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  • Writer's pictureReflective Resources

A is for Affirmations

Updated: Nov 25, 2022

Affirmations are our mental vitamins, providing the supplementary positive thoughts we need to balance the barrage of negative events and thoughts we experience daily” Tia Walker

It was this quote that really made me think again and take a second look at affirmations after having not been terribly comfortable with the various ideas presented in some popular books that I had read on the subject in the past.

I liked the idea in principle but I wasn’t convinced or didn’t ‘gel’ with any of the explanations and sample affirmations that I came across until I came across the book ‘The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari’ by Robin Sharma and then stumbled upon a clear explanation by psychotherapist and writer Lee McKay Doe on the subject in which she explained the difference between positive affirmations (toxic positivity) and authentic affirmations. The nagging doubts I had had, and the thing that I couldn’t quite put my finger upon were explained and illuminated clearly.

Lee McKay Doe uses five rules to define an (authentic) affirmation i.e.:

It must be believable to you – because inauthenticity creates dissonance. If our affirmations are not authentic then it will set up a dissonance in our lives, causing stress and we could end up feeling worse than before as the words we repeat do not match up with the feelings we are experiencing. We become in-congruent with ourselves when our insides do not match up with what is going on on the outside. We can then get caught up in a downward spiral as we start to put on a mask to cover this disparity and our authenticity and integrity suffers.

It isn't absolute – black and white thinking is removed.

"Wisdom lies neither in fixity nor in change, but in the dialectic between the two." Octavio Paz

It doesn't rely on prescriptive repetition. Authentic affirmations can be used whenever and in whatever way feels good to you.

It can change over time

“Your brain is a relentless shape-shifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry — and because your experiences are unique, so are the vast detailed patterns in your neural networks. Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target; it never reaches an end point.” David Eagleman

It should encourage, not demoralise.

The word affirmation comes from the Latin affirmare, which means 'to strengthen and make steady. I have now become persuaded that affirmations (positive phrases or statements ) can play an important role in our sense of self which is supported by the fact that there is scientific evidence to show that authentic affirmations can help our general sense of well-being.

Affirmations are a useful tool to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts and can be used for a variety of purposes; for self-motivation or encouragement, to boost self-esteem or simply as daily reminders of our values and the way we want to live. Also if we want to be able to live in a way that reflects our ‘better’ self, it seems to me that we have to learn to become our own best friend as after all we have to live with ourselves all our life.

You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens” Louise Hay

To create our own unique, authentic affirmations it is necessary to be self-effacing and take an honest but empathetic look at our individual strengths and weaknesses; be understanding of our fears and self-limiting beliefs but creating hope for ourselves through gentle reminders that we are worthy of unconditional positive regard without judgement and without criticism regardless of where we are now.

“An Authentic Affirmation acknowledges where you are right now, while providing space for possibilities. It offers a viewpoint that is attainable and based in reality. It meets your cynical side with honesty but is not about being so realistic that you become pessimistic.”

Lee McKay Doe

It is crucial to spend time thinking about the way that we talk to (and about) ourselves and the words that we use.

Negative self-talk and negative affirmation can keep you anchored in old thought patterns and identities.” Bryant McGill

We all want to feel good about ourselves so any perceived threat to our abilities or sense of worth creates stress, our self-protective defences go up, creating resistance which in turn can affect our performance, our ability to flourish and grow and our general self-esteem.

In times like these, self-affirmation practices can help by activating brain systems associated with self-related processing, reward and positive valuation. It allows us to step back and see other perspectives and the bigger picture. Self-affirmations, based on core personal values, effectively bring about a more expansive view of ourselves and resources (strengths) we have and therefore weakens the implications of any perceived threat for personal integrity

Affirmations encourage us by meeting three essential human needs: a need for hope, a need for (self) connection by validating our emotions with unconditional positive regard and finally a need for accomplishment. (Maslow’s theory on human needs states that growth doesn’t stem from a lack of something, but from a desire to evolve and by acknowledging every small ‘win’ it helps us to build our self-esteem.)

Affirmations are designed to encourage an optimistic mindset which in turn reduces negative thoughts. When we are able to replace negative phrases with positive statements, it helps to construct more adaptive, hopeful narratives about who we are and what we can accomplish.

