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Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work. Here’s What Does.

There’s no shortage of self-help gurus who swear that repeating positive phrases to yourself can change your life, encouraging that if you simply tell yourself “I am strong and successful”, your fears will simply disappear.

If you’ve tried using positive affirmations, you know that it can be a difficult habit to maintain. You may spend five, 10 or even 20 minutes reciting your affirmation, but the other 23 hours of the day? Chances are that your mind drifts back to old, repetitive thoughts that have burned deep grooves in your brain.

The problem with positive affirmations is that they operate at the surface level of conscious thinking and do nothing to contend with the subconscious mind where limiting beliefs really live.

It goes without saying that if you command yourself to think “I am abundant and attract wealth”, yet your deeply held core belief is that you are never enough or unworthy of your success, your brain will be quick to incite an inner war. If you trying tell yourself “I am successful”, but you struggle with insecurity regarding your skills and accomplishments, your subconscious may likely remind you of the many times you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of your boss or made a mistake at work (trust me, we’ve all been there!).

The truth is that it’s natural and healthy to experience a range of feelings, including less pleasant ones like disappointment, sadness or guilt. While there’s no question that ruminating in negative emotions can turn toxic, whitewashing your insecurities with positive thinking is merely a temporary fix.

Unreasonably optimistic thinking can trigger a self-defeating spiral, particularly for those prone to anxiety and depression. Research shows that while repeating positive self-statements may benefit people with high self-regard, it can backfire for those lacking confidence.

If positive affirmations can be ineffective–even detrimental–how are we to take control and mentally empower ourselves to change?

While wishing ourselves into a success mindset won’t work for most, here’s a few strategies to try to make your self-talk work for you instead of against you.

Dig Yourself Out From “Debbie Downer” Thoughts.

Start with articulating and acknowledging thoughts weighing you down–ones that don’t serve any useful purpose beyond keeping you stuck. Releasing statements, such as, “I forgive myself for procrastinating” or “It’s okay for me to be angry” shortcut self-bashing and free up emotional resources.

If you spend less time beating yourself up for procrastinating, you can redirect that energy into breaking down a project into manageable tasks and actually tackling your to-do list instead.

Give Interrogative Self-Talk A Try.

Research shows that asking ourselves questions rather than issuing commands is a much more effective way to create change. It’s as simple as tweaking the way you speak to yourself. When you catch your inner critic flinging accusations, think: how can I turn this statement into a question? (see what I did there?). Asking questions opens up exploration and possibility.

Here’s some examples:

  • Am I willing to do what it takes?
  • When have I done this before?
  • What if [insert worse case scenario] happens
  • How can I…?

This type of self-inquiry powers up problem-solving areas of the brain helping you tap into your innate creativity. You’re able to greet negative thoughts with curiosity instead of fear.

Focus on Progress, Not Perfection.

Using a positive affirmation like “I am wonderful and powerful” may backfire if you don’t truly, deeply believe it at both a cognitive and emotional level. To effectively re-frame your thinking, consider who you are becoming, focusing on your progress–the current track or path you’re on.

You might re-work your self-talk to sound more like “I am a work in progress, and that’s OK.” It’s pointing you in the direction of positive growth and is both realistic and achievable. Another example: telling yourself “Every moment I’m making an effort to be more conscious about how I spend my money” acknowledges the fact that you are evolving and that you have choice in creating a better financial future for yourself.

If you’re prone to negative self-talk and are sick of positive affirmations that don’t work, try one of these re-framing techniques. You may start to notice major changes in your mindset and an uptick in your productivity and success.

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Master your psychology with therapeutic insights for your life, relationships, & career