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Why Affirmations Don't Work: 4 Simple Shifts to try instead

Or: Lessons from the Little Engine that Could

little engine that could

Have you wondered why affirmations don’t really work? We've all tried them. How many planners, lists, downloads, meditations, visualizations, classes, sessions, readings, journeys, Pinterest boards have you tried to be more productive, happier, reach your goals? Are you assessing your NYE Resolutions, or goals for the year? Did you carefully choose your word of the year? How’s that going? If you are in line with statistics, by now not so great. If things are going along super - HOORAY! I am cheering you on and  bookmark this blog if you need a little tune up at some point. 

When we struggle to keep pace with our goals, resolutions, we may turn to books, self-help strategies, metaphysical practices, positive thinking, affirmations. The question comes up, Who’s the failure when that doesn’t work out either? Did you face west? How strong was your focus or commitment? Where others bringing you down? Was it not the right time? What’s your limiting belief? What if there’s a completely different perspective, another question or way to think about it?

What if, despite feelings of overwhelm, a desire to shift or break patterns, bring more of (fill in the blank - money, love, health, kindness, organization)… into our lives, we stopped going outside of ourselves for the key, and considered the key is already within.  

Let’s explore goals and growth in a mind, body, spirit view

with science and strategy. 

We don’t arrive here as little babies thinking how can I prosper - who can I serve? We come here wanting to do stuff, and do it well, with curiosity, and community. If it happens to include being really nice, then our motivators will include being really nice - but not everyone wants this. They may be wired to be super, intensely curious, so they highly value being inventive, curious, resourceful. 


Most of us have tried affirmations, heard about the power of positive thinking or the idea that taking on an optimistic attitude will manifest your goals, help you become more positive, create some change in your life. We tape a phrase to embody, or goal to master onto a mirror or in a cabinet door, or learn to repeat it to ourselves like a mantra. There are tons of self-help or pseudo-spiritual books and products, and speakers that promote feel-good topics like the power of attraction, which is often little more than dressed up language for wishing your way to change, or even a touch of fake it til you make it. Some of these practices even border on toxic positivity, and mask us from seeing the resources and options of the circumstances right in front of us. We may get some bursts of success or feelings of hope from any of these, but it’s often more like a sprint and we soon find it is not sustained for the whole journey we set out to take (like those goals we create at the beginning of the year - This time will be different!). This leaves us feeling that sinking feeling of not following through or failing, AGAIN - or some other self-talk about how much we can’t get “there.” Prayer, mantra, collective consciousness and the like, are spiritual practices that are not quite the same, so for today, we’ll set these aside. These ideas of positive thinking, affirmations, abundance mindset, are like our Little Engine That Could saying, “I think I can!” without noticing that the Little Red Engine actually paired this with some powerful keys… 

Sure mindset is important and affirmations are a nice idea,

but here’s some mindset science: 

According to Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at NYU, thinking alone might actually be counterproductive. You read that right. The premise of many “manifest your best life“ models can be compared with dressing for success. If you feel it, you will be it, draw it to you. OK so far, right? Many of us have experienced how different we feel when we wear sweats or when we wear something we feel very attractive in. We do carry ourselves differently and we are received/perceived differently, so far it tracks. Sticking with our Little Red Engine, “I think I can,” And did. 

