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Why Positive Affirmations Don’t Always Work (and What Does)

Healing

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” ~Buddha

My final exam is tomorrow.

It’s a big one—one that covers a lot of material with a major grade component—and my body is clenched with anxiety.

I pick up my book, flick through my notes, and scan a few scribbles. The anxiety builds like a wave. Cresting on top of that wave? Negative, self-critical thoughts.

I’m never going to retain all this material during the exam. I won’t be able to answer the questions fast enough. I have to be a lot smarter to pass…

I should have studied more. I’m such a loser. Everyone’s gonna think I’m such a failure.

Fast-forward thirty minutes: I’m sitting amidst a pile of empty candy wrappers and potato chip bags, the aftermath of a stress-induced binge.

Stuffing my face feels like the only way to numb my fear. For a few minutes, it works. Until it doesn’t.

I move on, seeking another distraction. Flipping through a magazine? Nope. Music? No way. A walk around the block? Please.

I decide to drown out my feelings with a few hours of TV. First up? A mid-day talk show with a motivational speaker who is supposedly going to change my life.

“You can achieve anything you put your mind to,” the guest says.

“Just tell yourself that you can. When you feel like you can’t do something, think positive thoughts. Use affirmations. Remember: your thoughts shape your reality.”

Smiling broadly, she encourages her viewers to create a positive affirmation, right then, on the spot.

I start talking out loud, trying a few affirmations on for size:

I make beautiful eating choices.

I have a healthy, strong body. 

I love the way that I look.

Saying the words, I feel better. Like, a lot better. I feel empowered, like I’ve found the “magic words” to change my life, at last.

The happy feeling of “empowerment” continues for several days…until I get hit with a tidal wave of anxiety again.

This time, it’s not an exam; it’s something else. My computer gets a virus and I lose a ton of crucial work. Then, all of my clothes in the laundry machine mysteriously turn blue! Minor setbacks, in the grand scheme of things, but it’s enough to send me running to the freezer, scarfing down three giant bowls of ice cream.

My “positive affirmations” are no match for the overwhelming emotions that I’m feeling. The affirmations are like gentle breezes, compared with a violent storm. They just can’t fight back.

And of course, my merciless inner critic takes the floor, once again:

You’re so stupid, you can’t even do positive affirmations correctly. You didn’t say them properly. That’s why they didn’t work. You don’t deserve to have them work.

Many years, tons of self-help books, and a PhD in psychology later, I finally figured out why my positive affirmations never led to permanent transformation. Because they were, essentially, lies. And lies don’t heal us.

Only love, self-respect, and honesty can do that.

When I used to say, “I love my gorgeous body” after an eating binge, it was a lie, because I really didn’t. That particular affirmation wasn’t going to lead to lasting change. That statement was untrue. And sooner or later, my smart lil’ mind figured it out—and angrily lashed back.

I learned, the hard and slow way, that affirmations need to be scripted with total honesty in order for them to work.

Like this:

I am frustrated by my eating habits, but I am learning to treat myself with the respect I deserve. I am learning to do better. 

I am sad about the fact that I’m still single, but I am learning how to relate with men in a more open, brave, and vulnerable way. I am learning to do better.

I am scared about handling this big, new project, but I am learning to have confidence in my ability to achieve my goals. I am learning to do better.

These statements aren’t “empty self-praise” or temporary “mood-boosters.”

They’re honest, self-respecting assessments about where we’re at, what we’re learning, and what we’re capable of becoming. They are affirmations of truth—and the truth will set you free.

Photo by Eddi van W.

About Suzanne Gelb

As a psychologist + life coach, Dr. Suzanne Gelb’s insights have been featured on more than 200 radio shows, 100 TV interviews and too many articles to keep score. Step into her virtual office and discover how to like, respect, and love yourself...just a little bit more.

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  • Melinda

    Wow, I really like this article. I am aware of the “affirmation craze” so-to-speak (if you think it you can make it true), and know people who practice it. For me, at times affirmations can feel empty, forced, or over-the-top… Now I know why. It feels so much more validating to acknowledge how you feel and give yourself encouragement and praise to keep getting better. Thank you for the words of wisdom!

  • Hi Suzanne,

    I like your way of creating affirmations because they are more realistic and believable. I feel that for an affirmation to work, it has to be believable and not cause paranoia when I say it. Most importantly, I need to take action every day to back up my affirmation so that it will become a reality one day. “Day by day in every way, I am getting better and better” is my favourite affirmation to kick start my day. It gives me the feeling that any area of my life which I am putting in action is getting better.

