How you should be using affirmations
The person generally credited with the discovery (or development) of affirmations was Emil Coué, a Frenchman who graduated with a degree in pharmacology in 1876 and worked as an apothecary from 1882 to 1910. Coué studied hypnosis but was interested in the power of suggestion and how it worked both in and out of trance. He began praising the some of the medicines he was dispensing or leaving small positive notes in medicine packets for some of his patients to find. He discovered that those who received these messages improved more than those who did not.
This led Coué to believe that although the effects of medication were primarily physical, they could be improved by the patient’s state of mind or attitude. He suggested that replacing ‘thoughts of illness’ with ‘thoughts of cure’ would help people to feel better and that repeating positive thoughts over time would encourage the mind to accept them as true.
Coué called his method ‘auto-suggestion’, and asked his patients to repeat his suggested affirmation – day by day in every way I am getting better and better – 20 times each morning and each evening. It needed to be repeated softly but with faith until it came to be fully accepted.
Until recently there has been little evidence to show a specific psychological mechanism by which affirmations might work, other than perhaps placebo effect. However, there is now some, kindly gathered together by Affirmative Thinking, who suggest that neuroplasticity is the answer - our experiences make physical changes in our brains, which shape our thinking. But even without this, if repeating negative thoughts, such as 'I am never good enough' or 'I can’t' makes you feel bad, it seems reasonable to assume that repeating positive ones will help you feel better. Anecdotal evidence and hundreds of self-help books demonstrate that many people find affirmations helpful.
What should my affirmations be about?
- Make a list of things you’d like to change in your life
- Write out the negative thoughts that get in the way of you changing them
- Create affirmations that undermine and oppose those negative thoughts, and focus you on the solutions
So if you want to quit smoking but worry that you'll fail because you have in the past, use something like 'I have all the courage, determination and willpower I need to quit for good'.
You need to put some thought into your affirmation and make sure it
- is in the present tense ('I am a strong, confident person' rather than 'I will be a strong, confident person')
- uses simple language ('I feel confident wherever I go' and not 'I generalise my developing positivism into a multiplicity of environments')
- focuses on positive rather than negative goals ('I am a happy, healthy non-smoker' instead of 'I don’t smoke any more')
- is short – the best affirmations are usually down to one phrase or sentence
- is possible (consistently repeating ‘I am confident that I am capable of flight’ will not allow you to actually fly)
There are many different ways of working with affirmations, and you may not want to repeat yours a total of 40 times a day as Coué's patients were asked to.
The method I like best is the ‘mirror technique’ which first appeared in the ‘The Magic of Believing’ by Claude Bristol and has also appeared in other self-help books such as ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ by Louise Hay.
Stand in front of a mirror, look directly into your own eyes and repeat your affirmation. Speak the affirmation aloud - quietly but firmly. It’s important to say your affirmation with expression, as if you already believed it. Napoleon Hill, a pioneer of self-help literature, said that ‘the mere reading of the words is of no consequence - unless you mix emotion, or feeling with your words’.
I ask clients to do this five times every morning and evening, usually when brushing their teeth. Louise Hay suggests that you should stop and repeat your affirmation a few times whenever you pass in front of a reflective surface.
Reinforcing your affirmation
Put your affirmation where you will see and hear it regularly:
- on your computer screen saver
- on the cover of your phone, notepad or diary
- on post-it notes around the house
- on a home-made mobile phone ring-tone
Be creative and if you think of other places, let me know, I’ll add them to this article.
- Consider hypnotherapy to help you work through any issues that are getting in the way of believing your affirmation.
- If you find it too difficult or embarrassing to say your affirmation as if you mean it, it may be too far from what you think of as truth now for you to use it effectively. Try making a series of affirmations getting progressively closer to your goal. Use each one for a while, until you notice a change in attitude, then go on to the next. For example
- I choose healthier foods and portions every day
- I eat what my body needs and no more
- I am a slim and healthy person
- If you have lots of different goals, work with one at a time, so as not to confuse your unconscious mind with conflicting demands. Once you have reached your goal with one, move on to the next one.
- Persevere, it can take two or three weeks before you notice a difference.
Debbie Waller is a professional hypnotherapist, specialising in stress, anxiety and related issues. She also offers EMDR which is used for trauma, PTSD, phobias and OCD and publishes hypnotherapy-for-ibs.co.uk for those interested in using hypnotherapy to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
Debbie owns a multi-accredited hypnotherapy school, Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training and offers further training for qualified therapists via CPD Expert. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words, editor and contributor to the online magazine Hypnotherapy Training & Practitioner, and co-author of The Hypnotherapy Handbook.
For more information on any of these services, phone 01977 678593.
Researcher & drafter: Rachel Waller.