In my work as a life coach I do a lot of work with people’s limiting beliefs. A limiting belief is something you tell yourself as to why you can’t be successful. These stories are bad, because they prevent us from taking responsibility. They literally decrease our ability to act, which is bad for our self esteem and creates havoc in our lives.

As a remedy to limiting beliefs, many coaches suggest some form of affirmations. These affirmations go by many names and come in many shapes and sizes. You can call them mantras, affirmations, self love, subliminal messaging, personal PEP talks, or whatever floats your boat. Some of these are truly terrible and obviously ineffective. As a coach I’ve tried some of these techniques on myself, and I even *gasp* suggested them to clients in the past. However, I’ve learned my lesson, and I don’t use them as much anymore. When I do use affirmations, I do it differently than before.

The affirmation business is big and it stems from the equally deceitful dogmas of Prosperity Gospel and “The Secret”-style Law Of Attraction. These Name-It-And-Claim-It dogmas are bullshit. They are false lighthouses that lead to the shipwreck of many many dreams. The real problem with these affirmations though, are not that they are ineffective. The real problem is that they can hurt, and most of the time they actually do hurt the very people they are supposed to help. I’m not pulling this out of thin air, here’s some research to support my claim.

Let me illustrate with an example: Imagine an obese woman trying to lose weight through the use of affirmations. Let’s call her Sandy. Every morning Sandy stands in front of the mirror going: “I am skinny. I am skinny. I am skinny. I am skinny. I am skinny…” Ten times, or for a full minute, or whatever the motivational speaker told her. What do you think happens now? Well, she’s not losing weight, I can tell you that much. Affirmations don’t really burn that many calories. No, what’s happening is that she is lying to herself. Her subconscious and her common sense knows this, because she isn’t stupid or blind. “No you’re not,” her common sense replies, “I have evidence to the contrary.” So instead of “building a skinny identity” or whatever these charlatans want her to do, she is achieving the opposite. She is actually reminding herself that she isn’t skinny. This hurts her self esteem and makes her weight goal seem even more unattainable.

So what should Sandy do? Well other than changing her lifestyle? She should do those anyway, preferably with the help of a qualified dietician. I mentioned earlier that I still use affirmations a bit, but that I do it differently. So here is my suggestions, not only for Sandy, but also for you:

State Your Goal And Your “Why”

I always recommend to my clients to read their written goals every day to keep it fresh in their minds. However, attaining your goals require a lot of hard work and sacrifice, that’s a little demotivating. Also, when you read your goal, you will realise how far you are from achieving it, and that can be very demotivating, unless you measure your progress. So I make sure they include their “Why” in their written goals. This will offset the demotivation because, as Nietzsche said, “If you know your ‘Why,’ you can bear almost any ‘How.'”

For Sandy, that means stating something along the lines of: “It is [some date in the future], and I weigh [her target weight]. I achieved this through a healthy diet and daily exercise. I feel energetic, mobile and I love my body.” As a quick exercise, you can check this goal against the SMARTIE methodology. Is it Specific? Is it Measurable? Does it include an Action she can take? Is it Relevant to Sandy’s situation? Does it have a Time set as a deadline? Is it Inspirational? Does it include an Emotion or feeling to associate with success? It does all of that, that is why it’s a great goal.

Measure Your Progress

Measuring your progress isn’t really a affirmation type exercise, but more of an journalling exercise. However, it is a great thing to do in lieu of affirmations. Every morning (or evening, or whatever floats your goat as long as you do it once a day) make a note of your progress and where you are at. There will be times when you don’t make progress, in fact, in those times you will actually lose ground. Life sucks like that. In those times, go back to your goal, particularly your “Why.” If it is necessary, learn from your mistakes and make some changes in how you try to attain your goal. Whatever you do: don’t give up! Not without consulting your life coach first anyway 😉

For Sandy, this would mean writing down her weight everyday. It would also be a good idea to keep track of what she ate, how much exercise she did, and anything else she thinks may influence her weight. In this way she can see how her actions are bringing her closer to her goal.

Remind Yourself Of The Truth

If you are going to use affirmations to boost your self-esteem, at least make sure they are true. Also make sure that it is valuable. This is an important point, because the truth shall set us free, but lies destroy us. So say true, but positive things about yourself. If you find a true fact that makes your goal seem more attainable, write it down and use it as  a daily affirmation.

For Sandy, this can include statements like, “I like healthy food, because it tastes fresh” or, “Many people lost as much weight as I did, If they can do it, so can I.” These statements are as true as they are motivating. I now feel motivated for her! Go Sandy!

Align Yourself

If you know your values, it is a good idea to check them every day. Make sure that you are still living according to those values, and that they have a healthy effect on your life. I discuss my client’s values with them extensively. I even have 2 structured sessions designed around values, the second session being about determining whether or not their values manifest healthily. Further, you can also use your affirmations-time to remind yourself of your life purpose, if you know what it is. If you don’t know your life-purpose, or think you don’t have one, well then it’s time to see a coach!

I have no specific advice for Sandy on this right now. I would have to see her for a few sessions to help her figure out how she wants to do this.

It is important that we carefully decide what we tell ourselves. We aren’t as stupid as we think. Lying rarely does anyone any good, and lying to yourself won’t do you any good. Make sure that your affirmations are true and motivating, otherwise they will hurt you.