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Bobby Cappuccio: A coach's thoughts on affirmations

Why positive affirmations aren’t as effective you might think.
Bobby C Headshot color 2236

Have you ever purchased a self-help book, attended a seminar, watched a video or listened to an audio program where the presenter shared with you techniques such as affirmations, promising you unlimited potential, financial freedom, the body of your dreams, or perhaps total freedom from guilt, allowing you to get in touch with your inner socio-path? You gave your full attention to the program, excited with anticipation about all of the miraculous changes you were going to make, helping you to manifest all of your hope and dreams.

But what if you dutifully practiced your affirmations and your life, or your body, still hasn’t been transformed beyond your wildest dreams? Well then, surely it’s entirely your fault, because after all if someone’s published a book they’re clearly an expert, aren’t they?

Ibrahim Senay is a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Senay and his associates conducted an experiment to determine how our self-talk affects our behaviours. A group of volunteers were split in half. The first group was told to contemplate whether or not they would work on solving some anagrams. The second group was asked to think about the fact that they would be shortly working on solving some anagrams. It’s a subtle distinction, but significant, the difference between “Will I do this?” and “I will do this."

Now, which group do you think performed better? Traditionally, wouldn’t you expect it to be the second group? After all, they were the group that was employing the power of affirmations. Surprisingly, it was the first set of volunteers who performed better on the task.

Senay conducted the same experiment repeatedly, each time the results were the same. A later experiment involved another two groups of people. The first group was asked to contemplate whether or not they would stick to a new exercise program. The second group was given an affirmation declaring that they would stick to their new program. Again, the results were the same. The group asking, “Will I?” had much more commitment than the group stating, “I Will."

So, why would an open question be far more effective than a definitive declaration? Senay interviewed his participants to try to find out. The group that had the question “Will I?” tended to believe that because the question was open, they felt a greater sense of autonomy and accountability to making decisions that benefited their well-being. A sense of personal responsibility loosens the mental constraints that bind us to blame, victimisation and excuses… unless of course it’s someone else’s fault. In contrast, the other group (“ I Will”) answered “because I would feel guilty or ashamed of myself if I didn’t.”

Guilt and shame, despite their popularity, are ineffective motivators. They won’t encourage you to achieve your goals, and leave you feeling… well, guilty and ashamed. It’s far better to explore the values that drive you to achieve a goal.

Here’s why affirmations don’t always work:

  1. Declarations are final. If we announce, “I will," it cuts ourselves off from other possibilities. This can trigger the fear of a loss of freedom; by not sticking to our affirmation we gain the benefit of exercising our freedom of choice. Additionally, any action short of completely fulfilling our affirmation can be perceived as a failure. This makes many of us feel about as anxious as a balding man, with a comb over, in a ceiling fan shop!
  2. We’re subjective about our past. We might be saying, “I will” today, but our mind holds the memories of our failures of the past. We fear being judged or criticised over the gap between what we say and what we do, and that can be enough to stop us from following through on the affirmation.
  3. Performance anxiety. Saying, “I Will” focuses us on the outcome. For example, an affirmation such as “I will lose 20 pounds" is actually quite daunting, and can deter someone from committing fully to their new exercise program. Whereas “Will I lose 20 pounds?" allows more room for us to concentrate on the process, makes us feel more in control and allow us to approach change at our own pace.

So, if affirmations aren’t exactly unfailing, what do you do? Obviously you could resign yourself to the belief that false hope is better than no hope at all, or, you can try the following three suggestions if you choose.

  1. Be open. Instead of a definite affirmation, try using more contemplative open-ended questions such as “will I” for example.
  2. Be specific. Instead of asking “will I exercise more”, instead ask questions such as “will I drink 75 ounces of water today?” It’s hard to measure vague ambiguities such as “more, better, healthier, etc.” whereas specific behaviours are measurable and therefore easier to stick to as well as motivating because it gives you confidence, knowing when you’re on track.
  3. Be proximal. As we mentioned, a goal such as losing 20 pounds can be daunting. Also, given all of our priorities in life, our motivation can wane a bit when a goal, as well as the reward is far in the future. Consider shorter term goals such as participating in a group exercise class or losing a single pound, which brings the reward of achievement close enough that you can almost reach out and grab hold of it.

Questions direct our mental focus, which is critical to our ability to do anything. Because where our focus goes energy flows and then the result shows. Perhaps a critical factor in the transformation you desire lies not just in the consistent exercising of your body, but also in consistently exercising your volition.

- Bobby Cappuccio

Who is Bobby?
Robert Cappuccio is a Certified coach, co-founder of PTA Global, former director of professional development at the National Academy of Sports Medicine (N.A.S.M.), and director of coaching for some of the worlds leading organisations in the wellness and fitness industry. Robert Cappuccino is an internationally recognised speaker and author in the field of wellness, coaching and behaviour change. If you would like to learn more from this renowned coach, you might enjoy his podcast.

P.S We asked Bobby what he is currently reading. He’s absolutely loving "Coaching the Brain: Practical Applications of Neuroscience to Coaching.” Well of course he’s reading this. Our coaches love this book too.

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