Positive Affirmations: Why they don’t work, and a superior method to generate positive change

The subject of positive affirmations came up a lot when I started studying personal development back in my late teens. An affirmation is a sentence stated in the present tense, about an attribute you would like to possess, a habit you’d like to adopt, or an experience you’d like to have. In order for it to be effective, you must visualize, inject emotion into the recitation, and feel the feelings of actually having that which you’re after.

So, I decided to give it a go. For over a year and a half, I spent 20 minutes a day reciting what I called my “mandate,” a beautifully written collection of my favorite positive affirmations that stated how happy and successful I was. Some mornings I felt pretty good: I began to stand up straighter and my voice became more confident.

But as time went on, the passion for it faded. Instead, the words lost their power, as I recited the meaningless string of words by rote. With every word I spoke, I felt the falseness of it. After all, I wasn’t happy and I certainly wasn’t successful. In truth, I was depressed and frustrated. I was kidding myself! Positive affirmations had failed.

So why is it that some people (mainly those who profit from the self-help books we buy) report such success from positive affirmations, while the rest of us talk the talk but fail to walk the affirmation walk? The answer is buried deep within our unconscious minds…

What is your mind doing for most of the day?

If you spend a good 20 minutes a day saying your positive affirmations, and getting pumped up and feeling good, what thoughts are you thinking for the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day? Most likely, the same old conditioned and repetitive thoughts you always think. If there are things in your life that aren’t going the way you would like, I guarantee there are specific thoughts that are responsible for it. When most people recite positive affirmations, they make the mistake of believing that the words carry the power. But words have no meaning in and of themselves. For example, we all collectively agree that the word “cat” refers to a feline animal, but really, “cat” is just a sound that we can make with our mouths, not the furry animal curled up on your lap.

Words are like a finger pointing at the moon. They are not the moon itself.

~ Zen Buddhist saying

If the power isn’t in the words, where is it? The power lies beneath the words, in a deeper level of mind. This deeper level has five “modalities” (methods of representing reality) that correspond to our five senses: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (feel, both textural and emotional), gustatory (taste), and olfactory (smell). Our internal dialogue is called auditory-digital and is a more conceptual modality. Here’s the important point:words merely conjure up one or more of these other levels of thinking. If I ask you to think of a cat, you translate the written word into a visual image of a cat. Perhaps you hear her purring and imagine the texture of her fur too?

It’s this deeper level of thinking that is important for creating positive change in your life. For most people, the “mind chatter” of the internal dialogue is so intense, they aren’t conscious of the other, deeper levels of thought. The “chattering monkey” drowns out the subtler, more powerful tools of the mind.

Here’s a little demonstration of how words relate to the deeper modalities of thought: I’d like to ask you NOT to think of a large, pink elephant… Go ahead, don’t think of a pink elephant at all.

You pictured a pink elephant, didn’t you? Yes? But I asked you not to! Okay, I’m not playing fair because it’s impossible not to visualize the object (if you genuinely did not see that elephant, it’s because your mind chatter is so great, it literally obscured your visual thought – it was completely out of your conscious awareness – but sure enough, that elephant was there).

It is the image that the word triggers that is important in manifesting what you want, not the word itself. When I asked you NOT to picture the elephant, the mind ignores the “intention,” and simply creates the object. The mind doesn’t compute “negatives.” Words like “don’t,” “avoid,” and “not,” are ignored by the mind, and the object is rendered in the imagination as clear as day. The pictures you generate consciously (but mostly unconsciously) are responsible for how you are creating your life. If you focus on avoiding something “bad,” you are really creating an image of that bad thing in your mind. And the mind is the most powerfully creative force in the universe ~ it will do everything to create or attract the reality of that image to you. After all, you’re focusing on it so much, you must want it, right?

The mind is a goal-seeking mechanism. You are already a master manifestor

The most fundamental purpose of your conscious linear mind is to decide what you want. You literally picture something in your mind’s eye, and that picture becomes your “goal-image.” This is working 100% of the time, all day, every day. You are already a master at manifesting, after all, you’ve manifested your entire life based exactly on the thoughts you’ve been thinking ~ the goal-images you hold in your mind. The trouble is, as I said above, you are mostly unconscious of your goal-images. Your mind-chatter drowns them out, so you are unaware that you might be focusing on what you don’twant. Or perhaps you are focused on what you want to avoid: another sure-fire way to create or attract it. Already being a master “manifest-er,” all you have to do is refocus your thoughts on to that which you want, and keep them off that which you don’t want (or want to avoid).

