Why Positive Affirmations and Visualizations Don't Work (and how to fix it)

Why positive affirmations and vision boards fail people.
Why positive affirmations and vision boards fail people. | Source

Long before New Age mainstream productions made them popular; affirmations and visualizations were used routinely in behavioral Psychology to help people overcome crippling anxiety, enhance self-awareness and overcome subconscious, self-sabotaging thought patterns and behaviors.

Unfortunately, when these topics went mainstream, they were over-simplified to make them palatable to the masses who are forever parting with their money in the quest for an easy fix or simple solution.

The results have been mixed. When people use them properly, these techniques inspire and change lives for the better. Unfortunately, when people don't use them properly, they don't work at all, and it can create or worsen a sense of despair or hopelessness. This is where “mumbo jumbo” in pretty packaging leads people astray, despite having good intentions.

Affirmations Don't Work

You've heard the rhetoric. If you tell yourself something positive and repeat it numerous times daily, you will believe it and it will become your reality. In theory, this is true. The Law of Attraction that is all the rage is not a new thing. What we direct our energy towards, manifests. However, this has been way, WAY over-simplified in mainstream products.

The premise of affirmations is that you are changing how you think, thereby directing positive energy towards an intention. This is a good thing. It is the foundation for changing lives for the better. This conscious level of intent is a spark, it ignites enthusiasm to take action. Without positive, constructive action; it doesn't matter how much you tell yourself something. If you fail at lighting the spark; the follow through doesn't happen.

Why Your Affirmations Fail

If you start off immediately with a positive affirmation that you do not find believable, guess what happens?

The part of you that recognizes it as being untrue resists the message, sometimes passionately! Then, not only have you not “installed” the new mental programming, you're reinforcing old self-sabotaging thought patterns and making them stronger. Uh-oh!

Here is an example:

Martha is 80 pounds overweight. She struggles to breathe when she climbs a flight of stairs. Her health has increasingly become worse and she knows her actions over the years have caused this. Her problems not only surround the physical, but the emotional reasons she turns to food, the guilt she feels afterwords and how miserable she feels in her body. Then there are the mental thought processes that plague her with negative self-talk. She looks in the mirror and her inner critic screams things at her like “fat”, “gross” “ugly” etc.

There are a whole lot of things going on with this scenario beyond just a need for her to get weight under control. Over the years, she's developed many negative emotions, thoughts and habits that have sabotaged many areas of her life and self-esteem. This is something a simple positive mantra alone is not going to fix.

One day, while feeling a bit overwhelmed, Martha flips on a TV program where they talk in the most basic terms about affirmations and positive self-talk. She feels inspired by this and decides to give this a try, but all she has been exposed to is the over-simplified message of “see what you want in your minds eye and it will happen if you believe it strongly enough".

Feeling positive, she decides to write up some affirmations using the basic rules she's been taught; “keep all the words positive and stay focused on what you want to see”. Fair enough. She sits down and comes up with the following: “I am thin, healthy and feel great in every way”. This sounds like a good affirmation. It's positive, no negative words in it like “no” or “not”. It embodies in a brief statement everything she wants to manifest.

Martha sits down enthusiastically, with the best of intentions, and reads her affirmation. Immediately a part of her resists, even bristles.

Why isn't this working? Because the affirmation is not true. Her resistance to this message is much stronger than the energy she is putting into it and it is now another form of self-sabotage despite her best intentions.

The result? Nothing. She gets nowhere. In a week or two if she bothers to persist, she'll see it's not working and will either A. give up hope and feel worse about herself or B (hopefully) learn more about this process and how to make it actually work.

How to Fix It

What Martha should have done all along was build up. Start with something believable. “Every day I am taking positive steps towards improving my health and self-image”. This is a good one. It's true at its base, because by simply practicing her affirmations she's doing just that. If she is also exercising, making better dietary choices etc. this affirmation becomes immensely positive.

  • It instills incentive
  • provides motivation
  • reinforces positive new behaviors and habits

This is what a good affirmation does.

Good affirmations are not lies we wish into being truths. They are truths we use to motivate ourselves to keep putting our best foot forward. As Martha progresses, she can use different affirmations.

Let's fast forward 3 months. Martha has dropped 20 pounds, she can jog a full mile and feel great and people are starting to notice she has a glow and is looking and feeling better. At this point the “I am thin and healthy” mantra is still not appropriate.

Yes she's doing better, but she has 60 pounds to go and although she feels better than she has in years, she is still working through some health problems and has a long journey in front of her. A better mantra here might be “Every day I continue to improve my health on all levels: mentally, emotionally and physically”.

This is true – everything she has been doing has boosted her confidence, given her more strength and vitality and she feels like she can conquer anything. Again, this message is true, it reinforces her positive new habits and inspires the desire to keep going. THAT is what affirmations are for, not wishing things into existence.

