If you set goals but always struggle to hit them, affirmations could be exactly what your mind needs.
A bit of digging into the subject of affirmations (or some other similar mental technique to do with goal-setting, such as visualisation) will turn up a very interesting find: they seem to work. You will find famous and very successful proponents of such a practice (such as the creator of Dilbert Scott Adams, and the author Tim Ferriss)—some of whom give it a large amount of credit for their success. You will find others who’ve never even considered it. And you will find many people on the fence. But is there anything to this business of affirmations? If not, then what the hell is going on in the minds of the people who swear by it? Do affirmations really work?
It is clear that to some degree, yes, they do. The real question, is why? The Secret (including the ‘law of attraction‘), certain ‘teachings of buddhism’, hypnotism, visualisation, and a few other systems of thought and mental practices, all appear to be based on the idea that if you fill your mind with that which you want so bad, you will, in some roundabout way, eventually get it.
Here’s a few thoughts. if you hold a thought long enough in your mind it becomes a dominant thought. Any thoughts manifest themselves pretty quickly, in some form or another; but dominant thoughts can do so rapidly and powerfully. Depending on the thought, the desire—the particulars of this manifestation; how things actually play out in your life, physically—can differ. If the dominant thought is something like ‘I will lose 10lbs’ or ‘I must lose 10lbs’, then the result could be visible within a matter of weeks; and you could even start to see results (or rather, progress) within days1. If the dominant thought is something like ‘I am going to become independently wealthy’ or ‘I am going to become a fu*king insanely great poker player’, then the fruition could take a little longer. Either way it seems that making a desire, a goal, or something you want, a dominant thought—something you think about all the time—does, in some unknowable (at least in principle) way, increase your chances of success.
But why does it work? How does it work? If it is unknowable in principle, will it always be? Are affirmations magic? Is there something else going on underneath the hood?
I have a few theories. The first of which is that by constantly thinking about X you start to behave as if you already have X. For sentence, take the thought ‘I want to get rich’: by constantly affirming and thereby making dominant this thought, you may start behaving the way a rich person would. Now, it certainly does depend on your belief about rich people: if you think a rich person steals money, spends brainlessly and is an arrogant prick, then you may indeed start acting this way and likely, make no money; but if you think a rich person is a hard-working, always learning, open, frugal, thrifty, and so on, then by behaving in such a way yourself, it makes total sense that your chances of becoming rich are increased—if only minutely. But that is the whole point, you see: you are increasing your chances. Seen as you are reading about affirmation, however, you are probably smart enough to realise that the former philosophy is a dumb one: some rich people spend lavishly, indulge in luxury and are cocky and arrogant and even repugnant, but the only reason they stand out is because they are so loud, and they in no way represent the majority; but it doesn’t matter; what matters is the obvious: people get rich by working hard, saving money, investing wisely, and solving important problems. Do as you please.
Another way to construe this theory would be that by constantly reminding yourself of a goal, an ambition, of something you want to do, you are also constantly reminded—both consciously and subconsciously (the latter being the most important)—of the things you ought to be doing in accordance with it, that move you towards it, and that move you away from it. You can think of this as a sort of mental system that you put in place, first consciously, of course; but then the magic happens subconscious: repeated volition alters your natural behaviour. This is also known as habit. By constantly thinking about what you want you start walking the path towards it: you start acting, behaving, thinking, living, breathing in a way that supports your goal.
So, ‘I am losing fat and lots of it’ translates into you decreasing your caloric intake, increasing your activity, growing in confidence, and feeling good about yourself; it gets you dong the right things because of it puts and keeps you on the right track. Because you are telling yourself that you are losing fat, it goes that you must have habits in line with fat loss. We humans strive for coherency with our own beliefs and ideas; if, therefore, you constantly tell yourself that you are losing fat, and yet your habits are not in line with that statement, because the two don’t go together—because there is no coherency—you will be constantly reminded of it by your own conscious, which will either force you to change, or make you very miserable. For ignorance, once extirpated, cannot be reinstalled. Knowledge is dangerous, and this is why.
If you want something, if you want change, and if you are serious, you can triple your horsepower by taking advantage of your own conscious awareness of it; but this is dangerous if you try to quit halfway through, or only apply a half-arse effort, because you will be perpetually haunted by your own conscious awareness of what you are doing wrong—or perhaps, what you are not doing.
On a sidenote, I should add that the affirmation ‘I am losing fat’ could—and maybe, should—be replaced by something like ‘I have to lose fat’ or ‘I will lose 20lbs’; the reason for which is that it is more specific, and the universe rewards specificity.
My second theory is as follows. The people who take the time and expend the energy in a practice of affirmations—either writing them down everyday, or speaking them out loud in the mirror every morning—are the same kind of people who will literally do whatever it takes to get what they want. If they are willing to do something as unconventional and ‘new-agey’ as affirmation practice, likely it is that they are also obsessive, perfectionistic, dogged and extremely passionate people, who will run through brick walls to fulfil their ambitions. The fact that they are affirming or visualising what they want therefore, is just a symptom or consequence or display of their person, not a cause; they are people who succeed in spite of this practice, not because of it.
Another possibility is to do with something called the RAS. This is in many ways another interpretation of my first theory, but still worthy of a separate address. Essentially it means that affirming, making thoughts dominant and dogged adherence to visualisation practices gets you to focus. It gets you to focus. It gets you to focus. It get you to focus.
That wasn’t a printing error, or a total malfunction on my part; it is me emphasising the point—and therefore dealing down your focus (again, albeit it a little bit2).
The greatest, most successful and clearest-thinking people on the planet know of the importance of focus—and, you can be sure, they take it very seriously. RAS stands for Reticular Activating System, and it refers, simply, to where you direct your focus and how the physical changes in your brain. Affirmations may work because of, or at least be helped by, this system. Thinking about what you want and will get simply causes you to focus more—even just to think about focus more—which then causes you to start doing things that you know you should be doing.
My final, apparent-new-age-but-certainly-as-old-as-witchcraft-theory, is that affirmations literally hypnotise you. Of course, every one of these theories could be explanations for what is really going on when someone is ‘hypnotised’—but this is not what I mean; I mean the magical, mysterious type of penduntonium.3.
And there you have it: the most rational explanations I can conceive of that explain why affirmations appear to work. To be clear, I don’t think there is anything unknowable going on here; I think theory one and three tell some of the story: it is a matter of physics, and one that we will most likely one day be able to explain entirely. I think affirmations not so much ‘trick’ your brain but retrain it over time to think about the right things, which inevitably changes behaviour, which ultimately improves results.
- Sorry to break your rhythm, but if this is you, then very very likely the results you have seen are not fat loss, but water loss. When you cut carbs (the most popular way to lose fat) your body releases a lot of water, and people tend to mistake this as fat loss. It is not; fat loss takes a little longer—but not too long, thankfully.
- Unless of course, you punched your screen because of my monotonous tone. If you did, I am not paying for repairs. Go drink a glass of red, os something.
- Pendant + Pandemonium = Penduntonium