So, while so-called “positive affirmations” might make you feel good while you are reciting them, they have little impact on your life because of the thoughts you have for the rest of the day. Change your thoughts and you change your life. Easier said than done! How do you do this?

Swap positive affirmations for this simple principle of manifestation

Get yourself a pocket notebook and carry it around with you for two to three weeks. Every time you notice yourself thinking about something you want to avoid, or something you don’t want, write it down. That’s all. Start out small. Get curious about your own mind. Right now, it is in charge of you. But soon enough, you will have taken that control back. After a few weeks of marking down your “don’t want’s,” you should have a long list! And, you will have become much better at becoming conscious of your own thoughts. From then on, whenever you notice you are thinking about what you don’t want (remember, thinking includes visual, auditory, kinesthetic, gustatory, olfactory), it’s simply a matter of re-focusing to what you do want.

To make this task far easier, take up a form of meditation. Almost any technique will help. Meditation quiets the mind, and enables you to clear out the trash, so you are better able to focus on what you want. This constant refocusing of the mind throughout the day will train you to create or attract that which you want, rather than that which you do not want! This is a far more powerful process than so-called positive affirmations.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Afraz Mar 21, 2017 @ 8:30

    Great article just out of curiosity how did you come across this great method? Did you figure it out yourself? I came up with something very similar after reading The Power of Your Subconscious mind by Dr Joseph Murphy. And also, do you think this method is useful for things like social confidencE?

  • Robert Fairbairn May 27, 2016 @ 4:03

    I have to disagree with you on your statement “Positive Affirmations: why they don’t work” . They worked very well for me thank you. I was able to use them with great success and I’m still using them over 35 years later. I haven’t written any books about them or about anything else. I did start by using short statements and I put different feelings into them as I said them. After a while I started adding various mental pictures of what I wanted to achieve to the mix. We have to remember that a lot of this stuff is stuck in our subconscious mind so we need to overwrite it with the new thoughts. Saying your affirmations and picturing yourself being successful as you fall asleep is one of the best ways to do this. Thanks for putting your information out there though as I’m sure it is helping a lot of people to move ahead in life.


  • anna May 28, 2015 @ 11:50

    While I agree on some points you made, having experienced manifestation and watching friends and family adopt the same and manifest as well, it’s hard to believe affirmations simply don’t work. Some of the most successful people I know do this, and I never even knew it until I started myself. And they aren’t the self help publishers either 😉

  • Fayadh Jan 4, 2015 @ 0:50

    Wow. That was a great read, and it was like it was made For me, I realise my mind always thinks about what I don’t want to happen and that made me feel down. But I gave focusing on what I want a try, and I feel great now! Thanks!

  • Roland R Nov 29, 2013 @ 2:52

    What a great resource you are! Insightful soul, with a real gift for clear communication. I need someone like you to remind me of what is really important.

    So, I’m signed up now. I’m inspired.

  • Phil Soffe Nov 25, 2013 @ 3:24

    Hi Jim,
    Found you today.
    Love reading what you write especially as you seem to have the same mind set as myself about all the over hyped, mind stuff. I’ll keep reading because much of what you write encourages me to continue my objective to, like yourself, bring much needed common sense to the self -help arena.
    Phil Soffé

    • Jim Nov 28, 2013 @ 20:25

      Great to have you on board Phil 🙂

  • Milind Shah Apr 8, 2013 @ 19:58

    I have always been reading books on positive affirmations , gratitude, etc ….. but i always feel that when i say or write down an affirmation about what i want in my life ,, theres a very strong inner voice that whatever you are saying or writing in this notebook is never going to happen, its like fooling your self … for eg : If you recite everyday that “I am rich and the universe showers abundant wealth on me “… when you are totally bank rupt makes no sense!!…. because you know what ur condition is and you understand that its gonna take a long time to overcome it ………

    • Jim Apr 16, 2013 @ 14:34

      You’re right. It is absurd to lie to oneself. And on top of that, it doesn’t work. As you know.

      But what you can do is change the frame a little bit. Ever been hungry, so you dropped what you were doing and went to the refrigerator for a snack? When you noticed the hunger, the solution would have popped into your imagination as an image (perhaps fleetingly, or unconsciously). Then, you acted on your motivation, and solved the problem.

      Take that into any goal. Visualize your outcome (to develop motivation), and act on that motivation.