    Cheers!
    Edmund

  • jaz

    WOW—so THAT’S what the problem is! Makes total sense…lies don’t work!!! THANK YOU for this wisdom, this makes me feel SO much more optimistic…and I’m headed over to your website right NOW!

  • Great article, Suzanne! Years ago when I was first introduced to affirmations, they sounded wonderful, but I felt phoney saying them because they didn’t feel true to me. Since then, I’ve learned to say things like, “I am not (fill in the blank) yet and I am making progress.” When I say the word “yet” it helps because I then search for a resource that will help me to gain the skills in the area that will help me get closer and achieve my goal. Thank you Suzanne!

  • lv2terp

    Wonderful! I am a huge advocate of affirmations, and love how you altered them to be more of the truth/realistic than the “fake it til you make it” ones…..I also started modifying mine a while back with “Today I will practice more….” …. I will start adding on with this method, thank you! 🙂

  • Casey

    This really spoke to me. It makes so much sense! Thank you!

  • Joe Alvarez

    Powerful! Thanks for sharing this.

  • Hi Julie: Thank you for sharing your script. Sounds like it’s really working for you. 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Hi Melinda: You are so welcome. I’m happy that the article shed some light on the “affirmation craze” for you. 🙂

  • Hi lv2terp: “Fake it til you make it” never worked for me! Sounds like you’re building a wonderful affirmations toolbox. Enjoy!

  • Hi Jaz: I love optimism! You made my day. Thank you. 🙂

  • Rakshit Vedia

    Nice article, Suzanne!. I do believe that if your affirmations contain lies it wont work for you. Affirmations are external which we say it to believe it. But if the affirmations are not in sync with your mind, body and soul then we wont get the required results.

  • Hi Edmund: You’re absolutely correct, it’s essential to follow our affirming thoughts with action.

    Self-love helps a lot with that. When we love ourselves, we naturally want to do loving things for ourselves.

    Which means that if we have a loving thought, we naturally want to put it into action (do something loving for ourselves.)

    Enjoy!

  • Audrey Meyer

    So happy to hear you say this! Wonderful piece. I have for years been skeptical about ‘the power of affirmations’ as they are popularly ‘understood’ and commonly used. I too have felt like I was being fraudulent with myself uttering these short, too-good-to-be-true phrases. Now I know why. What you have presented here is much more powerful for its acknowledgement of one’s current state of affairs (not so great) while adding the acknowledgement that that isn’t the end of the road or all there is to say–we all have the power to make new choices that can take us in new and more desirable directions, not by taking an ‘affirmation pill’, but by speaking our truth, the whole truth, which is that as much as we are not always where we’d like to be in our lives, with a little awareness, self-discipline and heart we put ourselves squarely on the road to healing. It’s more an evolution than a revolution. Anyway, thanks very much for writing this. I am sooo relieved!

  • Lindarose Curtis

    I like the article Suzanne and some of your thoughts are fine, but being married to a psychologist I have learned that admitting ones weakness then working toward a goal to improve (if that is what one wants). it is also imperative that one eliminate negative self-talk and negative words from one’s vocabulary so it will be removed from one’s daily thoughts. If an affirmation contains negative self-talk then the daily routine affirms the weakness. BEFORE stating affirmations, I kept a journal writing down any and all negative words and phrases when I stated them. This process scared the “bajeebees” out of me because I would fill a page or more each day. It was only after this process of eliminating the negative words and actions that I was able to use positive affirmations in a helpful way.

  • Nick

    The only thing I would change — substitute “AND” for “BUT”. It’s even more honest and empowering. I do this with my child, too. “I know you don’t want to go to school and you are going to school.” Both these things are true — and there’s no way to argue back.

  • Anonymous

    I’m going back to school again in the fall. After I graduated college with a BS I went to my first job and failed because of unmedicated bipolar disorder. I had to take a part time job and rely on my husband’s income. Then I got on medication and became okay. My positive affirmation for starting school full time was “The past is in the past” (recognize where I got it from? Yep, I have an 8 yr old daughter.”) I went down on my psychotropic medication and BLAM the past was the PRESENT!!!! What happened to all the sticky note affirmations on my bathroom mirror? In the trash.

  • Chris Forbes

    The magic words for me . . . “In the Past” Because everything is in the past. “In the past I haven’t been very kind in the way I talk to myself.”

