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A better alternative to affirmations and why it works

The definition of "affirmation":

Definition: "...the practice of positive thinking and self-empowerment—fostering a belief that "a positive mental attitude supported by affirmations will achieve success in anything."

I tried affirmations once. It was early on in my journey to become a high-quality man who checked off all of the boxes, a man who has all of the high-quality traits listed on this website's main article for the subject.

First, I tried, "I am a high-quality man." And, for me, that didn't work.

Then, I used an approach taught by Jay Shetty and tried, "Why am I a high-quality man?" (The idea was that it would instinctively surface all of the reasons why 'I am a high-quality man' and start to make it a reality in my life.) But, unfortunately, that didn't work for me either.

Then, I watched this video and understood a core reason why affirmations never quite worked out for me:

Better Ideas: "But, the weird thing is, so many of us feel a huge disconnect between the person that we're trying to appear in the world as and who we actually are as a person...and this is kind of what affirmation culture gets wrong. You know, it sounds all well and good and helpful to look yourself in the mirror and say, 'You are powerful and you are strong...'. But, the truth is, your subconscious is harder to fool. If you look yourself in the mirror and say one thing and then behave the opposite way, your subconscious isn't fooled. It watched you do that."

Put another way, our attitudes are inferred from our behavior (see Nick Kolenda's "elicit congruent attitudes" lesson).

So, for example, if we behave confidently, our brain nonconsciously infers from our behavior, "Hmm, I'm behaving confidently, it must be because I'm feeling confident right now." And, our brain will elicit feelings of confidence to maintain congruence with our confident behavior.

*Note: If our behavior was not congruent with our current attitudes, our brain would be in a state of cognitive dissonance (which is the "huge disconnect" Better Ideas talks about above). And, the brain dislikes that mental discomfort. So, it looks to our behavior for information and generates attitudes based on that information in order to remain congruent as often as possible.

Affirmations without action is like taking the reverse approach. It's like trying to suggest an attitude to ourselves first, hope our nonconscious brain accepts it, and then hope our behavior changes accordingly in an effort to remain congruent.

If, however, we suggest an attitude (say, with the use of an affirmation) that's not backed up with action, then our nonconscious brain will reject that attitude. And, as a result, there will be no behavioral change. That's because, once again, our nonconscious brain looks more to our behavior to generate attitudes than it looks to mere conscious verbal suggestions of the attitudes we'd like to have.

Stepping away from that psychology for a moment, I think that's also why I've had so much success with my new antifragile ego system.

It doesn't rely on affirmations, it leverages reminders.

It starts from a place of identity not because I said so (e.g. "I am a high-quality man"), but because it's how I live (e.g. "I always go for it and do my best no matter the situation because it's who I am").

And, I think that points to a nugget of wisdom Aristotle was trying to share.

As much as I'd love for it to be true (and as easy as it'd make it for all of us to change ourselves faster), Aristotle did not say:

Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly say we are. Excellence, then, is not an act, but an affirmation.”

Aristotle instead said:

Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

And, in my experience, it's a great practice for growth to take this quote literally and focus on the habits — the behaviors — that drive real changes in identity over time.

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Lucio Buffalmano and Transitioned have reacted to this post.
Lucio BuffalmanoTransitioned

Thanks Ali

I've never tried affirmations as a way to set new habits because I felt uneasy about them.  I think you've perfectly encapsulated the issue for me.

So when you have time if you don't mind sharing the detail, what exactly have you changed on your affirmations to link them into the new habits and actions you are taking to support those habits.

BTW I generally skim self-help books and see if there's any nuggets there I should focus in on.  When I did read cover to cover was the willpower principl it taught me a lot about how to motivate myself and I haven't got around to it yet but I've heard good things about the atomic habits book.

It is a bit like that Whack a mole game. You're working long hours and kicking goals but your social and your health suffers.  Or you are between gigs and you have plenty of time social sports etc  but you're not making Bank.

I think this is where having an understanding of willpower and habit to cement in a good routine is so important.  Otherwise you will drop the ball in some pparticulararea when the pressure is on.

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano

Ali puts a few of his journalling over here:

my new antifragile ego system.

Glad you liked it, Kevin, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Quote from Transitioned on October 16, 2021, 2:27 am

I've never tried affirmations as a way to set new habits...

Yeah, it's more that many people try to use affirmations to change who they are.

