Self-Suggestion Approaches: Affirmations, Imagery and Relaxation

Cognitive restructuring and thought stopping both work to interrupt and alter existing thought habits. In contrast, self-suggestion approaches represent an attempt to create new thought habits. These approaches work by way of suggestion; the presentation of a new and desirable idea or image, repeated multiple times.

  • Affirmations. The simplest approach to self-suggestion involves simply repeating a new idea about yourself to yourself on a regular basis. Most typically, this exercise takes the form of affirmations designed to increase self-esteem, such as, "You are a good and decent person", or team chants, designed to motivate or increase team spirit. Any statement may be repeated, however. The idea is based on learning theory again, although loosely in this simple form. By repeating the statement again and again, you are conditioning yourself to learn the statement. Whether or not you will start to believe that the statement is true is another thing entirely.Repeating affirmations to yourself can be tricky business. The point of repeating affirmation self-statements to yourself is to help yourself to start believing those affirmations. Almost by definition, when you start the process, you don't believe the affirmations apply to you. By repeating statements to yourself which you do not believe, you run the risk of highlighting for yourself what you do believe (which is typically something more negative) and becoming more self-aware of your failings. The image of Stewart Smiley, the neurotic character from the Saturday Night Live TV show, comes to mind, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and ... Gosh darn it! People like me!". Stewart is a good example of someone who is trying too hard. Don't be like Stewart. Nothing in the process of repeating affirmations helps you to actually believe the things you repeat. Thus, it is important that you only repeat affirmations that you've thought about and do believe, at least at some level. You want to be repeating positive truths to yourself; not trying to make yourself swallow falsehoods.
  • Imagery. Self suggestion can be practiced with imagery as well as with words, or with a combination of words and imagery instead.If you are trying to lose weight, for example, you can put a photograph of yourself at your current weight next to a photo of your younger (and lighter) self so that you can help motivate yourself to stick to your diet. To make the method have the best chance of being effective, you would need to make sure you looked at the photos on a regular basis. If you just post them on the refrigerator, you are likely to habituate to them and not notice them after a while!

    It is also possible to use imagined imagery to help motivate and relax yourself. Golfers who wish to improve their swing can do so by pausing to imagine themselves swinging their club through a perfect arc before actually swinging their club. Imagining a perfect swing (assuming you know what one looks like) constitutes a sort of practice and tends to make your actual swing smoother and more relaxed. This principle is useful for most any skill that improves with practice.

  • Relaxation. A very alternative use of self-suggestion helps you to become more in control of your mood states. Self-suggestion can be paired with relaxation techniques so as to create an association between particular phrases or affirmations, and a feeling of calmness. For example, you might put yourself into a state of relaxation (techniques described below) and repeat the words, "Peace", and "Relax" to yourself. Alternatively, you might imagine a peaceful nature scene while relaxing. These words or images are not especially meaningful by themselves, but over time and repeated pairings with the relaxed state of mind, you will set up an association between the words or images and the feeling. At that time, repeating the words to yourself or visualizing the image may help you to more quickly enter into that relaxed feeling state when you need to.