So what’s the problem with promoting a positive mindset shift? Well, nothing, except, it’s not sustainable and it doesn’t actually do much with the way we are wired when we rely on this. Something is missing. Oettingen ran a number of studies on a broad spectrum of topics ranging from losing weight, to various relationship hopes, or career and wealth goals. Across-the-board the results were the same. Simply engaging in positive thoughts alone actually led people to fall short of their goals and is deceiving. Our mind is masterful at responding to what we tell it. We are great at pretending, this is why we enjoy a good movie. Our mind gets a ride of emotional experiences, and we might even have dreams about it later. If I say, picture a green monkey in a purple and yellow spotted tree with the heat of summer and sounds of ocean waves, most of us can conjure some essence of this. We’re so good at it. There is no such thing as a non-creative human. With positive thinking or affirmations, our minds become tricked into thinking  WE’VE ALREADY ACHIEVED OUR GOALS! Or we WILL but HAVEN’T, which means because it keeps us on the track we set it on, our minds enjoy the fantasized achievement or stay in a striving mood. It begins to like indulging thoughts of the future and we are blocked from considering all the real life obstacles that may be in the way from us getting there. We get hits of rewarding chemistry every time we imagine ourselves in attainment, but the discord of not ACTUALLY living the experience of the award. So, not only were affirmations not enough to create successful outcomes, but in most cases contributed to lower satisfaction and dropping of goals! Does that mean we should get rid of all of our dreams and positive self-talk? No, of course not. Mindset and perspective is important. At the risk of seeming contradictory, changing our thoughts can change our life. Dwelling, or ruminating, on these obstacles is not helpful either. We all have experience with this too! So WHAT DO WE DO?

In the science of motivation studies, they discovered when we are bringing change and growth into our lives, the way our minds create conditions for best outcomes given the right cues. It will consider both the present and the future in partnership if we make it a habit of frequently comparing our desired future with our current reality, regardless of the category of our goal or needs. This is called Mental Contrasting. This sets up the mind to be creative, expansive, and realistic. Ask - what small step can I do today to get a little bit closer. It’s like if you want to write a book. Can I write a whole book today? No, but I can write a page or so, tomorrow a few more, maybe I’ll have a chapter in a week. In a few months the draft is done, and in a year or so, the book is complete. Many goals are like this, a marathon, healing, preparing for an event. And no matter how small the progress you keep making, these tiny steps every day until you reach your goal is mental contrasting at work for you! For mental contrasting to really thrive you need to get in the habit of practicing it on a daily basis by making these small comparisons a part of your routine. My goal is… I can feel, sense, imagine living into it… And also, this is a view of my present… the tangible circumstances, making it easier to recognize and live into small steps that move me closer, like our example of what it takes to write a book. From there, you can turn any new action into an automatic long lasting habit, or finally write or learn an instrument, or complete a goal or change that is on your list! 

Here are 4 things to keep in mind that can help make your goals stick, no matter what category your plans are in,

and the inside scoop of the Little Engine’s story: 

  1. Microshifts: Keep it short. The easier the habit is to fit in a routine, the more likely you’ll stick to it. It’s common to believe we have to set big goals or what’s the point? Yet, we run the risk of lowering our self esteem when we don’t achieve them. Instead of creating an ambitious plan for the next week or month or year, commit to a three - five minutes a day routine. You can always build up from there with more detail. Sure, the Little Red Engine had a big goal - to get to the top of the giant hill and also to make the full run, but it was each inch along the way that created the success to get closer, and the sense of accomplishment that it was in reach as each length was gained.

  2. Stringing: Get Specific. The more detailed the better. A particular time of day, or location, or while doing something else that is already established makes it easier to stick to. If we’re doing it right before or after another action in our daily routine is very effective. This helps us consciously time actions to our environmental cues, which helps us to even want to do them because they become normal. Our Little Engine knew what they could do, so by attaching this goal to an established knowledge and action, it was primed to piggyback onto an already understood routine.

  3. Measurable: Make sure the action is repeatable, small, achievable. Actions set up this way land in the back of our brain to give us a pat on the back with a small hit of dopamine. When we say I won’t eat sweets, it’s not measurable and our brain doesn't know when we succeeded. Rephrase it like this: when I get a sweet craving I have a glass of water. Now our brain registers a positive feedback loop and helps us biologically to want to move forward and repeat. Hooray! I had water when my craving hit! Let’s do it more! Each rotation of the wheels is measurable. It’s not enough to say, “I think I can!” Little Red Engine applied that positive thought to a measurable action, supplying a boost to continue believing AND actioning.

