Affirmations—in which you repeat or write down positive words and sentences so that they can be absorbed by the subconsciousness—are very popular among people starting their adventure with self-development. No wonder: they are easy (to both understand and introduce), they promise a lot, and they are also safe. You can repeat or write things privately, without exposing yourself to any real challenges. In view of the above, it is difficult to overlook the attractiveness of this solution, especially as compared to a large number of methods involving a greater risk of being judged. The popularity of affirmations is therefore unsurprising.
Unfortunately, they are also almost completely useless and, in some cases, even downright harmful. Research in this field is fairly consistent. If you repeat to yourself “I am self-confident” (or some variation of this sentence, in accordance with one of the hundreds of “correct” affirmation-writing methods), you could see one of several results:
- If you are already very self-confident, it will have no effect;
- If you are moderately self-confident, it might benefit you somewhat—if you take into consideration the effort versus the return, this is not a very profitable practice;
- If you have little or no self-confidence—which means that you belong to the group that will probably want to use such affirmations—not only will it contribute nothing, but it might even do you harm. The contrast between the repeated words and reality will be simply too painful.
In this way, affirmations, in spite of their popularity, turn out to be a very poor method.
At some point, one of the popular phrases used in neurolinguistic programming (NLP) was “the difference that makes the difference.” Undisputedly, working with your mind is sometimes extremely meticulous. A small difference in the form of a given exercise, or changing a few words or one element of the imagined concept can bring completely different results.
Of course, this problem is not typical of NLP only. One of the major objections to research on the effectiveness of numerous therapeutic systems is the fact that sessions during such research are usually conducted by the researcher’s assistants—people with little training in a given method. (The researcher him- or herself often has no training, for the purpose of avoiding a conflict of interest.) The problem is that not every therapeutic method is equally suited to such methodology. By analogy to sports, a brief training period allows you to play a squash match more or less competently, but to play a good tennis game you need a much better grasp of the basics. Therefore, while a short training period is sufficient to test how playing squash affects the person studied , the results that we observe for tennis will be much less reliable. This is similar to testing various therapeutic methods—cognitive behavioral therapy, with its mechanical procedures, might be much easier to test when conducted by not well-trained practitioners than gestalt therapy—here the threshold of competence can be much greater.
This is not just armchair philosophy. We have already tested quite a good number of various techniques in which seemingly subtle differences dramatically change the effectiveness of a given method. For instance, WOOP by Gabriele Oettingen, a great technique facilitating the introduction of new behaviors, turns out to be useless if we change the order of the seemingly unrelated middle steps. In the case of NLP techniques, or visualization techniques in general, differences in the pace of imagining things or between imagination in association or dissociation (“looking through your own eyes” or “looking at yourself from the outside, the way you look at a movie character”) might not only determine the effectiveness of a given technique, but even cause the very same technique to bring about completely different results.
This is the difference that makes the difference, the most difficult thing that I try to communicate to the graduates of my trainings. This is the “secret” that leads two people who apply the same technique to radically different results. The “secret” in quotes, as it is actually in plain sight, although it requires suitable knowledge and carefulness to notice the differences.
What does this all have to do with affirmations?
As I have mentioned, commonly understood affirmations unfortunately don’t work. They can even be harmful. However, there is one change, trivial in its essence, that causes affirmations to bring about positive results and actually help you achieve your desired goals.
No, they won’t cause a harem of desirable movie stars or a pile of gold suddenly appear in your house. However, they can make you actually take steps toward being a better person and achieving your goals.
The modification is simply to invert an affirmative sentence and add a question mark at its end. “I am self-confident” changes to “Am I self-confident?”—the affirmative changes into the interrogative. Affirmation into introspection. Of course, later, instead of mindlessly repeating the question, it would be appropriate to answer it.
The difference is small, but it is also crucial, and allows affirmations to benefit you and increase your chances of success.
Why is this? Well, a few issues might be important here:
- When you are sure that something will work, you teach your brain not to reserve any more energy for it. This is foolish—you will give up when you encounter the first obstacle.
- This form of question “primes” a certain behavior, making it more accessible during automatic decision-making. For example, with three behaviors to choose from, earlier you had a one in three chance with each. Thanks to priming, it may turn out that the preferred solution will appear in two out of the three options. This is a great difference.
- Thinking honestly about this question will allow you to notice those situations in which you do manage to behave in a way reflecting the affirmation, as well as discern lost opportunities. The former will influence the way you see yourself. The latter will present more similar occasions and make it easier for you to make good use of them.
 Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860-866. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/20/7/860
 Senay, I., Albarracín, D., & Noguchi, K. (2010). Motivating goal-directed behavior through introspective self-talk the role of the interrogative form of simple future tense. Psychological Science, 21(4), 499-504.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20424090