Why Affirmations Don’t Always Work & How to Make Them More Effective

Why don’t affirmations work? How can you make positive statements more effective? Here’s the psychology of affirmations and practical tips.

When my spiritual journey first started, I didn’t understand what the fuss was about saying positive things to myself. For one, I didn’t truly believe what I was saying as much as I wanted to, and I eventually gave up trying because I wasn’t seeing results. Fast forward to today, understanding a lot more about the complexity of the mind and how much influence language has on us, positive affirmations have become integral in my practice.

What was that understanding that helped me make my affirmations more effective? Let’s explore that through this post. And before I unpack that, let’s take a hot second to answer the fundamental question – what even are affirmations?!

The word “affirm” means to offer someone emotional support, assurance or encouragement. Positive statements that are helpful in empowering someone (including yourself) are called affirmations. And it’s become an increasingly popular spiritual tool to use affirming statements when dialoguing with ourselves. For example, “I’m a hard-working person and it’s okay if I don’t work all the time. I’m allowed to rest.

Wait… So what’s so special about affirmations?

In essence, these statements are super straightforward but can be hard to accept about ourselves if the conditioning we’ve grown up with made us believe otherwise.

Though affirmations alone can’t heal us, they are foundational in healing our relationship with ourselves. I find that when the appropriate positive statements are regularly repeated and reinforced in conjunction with the tips I share below, it can really help us create a new vocabulary and transform how we speak about ourselves.

So how can you experience the transformational effect of affirmations?

1) First, let’s understand why affirmations don’t always work.

Affirmations don’t always work because the mental plane isn’t the only place where our limiting beliefs are stored. It’s not as simple as saying “positive thoughts” to ourselves.

Our pain is also stored in the physical body because when a tragic event first happened, it was too much for us to process. We never really let the energy “move through”us because the way it made us feel was just too much! And rarely were we taught how to explore these uncomfortable feelings and sensations.

So, the survival brain decided to store the pain away (in the form of a faint memory or sensation in the body) order to cope with life. And not only did our system store away unresolved energy it also created takeaways from the event.

These takeaways might be misunderstandings about ourselves, like “my father yelled at me because I am not smart enough, and so, I should always keep quiet when someone smarter is speaking“.

upset little boy looking at faceless father during argument

Your mind and body may choose to shut “off” the incident because it must have hurt so much to experience that. But you might still “unconsciously” act out of the belief that you’re not smart enough by going blank in interviews or feeling insecure around friends that seem to be smarter than you are. This phenomenon is called priming.

Note that all of this happens without us really “choosing” to do it as such. But it’s more like a survival mechanism that our system automatically moved to in response to an external threat.

So in this case, if you keep telling yourself that you’re smart, it’s not going to land because there’s something deeper that’s not freed up yet. It’s like trying to put a bandage on a broken foot; you’re only working at the surface and not going to the real roots.

What should you do when an affirmation isn’t working for you?

Notice the affirmations that don’t work and explore deeper why they don’t land. Some questions you can reflect on are:

What is the backstory that conflicts with this affirmation?

How can you rewire your system to release that outdated story and build a relevant, more expansive narrative?

You can also work on reparenting your inner child by telling your younger version the “truth”. Help yourself upgrade the misconceptions that still made you believe that you weren’t adequate in some way.

2) Your affirmations need to be believable, not perfect.

I love how accessible affirmation lists are on the internet at this point. But given the complexity of your past, they may not be a fit for you where you’re at in your healing journey.

For instance, sticking with the initial example, instead of telling yourself “I am smart“, you can find something more believable to you, like:

“I am smart in my own ways.”
“How smart I am has nothing to do with how lovable I am.”
“Every day, I am becoming smarter in areas that interest me.”
I am open to learning something new, and that helps me become smarter.”
“It’s okay if I don’t know the answer, I can find it out later.”

positive affirmations

I also love what my mentor, Alyssa Nobriga says, “affirmations should be at least 50% believable for them to land”.

How can you tell if an affirmation isn’t right for you?

Tune into your body and sense if the statement makes you feel expansive or contracted. If there’s contraction, piggybacking from the first point, use it as feedback that there’s something deeper to heal first. And then, reword your statement to be more believable.

3) Affirmations have a lot to do with your state of mind.

When you’re angry or caught up in any other overwhelming emotions, you may have noticed that it’s harder to understand what someone else is saying.

anger makes it harder for affirmations to stuck, couple arguiing

This is because your mind and body are outside their window of tolerance – your primal brain has taken over and you’ve gone into survival mode. It is either preparing to fight, flee or freeze. It’s only possible to take in information once your cognitive, more evolved brain gets back online and you’re in a calmer state.

In a similar fashion, even if you’re not angry or outside your window of tolerance, you may still be overusing that same cognitive, left brain which was helpful a while back. Overusing it can in one word be described as overthinking.

So if you’re an over-thinker, when saying affirmations, your cognitive brain might interfere in the process if the positive statement doesn’t have enough evidence of bring true based on your current reality.

So, what can you do? To make an affirmation more effective, you want to be able to engage the subconscious or right brain in the process too. You want imagination and possibility to kick in.

I typically recommend that people practice their affirmations after or during a deep meditative state, where the mind isn’t limited to what’s already happened but has also stepped into visualizing what’s possible.

affirmations work better with meditation

To make affirmations even better for yourself, you can visualize the image that comes for you when you say those words about yourself.

So for instance, keeping with the example we’ve had so far, whenever you acknowledge your smartness, you can visualize yourself sharing something intellectual with a group of people that really appreciate your intelligence.

Another great tool for you to be able to switch out of the activated mind and enter a calmer state, is to engage in a 2-minute pity party. This is a practice I often recommend to help people build more emotional resilience by giving voice to the parts of their system that aren’t happy, which automatically creates more space and receptivity to the parts that want to embrace a more positive outlook.

Continuing along the same theme, there’s also a lot of great research and evidence provided by Dr Joseph Murphy in his book, Power of the Subconscious Mind, which elaborates on why saying affirmations before you go to bed gives them a greater chance of becoming a lived experience.

4) Positive statements are not just for your mind; they’re just as important for your body.

In the beginning, we explored how we tend to store the unresolved memories of our past in the mind and the body. So, in order to truly heal, we want to be able to share the new vocabulary with both the mind and the body.

In other words, we want to say affirmations out loud. This is so that your nervous system and physical body have a better chance to integrate the new belief.

Pro tip: If you want to take affirmations up a notch, start saying them in the mirror. Be the friend you need, tell yourself the truth.

say positive affirmations in the mirror for more effect

You are worthy of love, wellbeing, and abundance.
It’s more than okay for you to make mistakes.
Your needs are not too much, they’re just right.

Again, maybe some of these statements above might trigger some people. This is why, I want to reemphasize on taking it slow, and being gentle with yourself. Say only that which is believable enough for you.

Concluding Thoughts

In true essence, affirming statements are the truths that we all deserve to hear about ourselves but may have never had the fortune of hearing. These then become an invitation for us to be deeply compassionate with ourselves and to give us whatever our mind and body have been waiting for, for so long!

Have any questions for me about integrating affirmations in your spiritual practice, or tips that you’d like to add for other readers? I’d love to hear more from you in the comments below.

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