Self-Affirmations That Actually Work

When I was in high school, one of our teachers (who doubled as a guidance couselor) was insistent on drilling us into habits of self-affirmation. The problem was, her idea of self-affirmation was to repeat something that wasn’t actually true, in the hope that it would become true by force of will. A typical example constructed for me (a shy and quiet type of dude at the time, I know that’s difficult to believe) was “I am an outgoing and likeable person.”

This might have fooled some of my less self-aware classmates, but as a humble and compulsively honest guy, I couldn’t get around the fact I was bullshitting myself. I wasn’t outgoing, and I had been drilled into all manner of betariffic traits that ensured a hard cap on my attractiveness and likeability. In this absurd schema, Stuart Smalley wasn’t a parody but an almost-literal stranger-than-fiction panoply.

Years later, I revisited the self-affirmation game, by accident. I was miserable in grad school bored one day and thinking about going to the gym for a workout. In an argument with myself, I remarked to no one in particular “you should go lift because you always feel great after you do it.”

Boom. I had found the secret to self-affirmations that actually work:

  • Finding an assertion that is already true (instead of one I wish were true)
  • Constructing an affirmation that uses that assertion to motivate my behavior

So now I can use this knowledge to self-modify my behavior, using past rewards as motivation:

“I’m going to work out now because I feel great after I do so.”

“I’m going to finish that post because it’s going to be awesome when I publish it and get comments from all of my adoring readers.”

“You should go to bed now instead of at 2am because it feels good to get an early start on the day.”

This strategy has been especially helpful when it comes to finishing that last 10% of any of the many projects I’ve undertaken.

A few weeks back, Fly Fresh and Young riffed on self-affirmations in his post “Pre-game tips for introverts and left-brained people.” It was surprising to me to learn that a guy of his skill in the party and pickup scenes is in fact a single-minded analytical personality with a tendency against socializing. His tips on warming up for a social gathering are manifold and strong, from avoiding mindless TV to skipping the Red Bull to watching an episode of Seinfeld (an old Roosh gem). It turns out he uses the same style of reward-motivation affirmations that I do.

8. Psyching myself up

“Hey, I’m going to go out and talk to people and it’s going to be awesome”

“You love talking to people and having a great time, so do it”

“Remember that one time you met all those people and how fun that was”

Stuff like that. Simple motivational shit that looks dumb on paper but makes me feel in a better mood when I think it. Conjures up positive, social thoughts.

Figure out a way to tie what you want to do with a reward you’ve already experienced; this binds your long-term, risky goals with short-term guaranteed good feelings, instead of “motivating” yourself with pretty lies and wish-I-woulds.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Self-Affirmations That Actually Work

  1. FFY

    Thanks for the shout out, Badger.

    I have also never been able to fool myself with false self affirmation. As a rational, logical person, trying to tell myself I am something I am not is impossible.

  2. We just don’t lend ourselves to snowflaking, I guess.

  3. Rock solid. I was taught to take this a step further and write them down and recite them until they are committed to memory. It really does help, though I haven’t done mine in a while. I probably need to

  4. dulst

    Self affirmation + intelligent use of reference experiences. The second part of that is what the self esteem movement entirely missed. This article was really helpful in bridging that gap.

  5. “As a rational, logical person, trying to tell myself I am something I am not is impossible.”

    So who told you who you were not? How do you know you are not that person buried under thoughts? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on knowing yourself (I’d be pretentious not to), but the question is whose standards are you using to determine confidence/coolness/etc?

    The reason why seemingly “false” affirmations don’t work is because they come without feeling. If one just repeats a phrase to himself “I am confident and good looking” then they are predisposed to view it as a contrary, false view.

    On the other hand, if one visualizes himself like so and gathers the requisite feelings he would feel in the state he is affirming, then the way he looks at himself will change, and reality will follow.

    I’m not a fan of doing affirmations for results though. It’s best to do them with the purpose of feeling better, so you know that your happiness is still truly within your control.

  6. Ed

    Thank you, that makes a lot of sense. People seem to mix up positive thinking and magical thinking.

  7. Candide

    PermanentGuest has a good point, Badger.

    My study into this is mostly related to sport psychology, not pickup, but the foundations are the same.

    When a powerlifter psyches up for a big lift in competition, saying out loud to himself that what’s on the bar is a “light weight”, or “warm up” weight, that is clearly false. However, it is the emotion that makes it work. The words don’t matter so much.

    I use a similar technique to psych myself up before lifting, playing sports, dance competition or socialising with people (including picking up women). You wouldn’t understand any word that comes out of my mouth though, and neither would I, for they are not real words. They’re more like scat singing. It’s the emotional state they put me in that I’m after.

    In dance performance, there is also something I call “method dancing” where the performer puts himself in the emotional state of the character portrayed in the song, so he could dance like that character. In many cases, that character is not “me”, but I can act like him for the duration of the performance. That’s a very simple version of what method actors go through. In fact, you all should look up method acting, because that covers what you’re talking about here and more.

  8. Interesting discussion. It sounds like we’re splitting the issue on motivating behavior (things we do) versus motivating frame (how we do things and how we project ourselves). Especially early in the game, there’s lots of “getting in character” a guy needs to do. I usually use the imperative mode for that, “be bold”/”be a leader” instead of “I am bold/I am a leader.”

    An aside: the working title for this post was “self-affirmations that aren’t complete bullshit.”

  9. dulst,

    Welcome.

    “The second part of that is what the self esteem movement entirely missed.”

    The self-esteem movement was based on the idea of esteem for its own sake, so it was overtly opposed to the idea of measuring oneself by previous performance.

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  14. If you look at your examples in the post you’ll notice a very important keyword: BECAUSE. I stumbled upon it some time ago when I was helping people rebuild their self-esteem. “Because” validates the affirmation to your mind. It gives justification for the affirmation which is then cemented into place with solid proof (the truth.)

    The formula: [Affirmation] because [Truth]

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