Why Most Affirmations Don’t Work &
How to Ensure Yours Do

By Matthew Joyce

I will pay attention in class.

I will pay attention in class.

I will pay attention in class.

Johnny writes this one hundred times on the school chalk board as punishment for staring out the window when he should have been paying attention to the teacher.

The idea behind writing on the chalk board is that by having Johnny repeat the thought over and over again it will influence his future behavior.

It’s the same thing with affirmations

Affirmations are positive thoughts that you think, write, or say repeatedly in order to bring about a desired experience. The idea is that if you repeat them often enough they’ll become ingrained in your thinking, influence your behavior, and bring about the results you want.

The trouble is that more often than not affirmations don’t work

After all, think about Johnny. Do you think he’ll be more likely to pay attention to the teacher in the future because he wrote on the chalk board?

Maybe and maybe not.

Chances are Johnny will be more careful not to get caught since he won’t want to repeat the punishment, but when it comes to actually changing his behavior a lot depends upon what is going on inside Johnny’s head.

If Johnny was temporarily distracted by something outside the window and he actually enjoys learning then he might be more likely to keep his eyes on the teacher and his mind on the lesson.

But if Johnny thinks that school is stupid and a waste of time then writing on the chalk board will likely have reinforced that idea one hundred more times, making him even less likely to pay attention in future.

You’re not so different from Johnny

You may or may not have paid attention in school, but like Johnny the effectiveness of the affirmations that you repeat depends very much upon your pre-existing state of mind.

More specifically the effectiveness of the affirmations you use depends upon the thought patterns you already have about whatever you are trying to bring about.

If you are like many people, you use affirmations because you want to make a change in your life

You recognize that you have a thought pattern that doesn’t work for you and you want to replace it with another one that does.

Let’s consider Johnny again. Perhaps Johnny has a pre-existing thought pattern that says school is an unnecessary waste of time. Perhaps he even learned this pattern from the role models within his own family who did not finish high school and who struggle with unsatisfying jobs. If Johnny doesn’t change his thinking, then his performance in school will continue to suffer and he may end up with the same struggle, and with unfulfilling professional accomplishments in his own future as well.

So, if Johnny wants to create a different future for himself then the one he has seen modeled for him, then on his own he comes up with an affirmation that says, “I will pay attention in class.”

He repeats it over and over again with the idea that by repeating it he’ll somehow do better in school.

Well I have some bad news

That method of using affirmations is about as effective as using an eye dropper to wear down a boulder. You can do it, but it’s going to be incredibly slow.

Most people are not that patient. They give up and the old thought pattern remains in place.

Fortunately, when you recognize the purpose of affirmations and use them appropriately they can be powerful tools for creating the new experiences you desire.

So what’s the purpose of an affirmation?

The purpose of an affirmation is to reinforce or sustain a pre-existing pattern.

Each time you think a thought, it exists in the context of all the thoughts you have had before it. That fresh thought settles amongst a complex set of ideas, patterns, and beliefs that you hold about yourself, your past, present, and future, and about the world around you.

If you want to change something in your life, you need to establish a new thought pattern for it. And that takes more than a mere affirmative sentence.

By necessity affirmations are simple sentences. They need to be simple or you can’t think or write them repeatedly.

The idea behind an affirmation is that it references something else

It references the new experience that you want to have.

So before you can create an effective affirmation, you need to establish the pattern for the new experience.

How to set up a new pattern

If Johnny is actually going to do well in school he needs to change his underlying thought pattern about school being a waste of time.

Perhaps that happens when instead of punishing him, his teacher takes him aside and tells him how she is the first person in her family to go to college. She explains how a college education made a different life possible for her.

This inspires Johnny and for the first time he begins to think he can go to college himself. He imagines himself as a college graduate with a good job, steady income, a safe home, and the ability to help out his family. Like his teacher, he can go to college if he works hard in school. This new pattern is much more attractive than the old one.

But even more importantly it provides a new framework for Johnny’s affirmation.

Now when Johnny thinks to himself, “I will pay attention in class” he is reinforcing the new thought pattern about attending college instead of fighting against the old pattern about school being a waste of time.

You can do the same thing.

How to set a new pattern for yourself

Before you start in with affirmations make sure that the pattern you are reinforcing is the one you want.

To do that, envision the new experience you want to have. Imagine yourself fully immersed in a moment when your desire has been fulfilled. See it complete in your mind in vivid detail as if it is already reality. Envision the sights you see in that moment. Listen to the sounds as if you really hear them. Notice the thoughts and feelings you have in this new experience.

How to create an effective affirmation

With the new pattern established in your imagination, think of a short sentence that captures the essence of what you are experiencing in the new pattern.

Then, like Johnny, when you use your affirmation, each time you repeat it you will be reinforcing the new pattern instead of trying to wear down the old one.

Next Step

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5 Responses to Affirmations

  1. Ed Faust says:

    Well done Matthew, a fine article.
    Great how you have explained this principle so well.
    I have been teaching our holistic students how to use affirmations effectively, so hope you don’t mind if I use your school example.

  2. Igosaki says:

    Wait, so it’s just like that to create a new thought pattern? I’ve tried that technique, and it didn’t work! So, do I need to visualize that daily, as well? Please help, as I am desperately seeking answers!

    • Matthew says:

      @Igosaki. Yes, visualizing daily or many times a day is important. The key to creating a new pattern is to use your imagination to envision the new experience you want in rich detail so you can see yourself in the new experience and really feel what it is like for it to be real.

      In Johnny’s case, that might involve imagining himself as teaching in a classroom like his teacher does, driving a car like hers, feeling proud to be the first one in his family to go to college, and so on. These types of details help Johnny to tap into the new pattern on a meaningful emotional level, which in turn drives Johnny’s behavior. Now he wants to pay attention in class. The words of the affirmation now have a new meaning for him and he acts on them in his life.

      It can take time for the new pattern to come into being even if you craft it in rich and meticulous detail and revisit it in your imagination. Immersing yourself in the new pattern daily or many times per day greatly helps in bring it about. But it is also important that you don’t wait around for the “magic” to just happen. Sometimes things do happen magically. But you can hasten the new experience by acting as if the new pattern is already in place.

      In Johnny’s case that means thinking of himself as college material, telling people he is going to go to college, paying attention in class, studying hard and doing his homework. You have not mentioned what your pattern is, but you’ll want to do something similar in your own life. Keep envisioning the new experience in your imagination. Keep repeating the affirmation. But also start taking actual steps to bring it about. They can be small steps, but DO something. Think differently. Act differently. As you start the momentum you will find that things start to go your way, by your own initiative, through the contributions/reactions of others, and through the seeming magic of meaningful coincidence.

      Keep your faith. You do have the power to bring about the changes you desire.

  3. Z says:

    Hi. Ive been writing as well as envisioning the certain affirmations. Is it necessary to stick to one concept for a certain period of time. What is the best n most effective method”

    • Matthew says:

      Hi Z,

      Concentrated focus is definitely one attribute that speeds manifestation because you continue to direct your thoughts and life energy into the new pattern that you desire. But how long that period of time need be is open to interpretation. If you can effectively release the pattern from your mind in the full knowing that it is now coming into fulfillment then continued focus may not be necessary. Your confidence in its fulfillment is enough. But if you are like many people you may also find it helpful to periodically revisit the new pattern you desire in order to strengthen and clarify it in your mind. So while you may initially spend a long time crafting the affirmation that you want and visualizing its existence in your life, you may then decide to simply revisit on regular intervals, such as for a few minutes during a mediation session, to “top of the tank” with fresh and continued focused energy.


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