I have experienced a lot of change recently. A new province, a new home, a new job. Exciting, positive and filled with optimism, but still a lot of change.
There is a sense of nervousness and uncertainty that accompanies so much newness. It is times like these that I lean in to exercises and habits that I have developed to get me through challenging times and help me thrive.
One of my favorite and most effective exercises is the use of positive ‘Affirmations’. Below is an article I wrote for Medium several years ago on the subject of the ‘Power of Affirmations’. #YouGotThis
When he was imprisoned on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s days involved a number of routines. There was the back-breaking labor he was forced to perform, of course, but some of Mandela’s routines consisted of mental habits he formed in order to survive, two of which I find particularly interesting. One is that he told himself over and over again that the guards were human beings. He believed that if he saw them as people who had spouses and children and families, he could resist the hardening effects of his incarceration. He also believed that it would influence their behavior toward him. Mandela’s other mental habit was to recite a poem he had memorized. The poem “Invictus” was written by an otherwise unknown English poet named William Ernest Henley in 1875:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Whether Mandela knew it or not, these two mental habits were a form of daily affirmation. He repeated them to shape his thoughts in a positive direction and build his confidence. He put these mental skills to good use in a long struggle for freedom that, more than anything else, required an unwavering belief in his ability to accomplish the task at hand.
Simple affirmative phrases can change the negative thoughts that undermine your confidence. I have about 10 affirmations that I’ve developed over the years. I keep them on a written list posted at home and use them whenever I face something new, such as the time I had to attend meetings with Toronto’s business bigwigs to acquire the funds to buy and renovate Maple Leaf Gardens. I quietly say to myself, out loud, phrases such as “You got this, Ivan”; “Nobody outworks me”; “I choose to be happy”; and my favorite, which I borrowed from Madiba: “I am captain of my ship. I am master of my fate.” These statements help me reclaim my personal power so that I don’t walk into a situation and allow someone else to determine how I feel or perform. They are also expressions of my belief in myself that calm me and help me channel my energy and anxiousness into my performance — just like elite athletes under immense pressure in the final play before time runs out.
Affirmations are more than a warm and fuzzy technique used by coaches — they are a proven method of shaping and controlling our thoughts. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that affirmations combat stress and can lead to positive effects in performance. The study showed that self-affirmation boosts the ability to solve problems under pressure and reduces the negative effects of chronic stress.
Another study published by the Association for Psychological Science indicates that self-affirmation enhances our performance by making us more aware of our errors and more emotionally comfortable with accepting and correcting them. That’s an interesting finding: Affirmations don’t give us false confidence, whereby we deny the fact that we make mistakes at all and pass ourselves off as awesome or perfect. Instead, they make us strong enough to say, “Okay, I got that wrong, and now I’m going to fix it.” That kind of thinking improves our performance.
An effective affirmation reminds you of your values and beliefs — of who you are. That is why I say, “You got this, Ivan.” I am reminding myself of my belief that I can succeed even when nothing is handed to me. It’s shorthand for “Ivan, you have what it takes to do this because you have done it before and you are the kind of person who will make it through the storm.” Your affirmations are brief versions of deep beliefs about yourself. For example, Muhammad Ali’s famous statement “I am the greatest” is shorthand for his belief in hard work and toughing it out against the odds. He has also put it this way: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Develop affirmations for yourself. Focus on creating phrases that emphasize your best beliefs about yourself or your cherished values. These will remind you of what makes you unique, strong and capable. Use phrases like “I will never quit” or “I am strong” or “I have done it before and I will do it again,” if those tap into your beliefs. And use them every day, especially in the morning and right before any task that makes you anxious or anticipate the worst. Just remember, it’s not a magic button. You can’t just start affirming yourself and hope that negative thoughts or stress will disappear. You have to repeat, repeat, repeat and ensure that the phrases are your actual beliefs and values, not things you wish you cared about.
Repeat until you are so practiced at genuinely (not just wishfully) replacing fear and worry with belief in yourself that you don’t even notice you are doing it. If you practice deliberately and often, you can rewire your brain until you think and feel different, simply because you made yourself do it.