When’s the last time you paid yourself a compliment?
It’s easy for us to heap praise on our friends and colleagues, but when it comes to saying something nice about ourselves, we’re stingy. And, yet, when it comes to negative self-talk, we're completely generous. In fact, some of the negative things we say about ourselves, we’d never even say to our loved ones.
So why is it so hard to say something positive about ourselves? And so easy to wallow in negativity?
Well, we can blame evolution.
Human beings are hardwired for negative self-talk. Neuroscientists call this “negativity bias.” In prehistoric times, being able to see the negatives of a situation protected hunters and gatherers from danger. But in today’s world, negativity bias makes us perceive work meetings as potential threats and email typos as a disaster.
That’s why we obsess over past mistakes and criticism, repeating them in our minds, like an endless play-by-play of our flaws.
But we don’t ever replay compliments or praise in an endless loop. If anything, remembering a compliment can make us feel embarrassed or even dismissive. We say things like “Oh they didn’t really mean that” or “They probably say that to everybody.”
This defense mechanism can also explain our tendency to self-sabotage. We convince ourselves that we could never apply to that job because we don’t meet all of the criteria. We tell ourselves not to pursue a goal because we’ll never succeed. We put in half the effort on a project because fully committing could confirm that you’re a failure.
The prehistoric part of our brain thinks it’s saving us from danger, but in fact, it’s just holding ourselves back from our full potential.
So how do we change this negative talk? Luckily, it’s no different from replacing a negative habit with a positive one. The trick is to shift your focus from negative thoughts to positive affirmations.
We’ve put together tips and exercises to help you tame negative thoughts and build a routine of positive self-talk. Try some of these exercises and we promise you’ll feel instantly better. So go on, say something nice about yourself today!
What are positive affirmations and how do they work?
Affirmations are positive words or beliefs that you repeat to yourself. Now, before you write them off for being “cheesy” or worry that you’ll sound like the Stuart Smalley character on Saturday Night Live, hear us out.
Positive affirmations might feel awkward at first, but try to remember that it’s because our default mode is the negativity bias. That’s why we have to cultivate positive self-talk the way we’d develop any other habit, like meditation or exercise.
Plus, positive affirmations can benefit our lives in so many ways. Here’s how positive affirmations can boost your personal and work life:
Affirmations can help you be more present. Reciting a positive affirmation is a form of mindfulness. Instead of fixating on negative thoughts, you’re shifting your attention back to the present moment.
So the next time you find yourself thinking “I’m never going to succeed at this job” try to recognize the negative thought, and then say something that returns you to the present. For example, you can try saying “I may be scared, but I have what it takes to learn and improve.” Or, "I am going to do my very best today." This way, you’re not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, but you’re grounding yourself in the now.
Affirmations can help cultivate gratitude. By focusing on the positive aspects of a situation, you might find that affirmations can help you feel more appreciative. Instead of worrying “I don’t have enough money for the life I want” you can try to shift your mindset to the present and appreciate what you do have. So the next time you’re worried about the things you lack, try to take stock of the things you do have and say “I have everything I need right now.”
Positive statements can help comfort you during overwhelming times. When facing the unknown, it’s helpful to nurture yourself with affirming words. Positive words like “I can handle this” or “I have what it takes to succeed” can steady you in uncertain times.
Affirmations can empower you. As we mentioned, practicing positive self-talk is like building a good habit. It will take time and regular practice, but as you develop this routine, you’ll find that repeating these positive phrases will increase your confidence and self-esteem. That’s why everyone from Olympic athletes to entrepreneurs incorporate positive thoughts to help them during stressful times.
How to practice daily affirmations
You can incorporate daily affirmations into your morning or evening routine, before important meetings, or whenever you’re feeling down. You’ll be surprised just how much better you’ll feel after reciting an affirmation for a few times. Some people like to recite their affirmations out loud, others like to write them down, and some do a combination of both. See which practice feels best for you.
Here are other ways to incorporate positive affirmations into your daily life:
Affirmator cards. These are great if you’re new to affirmations or if you could use more cheer in your life. The affirmator cards were created by a comedian so they’re inspirational without sounding like a cliche.
The set comes with 50 cards, all with inspiring messages about work, productivity, taking initiative, and more. There’s also an Affirmators Card series for career inspiration. Tuck these cards into your planner or carry them in your bag. Bring them out before a big meeting or important job interview or whenever you need a coach to cheer you on. The cards are also whimsically designed so you can display one on your desk or nightstand and smile every time you see them.
Write in your journal. You can’t talk about positive affirmations without talking about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. This seminal book on creativity has a whole section on positive affirmations and the role they play in nurturing our creative spirit. Cameron also addresses our self censor and inner critic, and how it’s so much easier to dispense negative self-talk than it is to sing our own praises.
An exercise you can do is to pick an affirmation (for example: I’m a talented artist) and write it down ten times. If you find your inner critic surfacing and saying, “Who do you think you are? You’re not an artist!” try to explore where those thoughts are coming from.
Maybe through journaling, you’ll discover that a teacher once criticized your artwork or a parent discouraged your creative efforts because they were creatively blocked. By identifying the truth behind the negative sentiments, you give them less power. Now you can work with the positive affirmation and use them to replace previous beliefs.