Lying to yourself even when it's positive creates a very negative reaction.
Lying to yourself even when it's positive creates a very negative reaction. | Source

Visualization and Vision Board Hype

Everyone has heard of the trendy “vision board” and using visualization to bring your dreams into reality. This, more than affirmations, has been oversimplified and can lead people astray, despite their being a base truth in it.

Once again, a vision board is a way to get your thoughts and ideas out into the open, to put energy behind them. This is what sparks motivation, planning, enthusiasm and all the other good stuff that goes into setting and reaching goals.

As it is presented in some programs it makes it sound like if you just visualize and focus hard enough, the universe will just drop your desire into your life. This isn't how life works. If you want something – you not only have to have vision, but a good plan, dedication, and be willing to work for it.

An effective vision board can work well if you keep it in proper perspective.

My vision board doesn't only have images of my lofty dreams, It has lists of smaller goals to get me to my larger ones. It also contains papers with lists of things I've already done to move me towards them. When I look at my vision board I don't just see pretty pictures of pipe dreams; I see a living, breathing expression of my inner desires that I am actively working toward.

A good vision board:

  • Helps you focus
  • Promotes creative thought
  • Provides encouragement
  • Keeps you motivated
  • Shows progress at a glance

That is how a vision board should work. It's more than just a pretty place to wish for things.

Visualizing

One aspect of visualization that does help people is to really get into the exercise. You must see yourself already having met your goal. As you do this, notice your surroundings, how you appear, how you feel, where you are, what you are doing etc. This can help people who have no real distinct life goals to really get inspired.

Visualization promotes creative thinking. Perhaps as you visualize yourself in this scenario, you notice things you weren't expecting. Those are the things you want to write down and refer back to.

If you're just pinning pretty pictures and some positive quotations and daydreaming; your vision board is never going to work for you.

How to Fix It

The first step in positive visualization is to have a clear goal in mind. Many people will focus on “things” like money, rather than what they are actually after. It's not the paper money you want; but what it provides: security, stability, more freedom etc.

Rather than focus on the million bucks, direct your energy to discovering how you would most like to earn that money. Since most of us aren't going to have winning lottery tickets dropped into our lap; the next and most logical choice is to focus on what you need to do to develop a stronger sense of security, stability, and balance in your life.

You might evaluate your current path and determine that you are in the wrong job, or even on the wrong career path altogether. You may decide that what you need to find the proper work/life balance and stability you desire is to freelance on your own, or to work in a different field or for a different company. From here, you can start to visualize.

Sit down, free from distractions and focus. Say to yourself "I have the stability and security I want. Where am I? What am I doing?"

As you do this pay attention to what you see. Really put yourself into the situation and feel it like you're living it. It may not work the first few times you do it, but allow ideas to come and go freely.

Over time you'll see that you have inspirations that solve problems and from there you can develop your vision board and a plan! Do this exercise as many times as it takes to have a clear vision in mind. It is not an instant process.

Vision boards should contain:

  • One or two primary goals
  • Images
  • To do lists
  • Questions to research
  • Inspirations
  • Progress
  • Organization

Vision Boards should be used not only to pin pictures and images, but also lists of things to do, lists of things you have done, and any sudden inspirations you get should be written down and placed immediately before you can forget them. It is often these brief light bulb moments while showering that change lives.

Any other things that keep you focused on the goal you developed in your visualization can also be added, but don't clutter a vision board with everything under the sun; clutter leads to chaos.

Pick one or two primary goals at a time and keep adding to the board regularly. Keep your board in a prominent, but not too prominent place. This way you remember to look at it regularly, but it isn't so “in your face” that you start to ignore it.

When you are patient with visualizations and take time to really dig into your vision boards and review them; you'll find that they inspire, encourage and keep you on track. They're for more than just wishing; they are an actual tool that can help people reach more of their potential.


Further Reading

Transforming pain into power is a truly empowering self-help book. It explains why we naturally avoid pain, running from it or pretending it doesn't exist and then shows you techniques for transforming pains and turning your struggles around so that you actually benefit from them. A great read with fantastic reviews for good reason. It is a great tool for overcoming self-sabotage and for digging yourself out of bad behaviors and mindsets with a new perspective.

Using EFT with Affirmations

This video does a great job of sharing how to use a process called Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) along with affirmations to make them more effective while also combating frustration and anxiety at the same time.

Have affirmations and visualization practices worked for you?

