of, “see what you want in your mind's eye and it will happen if you believe it strongly enough".
Feeling positive, she decides to write up some affirmations using the basic rules she's been taught: keep all the words positive and stay focused on what you want to see. Fair enough. She sits down and comes up with the following: “I am thin, healthy, and feel great in every way." This sounds like a good affirmation. It's positive, no negative words in it like “no” or “not." It embodies everything she wants to manifest. Martha sits down enthusiastically with the best of intentions, and reads her affirmation. Immediately, a part of her resists, even bristles.
Why isn't this working? Because the affirmation is not true. Her resistance to this message is much stronger than the energy she is putting into it and it is now another form of self-sabotage despite her best intentions.
The result? Nothing. She gets nowhere. In a week or two, if she bothers to persist, she'll see it's not working and will either give up hope and feel worse about herself or learn more about this process and how to make it actually work (hopefully).
How to Fix It
What Martha should have done all along was build herself up. Start with something believable. “Every day I am taking positive steps towards improving my health and self-image"—this is a good one. It's true at its base, because by simply practicing her affirmations she's doing just that. If she is also exercising, making better dietary choices, etc., this affirmation becomes immensely positive.
- it instills incentive
- provides motivation
- reinforces positive new behaviors and habits
This is what a good affirmation does.
Good affirmations are not lies we wish into being truths. They are truths we use to motivate ourselves to keep putting our best foot forward. As Martha progresses, she can use different affirmations.
Let's fast forward 3 months. Martha has dropped 20 pounds, she can jog a full mile and feel great, and people are starting to notice she has a glow and is looking and feeling better. At this point, the “I am thin and healthy” mantra is still not appropriate.
Yes, she's doing better, but she has 60 pounds to go and although she feels better than she has in years, she is still working through some health problems and has a long journey in front of her. A better mantra here might be, “Every day I continue to improve my health on all levels: mentally, emotionally and physically”.
This is true—everything she has been doing has boosted her confidence, given her more strength and vitality, and she feels like she can conquer anything. Again, this message is true, it reinforces her positive new habits and inspires the desire to keep going. That is what affirmations are for, not wishing things into existence.
Visualization and Vision Board Hype
Everyone has heard of the trendy “vision board” and using visualization to bring your dreams into reality. This, more than affirmations, has been oversimplified and can lead people astray, despite there being a base truth in it.
Once again, a vision board is a way to get your thoughts and ideas out into the open, to put energy behind them. This is what sparks motivation, planning, enthusiasm, and all the other good stuff that goes into setting and reaching goals.
As it is presented in some programs, it makes it sound like if you just visualize and focus hard enough, the universe will just drop your desire into your life. This isn't how life works. If you want something, you not only have to have a vision, but a good plan, dedication, and be willing to work for it.
An effective vision board can work well if you keep it in proper perspective.
My vision board doesn't only have images of my lofty dreams, it has lists of smaller goals to get me to my larger ones. It also contains papers with lists of things I've already done to move me towards them. When I look at my vision board, I don't just see pretty pictures of pipe dreams—I see a living, breathing expression of my inner desires that I am actively working toward.
A good vision board:
- helps you focus
- promotes creative thought
- provides encouragement
- keeps you motivated
- shows progress at a glance
That is how a vision board should work. It's more than just a pretty place to wish for things.
One aspect of visualization that does help people is to really get into the exercise. You must see yourself already having met your goal. As you do this, notice your surroundings, how you appear, how you feel, where you are, what you are doing etc.. This can help people who have no real distinct life goals to really get inspired.
Visualization promotes creative thinking. Perhaps as you visualize yourself in this scenario, you notice things you weren't expecting. Those are the things you want to write down and refer back to.
If you're just pinning pretty pictures and some positive quotations and daydreaming, your vision board is never going to work for you.
How to Fix It
The first step in positive visualization is to have a clear goal in mind. Many people will focus on “things” like money, rather than what they are actually after. It's not the paper money you want, but what it provides: security, stability, more freedom etc..
Rather than focus on the million bucks, direct your energy to discover how you would most like to earn that money. Since most of us aren't going to have winning lottery tickets dropped into our lap, the next and most logical choice is to focus on what you need to do to develop a stronger sense of security, stability, and balance in your life.
You might evaluate your current path and determine that you are in the wrong job, or even on the wrong career path altogether. You may decide that what you need to find the proper work/life balance and stability you desire is to freelance on your own, or to work in a different field or for a different company. From here, you can start to visualize.
Sit down, free from distractions and focus. Say to yourself, "I have the stability and security I want. Where am I? What am I doing?"
As you do this pay attention to what you see. Really put yourself into the situation and feel it like you're living it. It may not work the first few times you do it, but allow ideas to come and go freely.
Over time you'll see that you have inspirations that solve problems and from there you can develop your vision board and a plan!
Do this exercise as many times as it takes to have a clear vision in mind. It is not an instant process.
Vision boards should contain:
- one or two primary goals
- to do lists
- questions to research
Vision boards should be used not only to pin pictures and images, but also lists of things to do, lists of things you have done, and any sudden inspirations you get should be written down and placed immediately before you can forget them. It is often these brief lightbulb moments while showering that change lives.
Any other things that keep you focused on the goal you developed in your visualization can also be added, but don't clutter a vision board with everything under the sun; clutter leads to chaos.
Pick one or two primary goals at a time and keep adding to the board regularly. Keep your board in a prominent, but not a too prominent place. This way you remember to look at it regularly, but it isn't so “in your face” that you start to ignore it.
When you are patient with visualizations and take time to really dig into your vision boards and review them, you'll find that they inspire, encourage, and keep you on track. They're for more than just wishing; they are an actual tool that can help people reach more of their potential.
Transforming pain into power is a truly empowering self-help book. It explains why we naturally avoid pain, running from it or pretending it doesn't exist, and then shows you techniques for transforming pains and turning your struggles around so that you actually benefit from them. Thi book is a great read with fantastic reviews for good reason. It is a great tool for overcoming self-sabotage and for digging yourself out of bad behaviors and creating mindsets with a new perspective.
Using EFT with Affirmations
This video does a great job of sharing how to use a process called the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) along with affirmations to make them more effective while also combating frustration and anxiety at the same time.
Have affirmations and visualization practices worked for you?
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Christin Sander