If you were going to categorize all the thoughts you have about yourself in a day as either compassionate or critical, which category would be bigger?
Most of us have a constant stream of thoughts running in the back of our minds from sunup to sundown — and this inner voice has plenty to say about how we look, act, think and feel.
“A lot of the time the things we say to ourselves aren’t really conscious, and a lot of our self-talk is critical,” says Tabitha Kirkland, an associate teaching professor in the University of Washington Department of Psychology.
Self-talk can be positive or negative, but it’s all too easy to slip into those negative thought patterns. This is because our thought patterns are learned. What we think on a regular basis changes our brain structure, making it easier to unconsciously repeat the same thoughts and ideas.
In other words, the more you tell yourself you aren’t good enough, the easier it is to think and believe it.
But this also means you have the power to change your brain function and train your self-talk to be more compassionate.
One way to do just that? Positive affirmations.
What are positive affirmations?
“Positive affirmations are a form of self-talk where you consciously stop to notice, appreciate and give credit to yourself,” Kirkland says. “It’s a way of affirming for yourself who you are and who you want to be or where you want to get in the future.”
Traditionally, positive affirmations are thought of as phrases you repeat to yourself to cultivate a more positive self-view. Things like, “I am worthy of love,” “I am grateful for my body” and “I have the ability to achieve my dreams” are all positive affirmations.
But practicing positive affirmations doesn’t mean you have to repeat the same statement three times at 7:00 a.m. on the dot each morning (though if that’s your jam, we’re all for it).
Practicing positive affirmations can also look like finding ways to affirm yourself throughout your day. This might mean pausing to tell yourself you are a talented and valuable co-worker when you notice self-doubt creeping in at work or saying to yourself, “I am beautiful” when you catch your own eye in the mirror.
How do positive affirmations work?
If the idea that you can change the way you think about yourself by repeating some positive phrases feels a little far-fetched, we get it. But over time what you tell yourself does have the ability shape how you think and feel.
To understand how, it helps to first know some of the science behind how we think.
The human brain is made of billions of neurons, which are cells that send messages between the different brain regions. When you think, neurons fire electrical impulses along pathways in your brain, which makes those neurons more sensitive and strengthens the pathways. In contrast, the brain will eventually trim the connections between neurons when those pathways aren’t used.
So, when you repeatedly think something, you are strengthening that pathway in your brain, making it easier to fall into that thought in the future.
“On a biological level, the familiar roads you travel tend to be the ones you will travel in the future,” Kirkland says.
Positive affirmations help you to disrupt this process and take a different road. Instead of falling into the groove of the old pathway, you intentionally tell yourself a new thought so that you build a new route in your brain. Over time, this reinforces the pathway and makes it easier to have positive thought patterns.
Your thoughts influence your actions, so for example, the more you affirm for yourself that you have the ability to succeed at work, the more likely you are to take the time to learn new skills or take on new projects.
Plus, Kirkland notes that you are more likely to notice and recall experiences that affirm what you think. If you tell yourself, “I am a valuable co-worker,” you’ll be more likely to notice your successes and give yourself grace when you make mistakes.
Tips for setting positive affirmations that stick
When you first start saying positive affirmations, it can feel uncomfortable, disingenuous or downright silly. But if you can work through the weird, these affirmations will get easier and can reshape how you regard yourself.
Let’s get started.
1. Make it meaningful to you
The affirmations that will work best for you are the ones that are personal and meaningful.
Instead of picking an affirmation from a book or online, think about what you want to encourage in yourself — be it confidence, gratitude, presence or anything else — then come up with phrases that support the growth of that trait and mindset.
Kirkland recommends looking to your role models for affirmation ideas. If you admire that one of your mentors is generous, a positive affirmation that resonates most with you might be about your capacity to be generous and giving.
2. Develop a practice
Creating new thought patterns is all about frequency and consistency, Kirkland says. This means trying to practice positive affirmations every day.
For many of us, saying negative things about ourselves feels normal (even though we’d never talk to a friend in the same way), whereas the idea of telling ourselves kind things feels foolish.
“Affirmations are a simple idea, but it’s hard for us because they don’t come naturally since we’re used to negative thought patterns,” Kirkland explains.
Consistent and frequent practice will help you break out of these old thought patterns. The more you practice affirmations, the less silly you will feel and the easier it will be to think positive thoughts about yourself.
3. Demote your inner critic
Part of the reason positive affirmations are difficult is often when you say something kind, a voice in your head will pop up to tell you all the reasons it’s not true.
With all the societal pressures to act and look a certain way, it makes sense if you have an inner voice that’s self-critical. But it's also possible to detach from that line of thought.
When your inner critic flairs up, try to remember that it is only one voice and that you are no longer giving it the mic. Mindfulness, or bringing awareness to your thoughts, can help you do this.
“Combining positive affirmations with trying to be mindful helps you notice when your inner critic shows up. It allows you to pay attention and decide how you want to respond,” Kirkland says.
For example, if you tell yourself, “I am a supportive friend,” and your inner critic tries to point out past experiences where you made mistakes, ask the critic to take a step back so that you can hold space for the new, positive thought.
4. Turn thought into action
Action is the key to making positive affirmations stick.
The relationship between your thoughts and behaviors works both ways: The more you think something about yourself (e.g., that you’re kind), the more likely you are to behave in that way; and the more you behave in a certain way, (e.g., take kind actions), the more it cements that idea of yourself in your head.
In other words, affirm that you are a supportive friend and take actions to show up for your loved ones. Together, your thoughts and actions can reshape how you perceive yourself.
“We can make our affirmations a reality through our actions,” Kirkland says. “Surround yourself with people who see you the way you want to see yourself. Think about what qualities you want to embody and what you can do to act on them. You can create that world for yourself.”