  • Yes, absolutely. I've reached many goals by using them properly.
  • Somewhat, they kind of give me a little focus and inspiration, but I think they could work better.
  • Not really. Some fleeting inspiration perhaps but I slipped back into old mindsets and behaviors before they really stuck.
  • Not at all, this stuff is a bunch of hooey.
  • None of these really fit. I'll share my thoughts in the comments below.
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© 2015 Christin Sander

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Comments 48 comments

ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 2 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks Sheila for the read and comment :) much appreciated. Glad you enjoyed the hub.


Sheila Mcdowall profile image

Sheila Mcdowall 2 months ago from Darwin, Northern Territory Australia

Hi Christine, I love this hub and I must say you have written based on your own experiences. What works and does not work. Your hub is very effective because it speaks clearly how mainstream positive thinking is being sold and interpreted in different ways and your examples are precise and can be understood straight forward by those in this journey of being positve and attracting what we want to happen in our life.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 7 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks much for reading and commenting. Your feedback is much appreciated :)


Deborah Demander profile image

Deborah Demander 7 months ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

You have done a great job explaining these commonly misused techniques.

Thank you for your insight.

Namaste


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 11 months ago from Midwest Author

The fact is when we tell lies - we resist on a subconscious level what we are saying. The point is to make affirmations that work in the longrun not sabotage you. If you read the hub; you'd see where I talk about evolving one's affirmations over time as well. Nowhere did I say affirmations will work in the short term, but they won't work in the long-term either if what you are saying is untrue - instead you have to keep them positive and on point so that they indeed affirm a goal and not just repeat a lie.


Lia 11 months ago

They often don't work for the simple reason that people treat affirmations as if they are magic words that are intended to change their lives immediately. The affirmations aren't magic words. The idea with affirmations is that you are changing your subconscious mind. And that isn't going to happen overnight. Saying affirmations and expecting your life to be changed overnight - even in a few weeks or months in some cases - is as ridiculous as expecting a full-grown oak tree from an acorn in one day or a week. Nobody expects that and people would remind them how ridiculous they were being if they were trying to rush the process. People should be treated the same way when they refuse to use an affirmation because "it's not true yet." The resistance won't be there if have the understanding of why you are saying the affirmation and how it's supposed to work.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 13 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks sujaya so glad you enjoyed it.


sujaya venkatesh profile image

sujaya venkatesh 13 months ago

a very useful hub


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 16 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks Jewels, I appreciate the feedback and I agree with you.


Jewels profile image

Jewels 16 months ago from Australia

It's wonderful to be reading alternatives to positive thinking. It's used a lot in new age circles and I've never bought into it because it is like placing another layer of untruths over the real issues. Well done.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 16 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks Say Yes - glad you enjoyed the hub :)


Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 16 months ago from Big Island of Hawaii

Thank you SO MUCH for setting the matter straight!


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 17 months ago from Midwest Author

Hi Hazel, I like and use that strategy as well for goals, breaking them up into smaller, more consistently achievable goals does indeed help us grow further. Thanks for your insight.


Hazel Abee profile image

Hazel Abee 17 months ago from Malaysia

Many times it does not work for me because of my refusal to accept things as it should be ... there are many things that can not be changed .. They are as they should be .. so acknowledging them creates a better acceptance and we are ready to move on ..

Then I trained myself to break it down to stages ... like earning my first 100 while loosing then going for 1000 and next major step would aim for the millions ..... as your 100 would be consistent and your 1000 is also consistent .. then the million is surely achievable


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 17 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks so much for the read and comment Catherine. The quotes being framed and on the wall serve as a sort of vision board being visual reminders of important things that motivate :) much appreciated.


CatherineGiordano profile image

CatherineGiordano 17 months ago from Orlando Florida

What a fantastic job you have done on this topic. You have clearly explained how to get affirmations to work for you. I have not heard of a vision board. It sounds like a great idea. what I did this year was take a few of my quotes that I used in my "Quotes From Famous People" hubs, typed them up, framed them, and put them where I would see them everyday. These quotes serve as reminders and they they motivate me. It really works for me. Voted up ++ H+


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 17 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks DebMartin for the read and comment. It's definitely more than just a mental activity for sure and that's where people get hung up. I appreciate the feedback. :)


DebMartin 17 months ago

Well said. If I'm going to express what I want whether in an affirmation or a vision board, I've absolutely got to pay attention to my feelings. Too many make affirmations and vision boards and the like a "head" activity. You just can't get it right unless you check in with your heart regularly. A daring hub. Thanks for speaking up. d


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 18 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks for the awesome comment Paula - you made my day. Much appreciate the shares too. :)


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 18 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Christin. BRAVO!! This is a winner, soon to be seen on Page one. I'm always impressed with logic, realism and SOLUTIONS.

Your hub (as always) is meticulously written and jam-packed with brilliant information, having the power to actually HELP our fellow man.

