“Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”- James 2:17
In contemporary counseling, personal development, and self-help, positive thinking and affirmations are considered to be part of the process. Much has been written about the power of belief, expectation bias, the power of intention, and many other types of thinking that promise life changing results simply by changing the way we think. Undoubtedly, our thought processes play a huge role in the successes and failures in our lives, but there is certainly more to it than mere want-to.
I’m sure most of you are more than familiar with the power of positive thinking. The Power of Positive Thinking was actually the title of a well-known self-help book written by Norman Vincent Peale, a minister, author, and radio personality of the 1930s. He popularized the expression, the power of positive thinking, through his work as a Sunday host of a radio show. He, like many positive thinking advocates, made some pretty hefty claims about what positive thinking can do for us. Millions of people benefited from his thoughts, ideas, and teachings.
Affirmations are positive self statements made with the intention of changing harmful self talk and self beliefs. In and of themselves, they are beneficial, but in recent years the concept of how to use affirmations has changed. In 2006, a best selling book called “The Secret” came out and reinvented the way that most people think about and use affirmations. The book sold well, as there was a something for nothing mentality that the book implied. All one had to do was believe and wishes would be granted, attitudes would change, and you would soon be living the life of your dreams. The missing part of the equation, however, was good old fashion work.
Initially, positive thinking and affirmations do seem to work. Changing your thought processes from negativity to positivity quickly results in a change of attitude. A light goes on, one gets a wave of “yeah, I can do this,” and does feel differently. Using positive thinking and affirmation works…. until it doesn’t. Positive thinking and affirmations stop working when one’s goal exceeds one’s capacity to attain it. For example, if your goal is to drop 15 pounds for your 30th high school anniversary, your daughter’s wedding, or the beginning of track season, all the positive thinking in the world is not going to help unless you have a systematic plan of action to get that 15 pounds off of you. If your goal is to get a new job, you probably should begin to look for one. If you are hoping for a significant other with an “if it happens, it happens” attitude, then it probably ain’t going to happen. Positive thinking and affirmations work best when combined with a solid behavioral plan of action, A.K.A work.
In any process of goal attainment, there will be a point where doubt creeps in. We all know what that feels like. It’s that “this isn’t what I expected’ moment where rubber meets road, and men and boys, and women and girls get separated. This happens because positive thinking and affirmations can only have lasting utility if one works on the beliefs behind them. For example, that 15 pounds we talked about is more likely to be lost if affirmations and positive thinking are combined with a behavioral plan. Rather than repeating the mantra, “I will lose 15 pounds… I will lose 15 pounds..,” it makes more sense to repeat more realistic affirmations such as, “I will eat 2000 calories per day,” or “I will walk every day for 30 minutes at lunch.” Combining this more realistic mantra with some positive imagery and visualization will change your belief that it is possible.
People who gravitate towards positive thinking and affirmations usually don’t go into the process with a solid belief system in place. They are often people who have a tendency towards negative self talk. They usually are the kind of people who have an internal critic telling things like they’re not good enough, smart enough, good-looking enough, or worthy of success. They view a satisfying life as something that others have, and they’ll never have. When doubt creeps in to their plan of positive thinking and affirmations, they fold like a house of cards because it is simply what they do and how they react to a challenge. They can’t help it, their negative thinking is such a part of their world view.
So what is the corrective action here? How does one get to the point where they can utilize these techniques and reap the benefits of a more positive mindset? Here are some action steps:
1. Examine your beliefs about yourself. These are what we need to change. If you hold the same negative belief systems about your abilities, then when real life challenges your positive thinking you are likely to give up with an “I knew it!” type of response. Examining beliefs about yourself can be difficult and painful. It’s one of those things that you might want to do with a psychotherapist or coach, but it can be done alone if you can get yourself to be brutally honest. A pen and notebook are needed here, as seeing these negative beliefs in writing can be an eye-opener. You must work to improve your self image if you are going to be able to maintain positivity in multiple areas of life. You probably have some areas where you do feel competent, and others not so much. Examine the self talk that you have in areas of competence, and compare it to self talk in areas where you do not. What’s the difference? Identify ways, in writing, that you can realistically change the negative areas. Review this list at least two times per day, morning and evening, and consciously work to improve the negative areas.
2. Set realistic goals. Goals should be just slightly out of your comfort zone, not goals that are insurmountable. Here is where most affirmations and positive thinking fail. Accomplishing a goal that was slightly uncomfortable creates a higher baseline from which to work. For example, if your goal was to land your dream job then breaking that down into a plan of action is more realistic. Start with a subgoal of obtaining three interviews in the field in which you want to work. Focusing on subgoals slowly but surely increases your confidence that the perfect job is attainable. Set realistic time frames. If you just graduated from college, then that six figure dream job is going to take time to obtain. Setting yourself up for a series of smaller successes increases and grows your sense of confidence, making positive thinking and affirmations more useful. Use the search box and categories section to the right of this post to learn more about useful methods for goal setting. Use the SMARTER goals method, and adjust quite frequently as needed. If you are not getting the results you’re looking for, don’t change the goal, change the strategy to get there. This process is where positive thinking and affirmations will become useful tools.
3. Action, Action, Action! Actions do in fact speak louder than words. Noticing your successes, recording and writing them out creates lasting change. Beliefs aren’t real, actions are. Without taking action you will know, on some level, that affirmations and positive self talk are merely trying to fool yourself. Notice the action steps that you take towards your goals. Create affirmations and positive self talk along the way to attaining subgoals. Noticing your positive actions, even if some result in failures, will change your self image. Celebrate the actions and the process, and begin to speak positively to yourself about your efforts.
Again, I highly suggest you use the search box and categories section of this blog to build upon the ideas in this post. Positive thinking and affirmations are useful tools in the changing of human performance, but the emphasis should be on the word performance. Get out there and go after what you want. Learn to coach yourself realistically along the way.
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