You’ve probably heard the saying you are what you eat. It’s the phrase that motivates us to pick up that apple a day.
How about this one? You are what you think.
What you fill your head with impacts your wellbeing just like the food you fill your plate with. But chances are, it’s easier to remember what you ate for breakfast than your first thoughts this morning. Not only is it normal to not always know what you’re thinking, it’s impossible to keep track of the thousands of thoughts you have in a single day, many of which occur automatically. Your thoughts are an amalgamation of past, present, future, planning, remembering, measuring, guessing, daydreaming, worrying, hoping, and every other mental habit you may have. Your mind is truly a marvel! True, it’s often a monkey bouncing from tree to tree, but a marvel nonetheless.
If thinking about your thoughts and what they’re doing for your well-being makes your head spin, fear not! There is good news in this. Just as you can pick and choose what you eat in a day, with a few simple tweaks, you can steer your thoughts in a positive, wellness-promoting direction.
Self-affirmations, those “I am good enough” mantras you see on Instagram, are just one mental tool in the toolbox. And they’re backed by science.
What are affirmations?
Scientifically speaking, a self-affirmation is a reflection on personal traits, important areas of your life, values, and your self-concept. In other words, it’s an intentional thought about who you are and what matters to you.
Research on affirmation shows us that self-affirmations can…
- give us a sense of adequacy and control in stressful situations
- help us react in a non-defensive way when our ego is bruised
- take better care of our health
- encourage open-mindedness
- cope with our own mortality
- boost our self-control reserves
- feel less stressed on exams
- improve problem-solving and creative thinking in high-stress situations
- protect us against the negative effects of chronic stress
There is a tiny catch, however. Anything you think about yourself (especially the things you think consistently) is technically an affirmation. You can affirm that you are a terrible driver just as much as you can affirm that you are a lifelong learning. It’s all about where you choose to focus and how consistently you focus there.
Think of it like this: the more you think a thought, the more you believe it, and the more you believe it, the more evidence of it you see. This phenomenon is called confirmation bias, which refers to our tendency to see and interpret new information in a way that confirms what we already believe.
Which leads us to how you can use those affirmations to enhance your well-being. Affirmations are helpful when you choose to see yourself in a positive light. You’re already making affirmations all day long. They may be default affirmations today, but with a little practice, you can be making purposeful and positive affirmations by tomorrow.
Where to begin:
What image of yourself do you play on repeat every day? What have you decided about who you are? And how does that affect you?
Next, consider whether the best parts of you get much attention.
What are your values and interests? What do you treasure most in your life? Think about the very best possible version of you – who is that person?
Now, here’s the best part. What in your life makes you feel empowered, inspired, enthusiastic? See if you can feel those feelings now. Science shows us that the relevance of an affirmation, how much you believe in it, and how you feel when you’re thinking it make a big difference.
Write your own affirmations:
Follow these steps to write your own affirmations or use the fill-in-the-blank templates below to get started.
Step 1: Choose your focus.
Will your affirmation be about an important domain of your life, a personal trait, or an important value?
Make a list of 5-10 things you value in your life – it could be relationships, events, opportunities, activities, or any other domains of your life.
Make a list of 5-10 personal traits you like about yourself.
Make a list of 5-10 personal values. Values are ideas, concepts, beliefs, virtues, and character strengths that are important to you. If you’re not sure what your values are, try taking this free Values in Action Survey of Character Strengths.
Or use this list of the 24 character strengths studied in positive psychology to get started.
Step 2: Let your mind go.
Let your mind wander for a few minutes as you read over your list. What situations or memories come to mind as you review this list?
Step 3: Write about it.
Write a paragraph or so about a time when you showed the importance of this domain, trait, or value in your life. Is there a specific moment that showed you the importance of this area or a time that best illustrates its role in your life?
Step 4: Distill it down.
Distill this down to a word or phrase. This might be a completely new word or phrase or one from your original list. Notice if this word or phrase carries any new meaning after following the steps above. If you do write a statement, make sure it’s positively stated, presupposes any changes you want to make, and has positive emotion behind it. Aim for 10 words or less.
Step 5: Practice it.
Remember, new beliefs happen with repetition, so repeat this new affirmation any chance you get. Post this word or phrase in places you’re likely to see as you go through your typical daily activities. And take brief breaks throughout the day to breath and bring your affirmation to mind.
If you need a little help creating your affirmation, you can use these fill-in-the blanks as templates.
- I am…
- I easily…
- I am a...person
- I enjoy….every day
- It is easy for me to…
- I am completely free to…
- Every day, I…
- My life is an example that…
- The most important thing I’ve learned about life is…
- I appreciate that I…
- I have permission to…
- I have permission to feel…
- For me, being great means…
- The best possible version of me is…