Do affirmations work?

The proponents of positive thinking, the law of attraction, and affirmations believe that we can achieve a specific goal or have a particular result by affirming or visualizing the outcome we desire. If this were really true then a lot more of us would have achieved a lot more than we have, or more of us would be happier with what we have because we would recognize our achievements as the harvest of our affirmations. Millions of people have purchased millions of copies of books like Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” (more than 60 million copies of that book alone have sold) and others in the same vein. If it were that easy, or if it worked, wouldn’t there be many millions of people living their dreams come true? Unless perhaps we are doing it wrong. Maybe, as some argue, using affirmations requires a scientific process, the following of certain rules, in order for them to work.

Most of the books on the law of attraction and positive thinking focus more on physical and quantifiable results. And then there are other books, mostly in the realm of philosophy or spirituality, that focus on achieving inner states like peace and serenity. But achievement of any kind requires certain practices, and the last few decades and hundreds of self-help books have convinced millions of people that success is just around the corner and simply requires positive thinking or visualization of the goal. This over simplified approach has left nearly as many people frustrated and dejected, wondering exactly what they did wrong. Of course there are those few that prove the exception, those who have achieved the successes promised on the front cover of these books or in workshops where they learned to walk on fire. However, there are many more people who have not. They are the reason self help books keep flying off the shelves in bookstores and have taken up more and more space in stores and in our own book cases. If it were as easy as promised, then we would all have what we want.

The law of attraction says that we attract what we think about, that the thought precedes the physical manifestation. The principle says this is true whether it is positive or negative thought. This idea is at the heart of the affirmation movement. If we think good thoughts then good things will follow. If we think bad thoughts, bad things will follow. This can be applied to wealth, health, love or any number of other things or states. The problem with this principle or this way of thinking is that it makes us feel guilty for all of the bad things that happen to us. I’m not sure how helpful this is. And it doesn’t make you feel good that if you have a single bad thought you will be punished. We have enough reasons to feel bad. Bad things do happen, and very often to good people. Besides that, it is really hard to herd thoughts. Trying to control thoughts is a little like playing badminton in a hurricane. It is definitely possible to gain a little control over them, but if complete mastery is required then it is probably outside most of our abilities. This would mean that success is outside of the reach of most of us mere humans.

Feeling like a failure makes it difficult to step up to the full plate of life and to participate in all of its wonders. And yet it makes sense to pay attention to these negative thoughts, to try to reduce their impact on our feelings.

There is a solution. Simply tell yourself that these negative thoughts have no power. Or make that statement even stronger: “I choose not to believe this thought.” That is a simple, yet profound trick my coach recently reminded me of. What could be easier? I don’t even need to analyze what is at the bottom of this particular negative thought. It has NO value to me. Thinking, “I am a failure and I’ll never be able to do X” will not help me in any way! There is no buried information in that thought. So, off with its head!

So dis-empowering negative thoughts takes practice. But it is far easier to just rob the negative thought of power than to spend hours a day chanting mantras and positive thoughts that seem to just run off you like water on a duck’s back. And positive thoughts are great if they make you feel great because they resonate with other people, who can help you achieve things. But perhaps focusing on a particular outcome, visualizing a particular object or situation, robs the imagination (the divine) of its true power. Maybe there are better things in store for you – successes based on your own abilities, your history of achievement and not just positive thoughts.

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