If we talk to ourselves in a way that creates a clear and emotionally compelling picture of the behaviors we want to reinforce, it literally creates pathways in our brains to facilitate movement toward those behaviors. When used for this purpose, we call this “self-talk”, “affirmative reminders”, or “affirmations”. Affirmations are an important tool used in both our Connecting With Respect and Increasing Human Effectiveness training, due to the powerful impact they can have on helping individuals and organizations to support their values and achieve their goals.
An affirmation doesn’t just have to rely on words. It can be any collection of words, images or other sensory inputs that trigger the brain to practice or mentally rehearse a specific action or mode of being (such as curious).
What this means is that affirmations are essentially self-directed advertising campaigns. By designing and exposing yourself to sensory experiences (words, pictures, smells, sounds, textures, etc.) that “reward” your brain for imagining itself performing certain actions or behaviors, you’re doing two things. First, you’re increasing your motivation to actually perform the desired behavior in the future. Secondly, you’re actively practicing the behavior itself (albeit through your imagination) and actually getting better at it. Affirmations, when rehearsed consistently, give us the greatest tool possible for becoming whatever we desire. They give us authorship to write the script for truly becoming our best selves.
Designing your affirmations
Current studies in brain science combined with clinical research in cognitive science paint a very specific picture of what works (and what doesn’t). To most effectively design affirmations, we want to follow seven basic guidelines:
1. Write from a first-person vantage point
On this point, almost all practitioners agree. To be personally relevant, affirmations must include the use of “I” rather than detached or hypothetical third persons.
Additionally, we want to articulate the experience not as if we were watching ourselves in a video, but rather as if it were unfolding in front of our own eyes.
2. Always write in the present tense.
Behavior change is all about “fake it ‘til you make it”. Although we’re trying to trigger new behaviors in the future, we have to write about them as if they already were in place now. This creates a positive form of cognitive dissonance; a conflict for the brain (I’m not this way now), but does so by suggesting an option that is more attractive than the current reality. Writing affirmations in the present instead of the future tense does something else, as well. It causes the brain to much more reliably fire the associated neural pathway in your brain responsible for the physical behavior.
3. Describe specific, desired behaviors and outcomes.
A well written affirmation describes an intended future behavior, action or outcome so precisely that the brain has an easy roadmap to follow for recreating and practicing it. This means that we should be liberal with the use of adjectives and adverbs when describing the desired behavior. In some cases, it may be advantageous to use two or even three connected sentences.
Also, stick with words that describe the actual desired behaviors, not the behaviors you want to avoid. For example, if you wanted to develop greater patience when dealing with others who push your buttons, you might think that it would be reasonable to write something along the lines of “I do not lose my temper when I…”. The problem with this is that our brains immediately focus on and translate the action words (lose my temper) into pictures of the behavior that I’m actually trying to avoid. This causes the brain to fire the neural pathway that I’m trying to change, not the new one.
4. Make it aspirational by using language that connects to your values.
The best written affirmations are effective because they create two types of roadmaps for the brain; a behavioral one and an emotional one. Using language that links our affirmations to our aspirations to live in closer alignment with our core personal values supports the sensory triggers that engage both the reward circuits and other regions within the brain’s limbic system. Simply put, it builds emotional impetus and creates a sort of neural gravity that literally pulls us toward the new behavior.
5. Use descriptive language that details context or environment.
Similar to a previous step, the more details you can add about when and where your desired behaviors should be demonstrated, the better the roadmap you create for your brain. Challenge yourself to come up with descriptions that capture your desired mindset, non-verbal cues, specific meetings/routines, places, times of the day, or even specific individuals.
6. Use “learning curve” language and avoid absolutes.
Avoid using words like “always”, “never” and “every time” because they are absolute and can potentially trigger negative self-talk and feedback when we’re not perfect. Instead, use modifiers like “more and more”, “consistently” and “try my best”. While still moving us forward, these phrases take into consideration that we’re not perfect and allow us to get back on track quickly after setbacks.
7. Keep the process fun!
Affirmations only work when we look forward to reviewing them. As a final “lens” to look through while writing them, make sure that the overall tone that you’re setting is positive, upbeat, inspiring and even fun. Be on guard against wording that triggers guilt, drudgery or burden.
“More and more, I look forward to taking small breaks throughout the day to sit and talk with my employees about things that are important to them. Whether their concerns are personal or business related, letting them know that I see them as people first reminds me that we’re all on similar journeys.”
“With a smile on my face and pen in hand, I look forward to writing personal thank you notes to our clients each Friday. It gives me a tremendous sense of pride knowing that I’ve helped win their confidence as a valued business partner and sharing that appreciation with them further builds our relationship.”
“I am only one person, but even by myself, I am powerful enough to make a difference in the quality of other people’s lives. I consistently make the time do small things, like clean up after myself (and even after others when time permits). Whether it’s the office or my neighborhood, my goal is to leave our shared spaces attractive and beautiful for everyone to enjoy.”
Formatting and rehearsing your affirmations
In order for affirmations to work best, there are a set of guidelines that should be followed. Here is a brief overview:
1. Combine your affirmations with sensory cues (pictures, sounds, etc.)
First, write your affirmations on a 3×5 index card that you can carry with you during the day. Next, you’re going to enhance your words with visual inputs. Look for pictures that are personally meaningful and associated with strong, positive emotional memories. Begin clipping and taping pictures of your children, spouse, favorite vacations, nature scenes and even favorably remembered work events with colleagues all around the perimeter of the words on the index cards. Because the natural tendency is for our eyes to look at the pictures first, the images prime our reward circuits with “feel good” emotions prior to even reading the actual affirmative reminders.
The use of word processing and desktop publishing software has made it easier than ever to create graphically rich, emotionally inspiring affirmative reminders. As effective as this is already, newer technology is now putting the power of self-directed behavior change literally at our fingertips. Even the most basic smartphones now allow us to do much more. We can put reminders to review our ad campaign on our mobile calendars. We can even put the ads themselves, with pictures, on our smart devices. There are already many iPhone and Android apps offering basic platforms for designing and practicing affirmations and affirmative reminders. The myLegacy app offers the ability to integrate personal pictures, voices and music. For the very latest on this technology, visit: LegacyCultures.com/myLegacy.
2. Rehearse your affirmations
With your affirmation cards written, now it’s time to start using them. You will repeat this process 3-5 times daily, making sure to pick times of the day that provide the least amount of distractions.
- Focus on the pictures for a few seconds.
- Settle into the emotional zone that allows you to relax and focus.
- Connecting to the emotions you’ve triggered, read the affirmative reminder slowly. Allow your brain to vividly imagine yourself demonstrating the desired behavior(s). Include any relevant background elements, such as specific places, situations or events.
After reviewing your affirmations often enough, the imagined new behaviors you’ve been focusing on will begin to feel so natural that they become your real life. As a result, your confidence in your own ability to change increases and another powerful force begins to kick in. It’s the power of positive feedback.