The Art of Neuroplasticity: Using Working Affirmations to Rewrite Maladaptive Core Beliefs
A powerful thing can happen when a person experiences attachment wounding, especially when it happens repeatedly or in a traumatic way. We end up drawing conclusions about why these painful things happen and usually the conclusions are incorrect. For example, “I’m horrible and that’s why people reject me” or “People won’t be there when I really need them and that’s why I can’t reach out” or “Nothing I do will ever make a difference and that’s why I will always be abandoned.”
Once these conclusions are drawn, our brains create neuropathways that reinforce these core beliefs. Every time our wound is bumped, the maladaptive core belief activates and emotions are released. Depending on how long we have accepted these core beliefs as true, the more challenging it becomes to debunk them.
One of the ways to initiate reprogramming is through affirmations. If you are familiar with Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmations (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me!”). That is an example of a positive affirmation. For some people, positive affirmations work amazingly well. They’re able to tap into that positive feeling inside and it just pumps them up. They tap into the amazing endorphins the positive affirmation makes and it brings joy.
It had the opposite effect on me. In the past, I’ve had therapists encourage me to do positive affirmations. I hated doing them for lots of different reasons, but mostly because I felt like I was lying to myself. Turns out, research-backed me up. A research study published in 2009 in the Psychological Science journal discovered that for individuals who did not believe the positive affirmations they were saying about themselves, it actually made them feel worse. It reinforced those maladaptive core beliefs instead of removing them.
One of the complaints people make when they are struggling with positive affirmations is it feels fake; it feels inauthentic. If I have a negative core belief wired into my nervous system and tattooed on my heart, saying a positive affirmation feels like a bald-faced lie. Now, because it feels like I am just lying to myself, instead of feeling better — I feel worse.
Never fear! All is not lost. Neuroscience has revealed that our brains have an incredible to change and reprogram themselves with positive affirmations if we make one small adjustment. We have to tweak the positive affirmation a little bit in order to make it feel aligned with our core truth. This small adjustment is called a “Working affirmation”.
Here’s one way to do that. We say this out loud to ourselves, “Even though my negative core belief (fill in whatever your negative core belief is), I’m open to the possibility that one day I will believe (fill in the opposite).
I’ll give you an example. “Even though my negative core belief states that I am not enough, I’m open to the possibility that one day I will believe I am enough”. When people use this formula for a working positive affirmation, it feels more authentic for them and thus it feels like they are being honest with themselves.
When I say, “I’m open to the possibility that one day, I’m actually going to believe that I’m enough”, it creates a sense of positivity, authenticity, and realness the other affirmation did not. As I started using these working affirmations I felt more comfortable, which allowed me to lean into the real possibility that one day it may be true. As I continued to say it to myself, I slowly was rewiring my brain and erasing the negative core belief from my heart.
If you have tried positive affirmations and they just didn’t work for you, don’t allow your shadows a shame to beat you up and tell you why you’re not doing it right. Make a minor adjustment that feels more honest and say that to yourself 10 times a day for a month. See what happens.
Negative core beliefs have derived from trying to explain to ourselves why we have attachment wounds. It is part of the way our brains tried to cope with the trauma. Once we have been able to erase the negative beliefs, imagine the peace we can experience.
Most of the people who come to the Finding Peace Retreat have been carrying around some hefty negative core beliefs that are like iron chains weighing them down. It is these very negative core beliefs that we try to replace with empowering truth.
During the retreat, we ask participants to check in with their bodies to notice where these negative core beliefs get stuck. This activity feels foreign to many. Yet, noticing where the distress exists is the first step to developing skills to live freely in peace. It opens the door to using movement, breathwork, meditation, connection, and other modalities that literally rewire their neural pathways.
With practice and consistency, our minds and bodies shift automatically. Instead of focusing on the pain of attachment wounds and the associated core beliefs, we remain in peace and joy. And when that happens, we won’t even need to recite positive affirmations because they vibrate from within at our very core.