  • Gertrude

    This makes sense — no wonder just saying any old positive affirmation won’t work. I like how you suggest that we acknowledge, “where we’re at, what we’re learning, and what we’re capable of becoming.” Thank you.

  • Thank you for writing this article Suzanne! It is a good approach: acknowledging whatever you are going through while reminding yourself that you are improving <3

  • Lee ying

    Great information! I completely agree, I mean, if anyone is going to know that you are lying it will be you!

  • Bob Edwards

    Wisdom, brilliantly and effectively conveyed. Fantastic article.

  • RT

    Hi Suzanne I had to comment on your article on positive affirmations. I must say I was very surprised to hear that affirmations should be the truth because after having watched and read so much of Louise Hay’s work and others on affirmations they tend to always speak as if one is already in a better place. They always say, act and think as if you are already that person even if you don’t believe it but eventually your mind will think like that.
    That when saying a positive affirmation you should be as if you are at a better place even if you’re not.
    I have found this thought process very hard at times when struggling at where I am and trying to believe and say everything is okay when I know it’s not.
    In the past I would make positive affirmations about my health and say I am grateful I have good health but I didn’t. Or my life is working out for me when clearly it was not,at the time. It is really hard to use positive affirmations when you know and feel that the words you are saying are not true,at the time.
    It is extremely hard at times to use positive affirmations to make one think they are in a better place when you can see and feel you are not.
    Not saying it doesn’t help to be and think positive because over all it gives one hope and lifts their spirit but you can’t say ‘I have great health’ when you know you are dealing with so many health issues and the struggle is real.
    Again this is just my opinion to how I see things and how I have had to cope during my struggles trying to use positive affirmations.

  • I don’t know. I can see it both ways. On the one hand if we hear (in this case, ourselves) something long enough we’ll start to believe it, but on the other hand there does have to be a level of feeling in tune with whatever is being said. So I’m not sure which is the best way. Personally, I like speaking in the direction I want to go, so if I’m sick I say, “I am healing.” If I’m feeling defeated I’ll say something like, “I am moving towards success.” Things like that.

  • JMM

    I recently watched the “Secret” and like positive affirmations the law of attraction also does not always work like it is spoken about by these rich elite who were in the documentary. Being positive is a wonderful thing, but it does’t just make life a place without problems. I have found letting go of what I thought I controlled and just let life be as it is has made me a much happier person, Nice piece, glad you shared it. JMM

  • Hi JMM: Glad you liked the piece!

  • Hi Sum: You’re welcome. And yes, a simple approach, but an effective one.

  • Hi Gertrude: You’re welcome. Sounds like you gained some helpful insight. That makes me happy. 🙂

  • Hi lv2terp: Terrific! Thanks for sharing.

  • Hi Casey: I’m so glad. You’re welcome. 🙂

  • Hi Joe: You’re most welcome.

  • Hi Rashit: Absolutely! It’s so important that the affirmations are in sync with our deepest self.

  • Hi Lee: I’m so pleased you enjoyed the information.

  • Hi Audrey: Relief is so nurturing. I’m so glad this piece spoke to you. 🙂

  • Nico

    Well the thing with affirmations is, as I’ve come to study it, to program the subconscious to actually believe the ‘lies’. It should be far more effective if your mind is brought to a lower brainwave frequency, say Alpha and your lie detection defenses are dropped.. Well I haven’t practiced much so I can’t say much about it, but please let me know what you think of this.

  • Shay

    the reason the affirmations dont work for some is because they didnt believe it would work. Your not telling yourself a lie by giving yourself praise. it just feels weird because you are so used to putting yourself down. that is the real LIE! all the negative self talk.. positive affirmations work once its spoken more to counter the negative.. I use to have extremely low self esteem.. I started to look myself in the mirror straight into my own eyes ad speak “I am Beautiful.” I said this several times and smiled as I did it and the subconscious mind heard it and did its job on trying to find more ways to prove that to me.. I am Telling you, I walked outside and got more compliments than ever before ALL DAY!!.. Now years later its just a normal habit for me to look at myself and say hey beautiful!

  • Ploquit

    I was recommended to read Louise Hay. In glad I read this first. Like RT pouts out, her style is lie based. i think you saved me tons of time and disappointment.

    I’m going to try this truth technique instead of the future-self way.

  • Jen

    I disagree. Everything in our subconscious that we believe are lies.. if we believe those lies then we can program ourselves to learn different lies. If we say something to ourselves enough it becomes our truth even if it’s not true. That is how our subconscious gets programed. And most of the programing of the subconscious came from an outside source to begin with starts with picking it up from our parents, then our peers later on school,then reinforced by news and media and we don’t even realize it’s happening.