You have masterfully proven the true POWER of words!! I thoroughly appreciate this. UP+++ pinned.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 18 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks for reading and commenting Lade_E - a lovely weekend to you as well.


Lady_E profile image

Lady_E 18 months ago from London, UK

Thanks. I believe in the power of Affirmations. Words are powerful and words have life but it's important to use an effective Technique to get the best results. Thanks for sharing. Happy Weekend.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 18 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks Cornelia - I have the same issue, fortunately the mind can be trained and you can overcome some of that, or at least bring it under control. I do a lot of mindfulness exercises and meditation practices and they have helped me immensely with an ability to focus. Good luck with it and thanks so much for the read and comment.


CorneliaMladenova profile image

CorneliaMladenova 18 months ago from Cork, Ireland

Thank you very much for these useful tips, Christin. The problem with me is that it is extreemely difficult for me to concentrate. My mind is always wandering about :(


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 20 months ago from Northeast Ohio

My pleasure Christin S.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 20 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks for the read and comment Easy Exercise - fear is a great self-sabotager for sure.


Easy Exercise profile image

Easy Exercise 20 months ago from United States

Hi Chrstin,

Great post. I agree! Goals are the answer.

I am re-reading a book for the third time and the author Kevin Hogan details how fear is such a powerful emotion especially for the obese. Setting goals that are reasonable and making daily choices is where it all begins.

Thank you for the real world advise!


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 20 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks Kristen for the read, votes and comment - much appreciated :)


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 20 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Great hub Christin. What you said is so true and so right. Voted up for useful!


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 20 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks so much for the read and comment Babbyii much appreciated :)


Babbyii profile image

Babbyii 20 months ago from Alaska's Kenai Peninsula

Your words and what you believe in your heart definitely have to match up. Great Job on this!


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 20 months ago from Midwest Author

Hi MonkeyShine, very true - faith in oneself is truly what works and that is fostered by focusing on truths - not wishful thinking :) thanks for the read, vote and comment - much appreciated.


MonkeyShine75 profile image

MonkeyShine75 20 months ago from Los Angeles, California

I agree

I feel that positive thinking isn't faith, and it's faith that works. If someone has to make themselves think positive, it indicates they're full of doubt.

Great hub-Voted up-And AWESOME


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 21 months ago from Midwest Author

Thank you David - much appreciated :)


David Stone1 profile image

David Stone1 21 months ago from New York City

Another piece of outstanding authorship. I couldn't agree more. Keep up the good work.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 21 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks GarnetBird glad you enjoyed the hub!


GarnetBird profile image

GarnetBird 21 months ago from Northern California

Very sensible!


Venkatachari M profile image

Venkatachari M 21 months ago from Hyderabad, India

A great topic! It is very inspiring and useful. You have presented the whole message very perfectly. I enjoyed it a lot and am glad that you have done it so well. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.

Voted up, awesome and sharing.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 21 months ago from Midwest Author

Thank you MHiggins - so glad you enjoyed the hub. :) I was a psych student for a few years in a previous part of my life and I still enjoy these types of subjects.


MHiggins profile image

MHiggins 21 months ago from Michigan

Very well done, Christin! Great hub. This is something that everybody needs to read if they are doing affirmations to gain success. Great research and very well written!


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 21 months ago from Midwest Author

Thank you MsDora - much appreciated. So glad you enjoyed the hub :)


MsDora profile image

MsDora 21 months ago from The Caribbean

Christin, you got to the root of the matter. "It's not the paper money you want; but what it provides: security, stability, more freedom etc." Great suggestions on vision boards.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 21 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks AliciaC so glad you found the hub useful. I appreciate the read and comment.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is an interesting and thought provoking hub. I've never heard of a vision board before, but it sounds as though it could be a very useful device if it's used wisely. Thank you for all the suggestions. You've started me thinking about how I can apply them to my own life!


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 21 months ago from Midwest Author

Thanks so much connieow; that's the exact problem I was trying to highlight, that something intended to be helpful can go wrong and lead to even more pain and frustration. Glad you sorted it out. I appreciate the read and comment. :)


connieow profile image

connieow 21 months ago from El Cajon, CA

When I first tried using Positive Affirmations and the result was more misery, I thought there was something wrong with me. Then I tried rewording them, discovering the way I defined the words used mattered. What a great feeling to discover I was not so damaged I could not be repaired. Voted up and useful, thank you so much for this great information. Blessings.


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 21 months ago from Midwest Author

Very true. I've written them out and put them on vision boards etc. the key is that they are believable and like you said to stick with it. Thanks for the read and comment :)


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 21 months ago from Planet Earth

Interesting topic! I have to say that writing them out has worked for me. They're not 'overnight transformations,' but the process of writing, combined with the positive elements of a really good affirmation, somehow imprints the message in a better way.

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