They want to become confident, become someone who is loved by others, become wealthy, become this or that thing.

And, the truth is that (at least in my experience) taking consistent action to become a different person is more effective than only saying you're a different person.

If someone wants to change who they are, they have to combine their new attitude with behaviors that supports their attitude.

*Note: For example, if you use the affirmation, "I am a dominant person," and yet, you only ever use submissive communication, your brain won't believe you and it will reject the affirmation.

Quote from Transitioned on October 16, 2021, 2:27 am

So when you have time if you don't mind sharing the detail, what exactly have you changed on your affirmations to link them into the new habits and actions you are taking to support those habits.

To be clear, I don't use affirmations anymore. I use reminders.

And, the difference is that affirmations are supposed to be effective without action. (This is as the term is defined by New Thought and New Age terminology.)

So, for example, if you use the affirmation, "I am assertive," and yet, whenever you communicate you take the passive route, by definition, that affirmation is still supposed to make you more and more assertive over time somehow.

And, for the vast majority of people on earth, that's not practical.

That's why the difference in my approach is that instead of saying, "I am assertive", I might say, "I am worthy of fair treatment and respectful communication." And, by backing up that mindset (that reminder) with actual action, it's no longer an "affirmation". It's a reminder that I can keep in place in order to remember to actually be more assertive in certain situations.

And, the more often I behave assertively, the more my brain believes that I am, in fact, assertive. And, over time that changes who I am.

I become assertive.

Quote from Transitioned on October 16, 2021, 2:27 am

BTW I generally skim self-help books and see if there's any nuggets there I should focus in on.  When I did read cover to cover was the willpower principl it taught me a lot about how to motivate myself and I haven't got around to it yet but I've heard good things about the atomic habits book.

If you want a great place to get started, feel free to take a peek at this awesome summary I found recently:

As you'll notice, James Clear mentions that behavioral change is broken down into three layers:

  1. Outcome
  2. Process
  3. Identity

Many people focus on the outcome and try to "hack" their way to that outcome by skipping the process and the identity completely.

So, if they want to be physically fast, they don't get up and do the work to become a little faster each day (process) or change their identity to "I am a runner" (identity).

Instead, they change their self-image by using the affirmation "I am fast". And, then they wait for the results to come in.

But, the nonconscious brain observes their behavior — observes them ignoring the action it takes to become fast — and rejects the affirmation.

And so, unfortunately, they remain stuck.

Quote from Transitioned on October 16, 2021, 2:27 am

It is a bit like that Whack a mole game. You're working long hours and kicking goals but your social and your health suffers.  Or you are between gigs and you have plenty of time social sports etc  but you're not making Bank.

I think this is where having an understanding of willpower and habit to cement in a good routine is so important.  Otherwise you will drop the ball in some pparticulararea when the pressure is on.

Yeah, I think this is also where identity helps.

If you have a lot of career-related work to do but, for example, you know you're a runner, you'll make the time to run because running is who you are. (It becomes harder to imagine not doing something the more closely it's tied to who you are.)

So, having identities for each habit is one way to maintain consistency. And, at the same time, I'm also cooking up another way (that's still being tested) that I'll be sharing with the forum soon. In my opinion, it's Ultimate Power worthy :).


Let me know if there's anything else I can clarify or share.

Lucio Buffalmano, Matthew Whitewood and Transitioned have reacted to this post.
Lucio BuffalmanoMatthew WhitewoodTransitioned

After writing the post above, I had a dream last night that made me wake up with a good laugh.

Ali: "There's an old saying, 'Throw me to the wolves and I'll come back leading the pack.' So, if you were thrown to the wolves and you wanted to come back leading the pack, you would probably want to adopt the identity of a wolf trainer and then train the wolves each day so you could come back leading the pack. Using affirmations is like saying, 'I am an alpha,' and then possibly getting eaten alive."

The first approach leverages James Clear's three layers of behavior:

  1. Outcome: Leading the pack / becoming the alpha
  2. Process: Training the wolves daily
  3. Identity: "I am a wolf trainer."

The second approach (affirmations) skips the process and identity layers completely. And yet, one is still supposed to expect a complete life change without any of the work it would take to change.

And, in my opinion, that's very unrealistic for any truly impactful endeavor.

Matthew Whitewood has reacted to this post.
Matthew Whitewood
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