Affirmations: Beyond Stuart Smalley

You remember Stuart Smalley.  A character on SNL, played by Al Franken, Stuart Smalley was “good enough, smart enough and by gosh, people like me.” Stuart Smalley may have made you feel uncomfortable, or you may have laughed at the New Age silliness, but you probably wondered  about affirmations.

Facial expressions by

Facial expressions by

Because they work. Yep, if you do them right, affirmations work. Here are basic ways to get them to work for you:

1. Practice before you need them. I know, I know, practicing is for wimps.  How hard can this be? You don’t jump in the car and head for the freeway before learning how to drive; you don’t start learning how to cook by doing  coq au vin, and practicing makes affirmations seem natural and easy, something you want to reach for before you are panicked.

2. Keep affirmations positive. Your brain can’t distinguish between what you think you experience and what your body experiences. That’s why you scream and kick while dreaming, and wake up in a sweat from something that never happened in real life. What you tell your brain is what your brain reacts to–when you believe it. So when you are hiking in the desert and a snake strikes at your ankle, you might mumble, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” but your brain will feel quite afraid. Good thing, too. You need to be just scared enough to take effective action.

Notice the affirmation I just mentioned: “There is nothing to be afraid of.” It sounds positive, but it is not. It includes the word “afraid” and is phrased in a negative form, “nothing to be afraid of,” which lets your brain feast on “afraid,” –which is will. Negative affirmations are as powerful as positive–with negative results instead. If you have tried affirmations, this is mostly likely why they didn’t work.

A  good affirmation uses only positives to give the brain positives to work with. “I’m choosing to be calm,” “I am brave,” are both positives. It also helps you focus on something you want. Both help the brain provide thoughts in that direction.

3. Keep “Should” away from affirmations. “Should” is a two-by-four over the head. It heaps disappointment into your heart. Because “should” has come to mean “but you didn’t.” So when we say, “You should eat more fiber,” the second part of the sentence is, “but you don’t,” or “but I’m eating a donut.” “Should” is in the vocabulary of the gremlin–the voice in your head that spouts negative self talk. Stop “should-ing” on yourself.

4. Keep your affirmations short. Complicated directions don’t work when you are lost, and they don’t work when you are shaky, either. “I can do this,” “I’m ready to go,” work really well. “I’m ready to give this speech,” “I am happy to be here,” is acting “as if” and it helps you focus on the one important thing.

5. Keep your affirmation specific. Hate giving speeches? Right before you go on, think to yourself, “I am prepared for this speech.” Of course it helps if you are prepared. Your brain will override a big fat lie. Hate that client who’s calling? “I’m a polite person,” will help you be a polite person.

6. Repeat your affirmation. You probably didn’t clean up your room the first time you were asked, and neither do your kids. Your brain isn’t all that different. Repeating an affirmation several times calms the body as well as the spirit. Repetitions are used in rallies, prayers, and rituals for an excellent reason–they work.

7. Keep working on them. Some affirmations work better than others. If you have read this far, you are hoping they will work for you. They might not have worked in the past, but with practice, they will work for you.

Samples of affirmations you can use to develop your own

  • I can get through this
  • I am strong
  • I will be kind (instead of “I won’t get angry.”)
  • I choose what is healthy for my body
  • I feel grateful for. . .
  • I believe in myself

© Quinn McDonald, 2009 All rights reserved. Quinn McDonald is a freelance writer, trainer,  life- and certified creativity coach. She teaches people how to write and give presentations. She also teaches people who can’t draw how to keep an art journal.