Rather than negative words and phrases when we get something wrong, forget something, etc think what a difference it could make if we re-framed our words to ourselves in a more positive way.

Eg ‘You are clumsy ’ could be re-framed to ‘ I will need to pay more attention to what I am doing’/ ‘I must slow down in future’ or ‘I was doing my very best, and so that’s ok’.

Affirmations encourage us by meeting three essential human needs: a need for hope, a need for (self) connection by validating our emotions with unconditional positive regard and finally a need for accomplishment. (Maslow’s theory on human needs states that growth doesn’t stem from a lack of something, but from a desire to evolve and by acknowledging every small ‘win’ it helps us to build our self-esteem.)

Affirmations are designed to encourage an optimistic mindset which in turn reduces negative thoughts. When we are able to replace negative phrases with positive statements, it helps to construct more adaptive, hopeful narratives about who we are and what we can accomplish.

Words are the most powerful thing in the universe... Words are containers. They contain faith, or fear, and they produce after their kind” Charles Capps

The words we use can change how our brain and body functions. Our brain's structure and capacity are not fixed so every experience, every conversation every word we speak (particularly repeatedly) is able to change our brain’s structure. In essence, affirmations are simply positive phrases or statements (self-talk) used to counteract negative or unhelpful thoughts which are then used to create more positive neural pathways.

We already accept that the brain is powerful, but think about this sentence for a few moments as it opens up so much potential and possibilities:

“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain”.

Santiago Ramon Y Cajal

The words we think about and use shape our feelings, actions, personality and can touch almost all aspects of our life.

Every time you speak, you are either building up yourself for the better or you are limiting yourself for the worse. Words carry power, therefore before you speak out, speak in... and test your words!” Israelmore Ayivor

Our words will influence how others see us and can alter how we see the world. Self-affirmations affirm one’s self-worth, and often come after reflection about our core values; this may help give a broader view of the self and in turn strengthen one’s self-integrity so one is less affected by events.

One of the key psychological theories behind positive affirmations is ‘self-affirmation theory’ which has three key ideas.

First, through self-affirmation, we keep up a global narrative about ourselves and create our self-identity. In this narrative, we are flexible, moral, and capable of adapting to different circumstances.

Secondly, self-affirmation theory argues that maintaining self-identity is not about being exceptional, perfect, or excellent rather, we just need to be competent and adequate in different areas that we personally value in order to be moral, flexible, and good

Thirdly we maintain self-integrity by acting in ways that authentically merit acknowledgment and praise.

The development of self-affirmation theory has led to neuro-scientific research aimed at investigating whether we can see any changes in the brain when we use positive self-talk

People seek to maintain a positive self-view and when this is threatened it is met with resistance (Sherman, D.K., Cohen, G.L. (2006). The psychology of self defense: self-affirmation theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 183 ). Self-affirmations have benefits across a variety of situations; decreasing stress, increasing well being, improving academic performance and making people more open to behavioural change.

Researchers have started to uncover what goes on in our brains when we use positive self-affirmations by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The researchers found that self-affirmation activates the reward centres in the brain; the ventral striatum (VS) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC).

Affirmation takes advantage of our reward circuits, which can be quite powerful... Many studies have shown that these circuits can do things like dampen pain and help us maintain balance in the face of threats.” Christopher Cascio

The study also found that self-affirmation increases activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate (PCC), areas of the brain connected to self-related processing which acts as a kind of emotional buffer to any painful or negative information.

A study entitled “Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation” led by Christopher Cascio with Professor Emily Falk also revealed how the brain also focuses on differences in the past versus future orientated self-affirmations, which has not been a main focus of self-affirmation research in the past. In each of these brain regions identified in the study, the effects of self-affirmation were stronger when participants thought about a future orientation versus the past.

Once persuaded of the importance of affirmations, my next step was to find a set of affirmations that were meaningful to me. After some deliberation, I decided to approach it by reflecting on my values and the type of person I would like to be (i.e. the best version of me) and how I would like other people to remember me after I had died, but by building in an acknowledgment of where I am now and then modifying them as I (hopefully) change and grow.