      If it’s a long-term goal, or requires many steps to achieve, practice your visualisation every day – not to imagine you have it now, that’s bullshit – but to build the motivation and tenacity to get you through the inevitable stumbling blocks.

  • julie lindberg Apr 3, 2013 @ 9:18

    Is there a cost involved here?

    • Jim Apr 3, 2013 @ 10:27

      Hi Julie,

      The cost is the time and effort you have to put in to master your mind. The decision is yours as to whether it’s worth it or not.

      For me, the decision was a no-brainer. Change what I was thinking and doing, or wind up sick (or worse).

  • anand Mar 2, 2013 @ 3:27

    ninety percent of our thoughts are negative. for if’s and but’s world is always different. as you said only for a few days we feel that confident, energy and after that vibration slowly drains out.

    • Jim Mar 2, 2013 @ 9:37

      You’re right that the world is different for each of us. Some people think about what they don’t want, and that causes worry, fear, anxiety. Others think about what they do want, and that creates excitement, fun, and motivation.

      You have to decide for yourself what experiences you would like to have, and think accordingly.

  • Andrew murphy Jan 31, 2013 @ 11:40


  • Judith Dec 21, 2012 @ 6:32

    You are absolutely brilliant…thank you so much for this article.

    • Jim Jan 6, 2013 @ 17:53

      You’re most welcome. Glad you got something out of it 🙂

  • Shikha Dec 19, 2012 @ 18:26

    Lovely article. Now I knw where i was mistaking 🙂

  • Nandu Aug 6, 2012 @ 17:22

    the best & the most lucid article on affirmations i’ve read!!!

    • Jim Aug 12, 2012 @ 12:28

      Excellent. Pleased you liked it.

  • Bill Jul 1, 2012 @ 23:05

    Have you ever been a member of Scientology ?

    Are you / your website somehow connected to Scientology?

    • Jim Jul 1, 2012 @ 23:11

      Hi Bill,

      No, don’t know anything about it. Other than it was created by a sci-fi writer, right? Although I am a Tom Cruise fan 😉

  • Shanan May 24, 2012 @ 13:44

    I loved the “Pink Elephant Theory”. I never made through more than a few “positive affirmations” because my brain automatically comes up with the negative response to them … then doubles the negativity (i.e.- aff.:”I have nice feet” me:”For a dragon.” neg: “Dragon ha! I bet that troll feet look great next to yours.” Now where did I put that notebook?:)

    • Jim May 24, 2012 @ 13:56

      Lol! Love your example. And, yep, that’s what happens. But, now you’ve got an opportunity. Because you now know that you are responsible for your own thoughts. Even the negative ones!

      The best way I maintain my sunny disposition 😉 is whenever I start to feel bad, or notice a negative thought, I use that as a trigger to refocus on what I want. That pulls me off what I don’t want (the negative), and gives me positive feelings and motivation to act.

  • Johanna May 5, 2012 @ 2:27

    Very very very nice.
    I absolutely admire that you always have very practical tips to try out, which is the ssence in marking things work, right? 🙂

    • Jim May 6, 2012 @ 10:35

      Thanks Johanna. Yes, I believe there has to be a practical element to everything ~ especially anything to do with the mind 🙂

  • xenia ayiotis Jan 22, 2012 @ 8:09

    Great article!

    • Jim Jan 22, 2012 @ 8:17

      Thank you, kindly 🙂

  • yuuusuf aden Jan 12, 2012 @ 9:36

    i am going to practice this information thanks

  • Behnaz k Jan 11, 2012 @ 19:08

    Thank you for a great article to remind us about the power within us and how to tame our mind! I will try the little notebook!

    • Jim Jan 11, 2012 @ 22:34

      Glad you enjoyed it, thanks!

  • Steve F Jan 11, 2012 @ 14:37


    That’s a great way to utilize positive thinking in a more powerful way. You are so right; being positive often means avoiding the negative, which ironically is what we’re subconsciously focusing on.

    Thanks for giving yet another powerful use for journals. I’m thinking of writing a book on what journaling can achieve. It’s been proven to work in helping achieve other goals, such as weight loss, too. Subjects who used their journal to write down what they ate and when lost substantially more weight than those who did not.

  • Stefoh Jan 11, 2012 @ 2:09

    will definitely try the journal thing!

    • Jim Jan 11, 2012 @ 4:04

      Absolutely, that’s great. It’s all about becoming more and more aware of your internal processes and feelings. The more you make conscious, the more choice you bring into your life 🙂

  • George Jan 10, 2012 @ 11:08

    Nice, I’m going to do this.