I know this runs contrary to every meme and bit of self-help advice you’ve ever heard; even thinking of it makes you look at your refrigerator magnets or those framed little sayings you held so dear.
But, alas, affirmations don’t work.
Research shows that no matter how often you say, “I will be stronger when challenged,” that declaration won’t, in fact, motivate you to be stronger the next time there’s a boulder in your path.
Ditto for, “I am beautiful and empowered,” and any other positive, first-person statement that supposedly will help you conquer a belief about yourself that is less than positive.
So, you’re looking at the mountain and you keep repeating, “I will climb it, I will climb it,” but does that really help? It doesn’t.
The affirmation is more like a doorstop. It doesn’t throw your brain into high gear, trying to figure out precisely how you’re going to climb that mountain and, moreover, how you’re going to overcome the impediments and obstacles that could doom your climb to failure.
Obviously, the downside to the affirmation also applies to everyday life and how you can be more resilient and resourceful the next time life puts a boulder in your path. Or what plan of action you should take when you pledge that you’ll improve your communication skills or learn to manage your anxiety or any other goal you might set.
But, thankfully, there’s a solution: It’s called a question.
Why questioning works
Research by Ibrahim Senay and his colleagues showed that participants trying to solve anagrams fared better when they prepped themselves by writing down “Will I succeed?” twenty times and fared worse when they prepped with the affirmation statement “I will succeed.” So why is that? Following are five reasons you must toss those affirmations and start usingquestions to gear yourself up when you need to.
Asking questions puts your brain in search mode
Asking questions shakes up your status-quo thinking
Asking one question leads to others
Asking forces you to answer (and puzzle it out)
Questioning opens up blind spots in self-knowledge
When you ask yourself “Will I succeed?” your mind begins to search for the answers to what you could do to succeed and, equally, what might stand in the way of your possible success. Unlike the affirmation which just puts a smile on your face and rose-colored glasses on the bridge of your nose, the question forces you to plan.
You’ve turned to affirmations in an effort to convince yourself that you can do something you’ve previously either had trouble with or outright failed at. Let’s say that you’ve had trouble voicing your own needs in relationships and revert to being a people-pleaser as a default setting. Telling yourself that “I will speak my mind” won’t force you into examining what precisely stops you from doing so. By comparison, asking “Will I speak my mind?” should bring up both the historical reasons why you haven’t and potentially ways that you can in the future. This is especially valuable if you’re tackling a problem that is part of a repetitive pattern in life
In my latest book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, I detail what I call “default settings,” or unconscious behaviors learned in response to an unloving mother’s treatment, many of which are maladaptive in nature. Using the format of the question, research shows, facilitates understanding. Let’s say that your goal is to be less self-critical and that one way to do that is be more self-compassionate. (This is research based.) Asking yourself “Will I be self-compassionate?” opens the door to other questions, including why it’s so hard for you to be accepting of yourself and what obstacles stand in your way. An affirmation won’t do that.
The chances are good that you suspect that your inability to get something done—deal with relationships, stop procrastinating, lose weight, or any other goal—has to do with some flaw in your character, which it doesn’t. Asking yourself, “Will I manage my relationships better?” “Will I stop procrastinating?” “Will I lose weight” etc. gets you into a proactive stance and forces you to come to terms with the underlying reasons you haven’t been able to get whatever it is done.
This is more of a summary point rather an additional one but it’s worth emphasizing.
When you use affirmations, you’re essentially confirming something about yourself you wish to be true. But what if your affirmation is based on something you’re not seeing about yourself? What if you’re not reaching your goals because you’re not seeing the obstacles clearly? What if you’re having trouble losing weight because you haven’t confronted how you self-soothe with food?
If that’s true, then managing your stress has to be step one before you can lose weight, and no affirmation about losing weight is going help. But asking, “Will I manage stress better?” will help get you on the right path.
What if you haven’t gotten as far in your career because you haven’t tackled how you avoid failure at all costs and are unable to take any risks? Questioning that fear of failure, rather than repeating, “I will get a better job,” or “I will be promoted,” over and over, will more likely put you on the path.
A question yields answers; a statement doesn’t.
Senay, Ibrahim, Dolores Albarracín, and Kenji Noguchi, “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense” Psychological Science (2010), vol.21(4), 499-504.