Next I worked out a system to remember the 10 phrases I had decided upon (simply by linking them to my fingers).I make it a point to go through the affirmations as soon as I am consciously awake and again when I go to sleep and then at other points during the day eg in the shower, when swimming, walking, driving etc or if I feel myself becoming stressed or even simply in combination with a breathing exercise as a way of changing my mindset in between doing different tasks or in complicated situations.

It is clear that the way we phrase the positive affirmations we create and use is very important; they have to ring true and be phrased in a way that is authentic and ties up with our values and where we are at that moment in time. If we chant phrases which seem fake because they don’t line up with how we see actually see ourselves at present it will create a dissonance and cause a lot of stress and pressure.

So once we have reflected upon our values, how do we create a set of affirmations that we can use to anchor ourselves that are not only positive but authentic too?

When reflecting on affirmations to use yourself be sure to ensure that they are valid and authentic.

“If you want to change the way you feel about yourself, first you have to change the way you think about yourself.” Gavin Bird

We can have thousands of thoughts every day, therefore it seems obvious that if our thoughts and words are negative we will see ourselves and the world differently to those who use positive words and language more. By changing the self-talk we use, we can change our perception of ourselves and the world in general.

Here are some examples of the difference between positive and authentic affirmations


‘I believe in myself’ (positive affirmation) versus ‘I often have moments of self-doubt but I will keep moving forwards’(authentic affirmation)

Here are some others:

‘I am kind’ versus

‘I struggle with seeing myself as kind but I try to help others when and where I can’

‘I' m beginning to see myself as a kind person and am consciously looking for opportunities to practise kindness’

‘I love myself’ versus

‘Even when I struggle to love myself, I can pay attention to my needs’

‘I am learning to love myself’ through self-care and boundaries

‘I am learning to accept both by weaknesses and strengths’

‘Today is going to be a great day’ versus

‘I can accept today for what it is and will acknowledge both the ups and downs’

'I allow myself to be receptive to all the opportunities of today'

‘I am fearless’ versus

‘I am aware of my fears and I can choose when to face them’

‘I recognise that fear is not intrinsically bad and can be useful to protect me so I am developing the wisdom to distinguish when it is appropriate to listen to my fears and when it is safe to work through them'

‘I am free of worry and regret’ versus ‘I acknowledge my worries and regrets without feeling guilty for having them’

‘I choose to be happy’ versus ‘I don’t feel able to choose my emotions, but I can consciously and intentionally open myself to more opportunities to experience joy and happiness’

‘I choose to release the past now’ versus ‘I am working on healing wounds from the past and will give myself space for this’

'I choose to see the mistakes of my past as stepping stones for learning and as tools for my present'

Further reading and discussion has also shown me that affirmations don't need to be carefully crafted to be effective though and short simple authentic phrases can be used at the 'drop of a hat' to speak kindly to ourselves when we are struggling or simply to start our day off on the 'right foot'.

e.g. 'I am more than my achievements and productivity'

'I open myself to the opportunities of this day'

'I recognise that my thoughts and actions create my life'

'I choose to recognise my progress and the things that I am learning along the way'

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway on the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives” Henry David Thoreau

Our thoughts create our world – consciously and subconsciously.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.” Henry Ford

It is important therefore to pay attention to our thoughts and to talk to ourselves in a positive, yet authentic manner; in so doing we can be an be an encouragement to others.

“Every thought is either an investment or a cost” T Harv Eker

Our beliefs, our thoughts and our words will have an effect on our brains - positive or negative. They shape both our perception and experience of ourselves and the world around us so it is important to make constructive, intentional choices to build ourselves (and others) up if we want to feel confident, happy and to have better connections with ourselves and others.

Some questions to think about/or discuss below:

What are your thoughts on affirmations?

Do they help you? How do you use them?

What made you decide to use affirmations?

Do your affirmations change and evolve as you incorporate new information, perspectives and your understanding grows or do they remain static?

When you invest in yourself, you have instant credibility with your biggest! As soon as you let doubt creep in -you lose that investment. Make a daily commitment to assess your worth with positive affirmations and watch your investment grow.” C.Toni Graham

If you are interested in the science behind positive affirmations here are a few links to get you started:

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