  • Dave Frank

    Your entire article screams of negativity self doubt and defeat.. Of course they didnt work for you because you did no believe them.. Once you step out of the confines of your logic box miracles happen.. You most definitely DID NOT believe your affirmations or faithfully commit to them.. You sound like some one who says that a certain diet didnt work for them because they did not adhere to the discipline.. As soon as you CHOOSE to believe your life changes.. plain and simple…

  • Frankie

    This really makes sense..sometimes you have to just face it..by thinking what is the worst that can happen..and still be okay with it..saying out loud what fears you what bothers you is the best way to overcome them..after all everyone’s purpose here is to learn and evolve..we should be strong enough to accept things as they really are and then we can realize what ought to be done to change it.accept the fact that you are overweight and be okay with it..be happy.. Be thankful..Say to yourself ” I’m in the right size and shape”and have fun! It’s as simple as that..you are not lying to yourself nor that you are making any affirmation that doesn’t really make you feel good and light!Accept the reality first..realize what needs to be aligned..and know you can do it!

  • I really liked your post about affirmations. I am writing an article on affirmations for my blog, and will put a link to this post of yours. I have been affirming my self for some years now, and have seen some good results. I have also experienced the “backlash” of my thoughts and feelings to some of the affirmations I have used. My current view is that affirmations can bring to mind some of the negative feelings and thoughts that we have about ourselves. These negative impressions are a rich resource to begin becoming more self-aware about some of the beliefs we are carrying around about our self, and our situations. These negative thoughts and feelings can really help us to clarify what it is we actually do want.
    For example, if I think that I am always a failure at everything, I can ask myself if that is what I really want to be. And then I can begin to think about the way I really would like to be, and how it would feel to be that way. I can affirm to myself that I really do want to be happy.

  • W. H. D.

    Unfortunately, that approach to affirmations doesn’t work for me either (and the title lead me to believe that the alternative to affirmations would be, well, NOT affirmations). Nor does CBT, which means there’s no point pursuing professional help (ESPECIALLY talk therapy) in my country. I’m pretty much a lost cause. Glad that so many other people are getting something out of this article though.

  • Boe

    RECORD your affirmations on a tape recorder and play them while you sleep. Your subconscious is still listening and taking it all in, whilst your conscious, critical, door keeper mind is asleep. I’ve had success with this method. Just persist and know that if you have doubts about it or for any other reason want to give up, that can be your subconscious fighting to retain the now-tenuous old belief. Ignore it and persist. Repetition does work. Also, include a clause in the affirmation “in wonderful and harmonious ways”. Otherwise you may get what you want through unfortunate circumstances. Using this method you don’t need to believe the affirmation consciously. Also, you may get to a point where your conscious mind is still thinking it has the old belief but on a subconscious level you have altered it. That’s always interesting, because one day you experience a “challenge” situation where you realise your belief really has changed. 🙂

  • steelcaress

    I never used positive affirmations like that. I always used ones that directed action. Saying “I will crush this” along visualizations of succeeding and the aftermath of that success. After I tried that, my results measurably and drastically improved. In order to do my current job, it’s necessary to pass tests to prove that you know the material. For years I would fail or barely pass. I’d put it off til the last minute, and stress out. I tried all sorts of things, but my method above seemed to be the magic bullet, passing with 80-90% instead of squeaking by with a 70, or failing. My latest score was a straight 100%. It’s also important to create a positive feedback loop — I give myself a visible thumbs every time I did something right. The act of patting yourself on the back increases your confidence. I used to be afflicted with crippling anxiety and negative thought patterns. Now, I just focus, believe, and make it happen.

  • Grace Holmes

    Interesting how you say to be more real and include the truth yet you only responded to positive comments about your article. Just wanted to bring that to your attention.

  • ocean

    thank you for this advice !

  • 123987

    What I liked about this article was that it touched on the resistance that is part of the natural process of rewiring the brain, and it is probably something that should get some attention. The thing is though that most of us turn to affirmations to change something we don’t like about ourselves, life, etc, not to reaffirm what we do like. Naturally, when we undergo the process of change part of us is going to resist it. In my opinion, and in no way am I an expert on physcology, I think that the resistance is the moment right before some sort of breakthrough. I noticed that the author mentions the use of coping mechanisms such as food and tv, and then affirmatikns. But from my understanding, Rome wasn’t built In a day and affirmations