The night before we dropped my daughter off for the start of her college freshman year, our family stayed at a trendy boutique hotel. In our room, instead of a bedside bible, there was a copy of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements.
While I’m a big fan of spiritual self-help books, my husband had never shown an interest. But a combo platter of our newly empty nest and other midlife pressures led him to thumb through it.
By the time we returned home, he owned a copy. And much to my surprise, he was so taken by its simple affirmations, like “don’t take anything personally” and “always do your best,” that he recorded himself reading them out loud so he could listen to them every morning on the way to work.
Turns out what my husband did instinctively — use positive affirmations to counteract negative thoughts — wasn’t a woo-woo move. It’s actually a neurologically sound way to shift your perspective and boost your resilience.
Science affirms affirmation
Unlike positive thinking, which seeks to do away with negativity completely (and largely fails), affirmations help build the mental muscle necessary to tackle challenges from a more positive place.
Just as we do repetitive physical exercise to get stronger, affirmations can be thoughts of as exercise for our mind/brain.
Positive self-talk is a research-backed method of scaling to the upper echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-esteem and self-actualization. Social scientist Claude Steele was the first to propose the theory of self-affirmation, where if people can feel relatively positive about themselves in one arena, they can better tolerate a threat to their self-integrity in another.
More recently, MRI evidence suggests neural pathways are increased when people practice self-affirmation. This provides a neurological basis for the idea that affirmations can help us develop a more optimistic way of looking at ourselves that persists.
Give yourself a good talking-to
With all due respect to Stuart Smalley, positive affirmations don’t have to be cringe-inducing to neutralize a negative internal dialogue. Creating or choosing realistically optimistic statements that speak to you is all it takes.
Dr. Schechter recommends selecting short, potent, actionable statements that come from a place of “I,” start in the present tense, and project a better future.
For example: “I can achieve [this goal] and be happier and more fulfilled, “ or “I have a benign condition; my body naturally heals.” If you need inspiration, the ThinkUp app provides affirmations to approach a variety of challenges and also to increase motivation, gratitude, and other positivity boosters.
Otherwise, get creative and put a personal spin on upbeat statements that resonate with you. Trust me — you really are good enough and smart enough to make positive self-talk a doggone effective daily habit.
Affirmations and Neuroplasticity (Psychology Today)