  4. Repeatable: Begin again. Skipped a moment? Went back to a previous way of doing or being? No big deal. Each now is new. We begin again each day as it is. Simply begin again, and again. We can even scale back the goal into smaller steps. If our goal is to clear a room of clutter, instead of the whole dresser, maybe you start with a single drawer, or even part of the drawer, like a category of the contents. Make it as small and measurable as you need to to get that success loop running. When our Engine felt they couldn’t go on, started to bog or slow, they knew they could simply start again, and again, building on the successes of Micro-shifts, Stringing, and Measurable rewards, so the motivation to Repeat is high, refueled to begin again. This creates a feedback loop in partnership with their positive thought - I think I can! and keeps that momentum up the mountain! 

MSMR: Microshifts, Stringing, Measurable, Repeatable. Here’s a goofy stretch to pull it all together: a MS. and MR. working together - one is a daydreamer the other is grounded - who is who doesn’t matter - it’s the partnership energy to get it done best!

This applies to healing from triggers as well as meeting our goals. When we find we are visiting the same goals again and again, we may need to broaden our self-awareness with a little self- compassion and curiosity. Many of our obstacles come from unhealed wounds, anxieties, and from a history of coping rather than healing/growing because we often feel a need to get on with things or are unsure how to heal wounds like bullying, abuse, betrayal, or loss. By mental contrasting, we can ask ourselves, “What else is true?” to shift our perspective to the present. We can assess with our senses and our mind in an instant, or take some time with it, as we rewire and mental contrasting becomes more automatic, comparing and contrasting then and now, in mind, body, and spirit with a sense of awareness, gratitude, and wonder.

In steps that feel like the just right size, apply your awareness and perspectives with 1-4 above. In a kind and curious manner, we extend the invitation to our wounds to heal so that our being can grow beyond coping or moving on, making do. We restore a wholeness of our self to feel ready to be present in any circumstances. We want to heal and live happily, satisfied, and responsive, instead of feeling like we are striving, and reactive most of the time. Rather than reaching out for the answer, be willing to be still with yourself, allow your system to catch up with your present and feel safe, cared for. You will know. If you find these places of healing or obstacles need extra support and care, trust what will be nourishing. Is it a spiritual guide, counseling, music, an exploration, reshaping your goals? Having support for inner growth is not the same as believing the answers are outside of you. No one is an expert on you but you.

Be Like the Engine Who Could

Remember to keep your steps bite size, short, and measurable. Reflect on your goals as a positive outcome and also keep your attention in the present so you have forward view of the goal, develop resiliency, and can pivot as needed to land your goal as a reality. If you would like to pair this with a statement like an affirmation, create that statement from your known strengths and experiences to match your goals, like you can create from a question like, "What Else is True?" Reveal yourself instead of inventing yourself. Mental Contrasting and self-anchoring in your known strengths and experiences can help motivate you in a meaningful pairing to create the positive changes you’re looking for as you claim your space and even get to know yourself better as your present self in your mind, body, spirit truth. 

“I think I can,” was made from the Little Engine’s self awareness and past successes, in combination with Engine's future vision and sense of purpose. It was not made from an external statement that they were trying to WILL their growth into being because it was an appealing trait or accomplishment. Those successful with practices like manifest theory or abundance mindset on closer look are also engaged, like our Little Engine, and like our Engine, you are capable, interesting, and enough. 

Be Bold. Be Curious. Be Yourself. Be Connected.

Starting from perspective shift into your values, and microshifts into your actions, you can string specific behaviors and goals with other established patterns for measurable and repeatable outcomes, however small. They will add up! 

If you would like more support to tune-in, heal, clarify and outline your steps, you can always contact me directly for sessions


check out my What Else is True? Inner Wisdom Deck now available for pre-buy, and soon to arrive Companion Journal and Un-planner, and Book! I really believe if this post is helpful to you, the strategies shared in this deck with your regular use a few short moments every day or so will empower you further. This is exactly why I was inspired to make it.

In Kindness,

Dr. Birdi Sinclair

Spiritual Guide, Peace Coach

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