Affirmations are Bull

John Bailey
6 min readNov 25, 2020

Affirmations bother me — and the people who peddle them, too.

Someone just sent me a link to a blog with a bunch of fluffy stuff about “positive self talk” and “how to stop negative thinking”. I suppose the SEO on that phrase “how to stop negative thinking” will be good for their traffic, but the article gives a load of focus to things that aren’t wanted — and what to stop doing.

Of course, the quick experiment for “stopping thinking about something” is to stop thinking about that red car you have in your mind. Right now, try very hard not to picture a red car. Seriously: red cars are negative.

Now, what kind of red car is it?

Stop thinking about that red car!

Stop thinking about the color RED!

I wonder how a person could stop thinking about a red car…

Let’s check with the affirmation experts. The standard advice about affirmations is that they should be short, believable, present tense, and persistent — because it “takes time to imprint in your unconscious mind”. Let’s try the affirmation method to get rid of that evil negative red car in your mind by saying to yourself ten times:

“I am not thinking about a red car.”

Did you do it?

Did the red car go away?

I didn’t think so…

Another bit of advice about using affirmations is that if you find yourself rationalizing your way out of doing something, “just challenge the rationalization”. To explain-away the fact that dueling rationalizations usually wind up multiplying into yet more rationalizations, they offer the caveat that “this is best done in the alpha state”. So, whenever you find yourself finding reasons to not do something, make sure your recliner and biofeedback machine are handy so you can get into the alpha state within which to challenge your rationalization to a duel.

This could work in that it would be more trouble to wire myself into the feedback machine and get into an alpha state than it would to just take out the garbage. But, I don’t think that sells many machines…

The advice for HOW to challenge rationalizations is to ask “Why not?” Specifically, they suggested a person rationalizing themselves out of going back to college should ask themselves:

“What’s wrong with going back to college?”

As an experiment to understand the suggested process, quickly make a list of at least three answers to that question, and see how many of them help return your motivation for going back to college.

Are you calling that registrar yet?

I didn’t think so…

The article has some stuff about “the metaphysical energies of words” and how “this energy comes through when a person says the word”. The article says: “Spoken affirmations help imprint positivity into your mind”, and then reminds that “keys to successful affirmations are that they are believable and present-tense”.

One of the suggested affirmations is: “I am as capable as anyone else.”

But, are you really?

Does saying that make you really think so?

Will just saying it improve your golf swing?

Obviously, this is not going to be true in the actual world. And, taking action in the real world based on having convinced yourself of this could be problematic. (Feel like a sparring match with Mike Tyson?)

The problem with affirmations is that they are false — at least in the moment they are spoken — because if they were true, the person saying them wouldn’t be needing to say them because they would be busy living them. Who uses the affirmation “I am strong and confident” when they already are?

And, if you aren’t, then telling yourself something you know to be false isn’t likely to be that helpful. The two likely results are an increase in cognitive dissonance, or the creation of a delusion.

So, as I said, “affirmations are crap”.

We already lie to ourselves too much through various rationalizations and excuses and justifications — all the mechanisms we use to evade the challenges of our life-adventures that are really opportunities for achievement, should we choose to embrace them. Becoming better liars by practicing more lies doesn’t seem to me like a good strategy toward self-development.

What should we do instead?

For starters, be more honest with yourself. Most of the time we find ourselves in a terrible — or unproductive state, we’ve talked ourselves into it — often by being dishonest. What I mean by “dishonest” is lies of distortion and omission: exaggerating negative information and ignoring positive information.

And, people use language like “never” or “always” or “everyone”. This kind of talk intensifies negative feelings, creating poor performance even though it is usually mathematically false. Question your quantitative representation of the problem or risk. In most cases, it is safe to reject absolutes and to require yourself to use actual measures.

Start by being critical of your evaluation, and take three specific measures:

  1. Measure where you really are.
  2. Measure what you actually need.
  3. Measure what you actually have.

Measure where you actually are — including any progress you have already made toward your goal. Catch yourself saying “I haven’t made any progress”, and recognize that’s not a measure — it’s hysterical language. Laugh at it — and go take a real measure with some real measuring tool.

Measure what you actually have for resources. Make an actual LIST of resources you can use. LIST financial, material, and knowledge resources. Extend that LIST to include people you know who could help — with their financial, material, and knowledge banks. Include your creative, resourcefulness, and emotional resources by LISTing things you have achieved in the past that may have been similar — or similarly challenging. Note your organizational and procedural resources when you LIST steps you used to make those achievements.

Measure what you actually need. We will all need to pay the rent three months from now, but not until that time. We don’t actually need that third month’s rent today. What is this month’s rent and when is it due? That’s what we have to solve NOW.

Remember to reject hysterical and non-measures-based language: “I’ll be penniless”. And, don’t just reduce the statement to “I’ll lose a lot of money”. Go and take some measures to see where you will actually be. And, make sure the numbers you use are calculated and not just made-up.

And, when I said LIST — I meant to do it in writing. There is a documented psychological response to listing things, especially when we write them down. Listing is one of the primary ways we build powerful emotional performance states. List your measured resources!

Here’s the 1–2–3 again:

  1. Escape hysterical language and rationalizations with measures of the real world.
  2. Feel good by LISTING actual resources; actual prior achievements; and actual progress.
  3. Feel less pressured by defining needs according to the smallest next step.

Don’t tell yourself lies that will either lead you to mistrusting yourself — or into delusions that your performance won’t actually support. The pathway to success isn’t in delusions or lies but in making measured performance — relentlessly.

Saying good things about yourself is a proven-successful idea — when you believe them. And, it’s easier to believe what is true. Everyone has done some good stuff. Grow your powerful future not by inventing fake credits for yourself but by giving yourself the credit you’re actually due — and by noticing resources you already have to get you where you need to go.

I hope this helps you use the achievements I know are in your past to build the ones I suspect are in your future — waiting for you to show up.