As musicians, we face a lot of pressure to perform at our best.
But whether it's in front of an audience, in the recording studio, or in rehearsals, we are often our own worst critics. So much more than others, we can be quick to judge ourselves harshly and to doubt our abilities.
In response to this, many people suggest that we "think positive" — or try repeating positive affirmations like "I am good enough" or "I am calm".
It is one of the most common pieces of advice on social media these days.
The main premise is that if we can just change our thoughts, we can change our experiences (or even our reality… yes, they come with BIG promises).
What Are Positive Affirmations
Positive affirmations are statements or phrases that are designed to uplift and empower. They are often repeated or written down with the intention of influencing one's thoughts and beliefs.
These affirmations are typically positive, constructive and affirming in nature — aiming to counteract negative self-talk and foster a more optimistic mindset.
The main premise behind these positive affirmations is rooted in the belief that our thoughts and beliefs shape our experiences and reality. It is suggested that, by consciously choosing positive and empowering statements, we can rewire our subconscious mind and cultivate a more positive outlook. And this, in turn, can result in better performances on stage or in auditions.
So the idea is that through repetition and consistent practice, these affirmations can influence our thoughts, emotions and behaviours, leading to a greater sense of self-confidence and well-being.
It is not just limited to music or performance careers though. Positive affirmations can cover a wide range of areas, such as self-worth, personal capabilities, resilience, success, and overall happiness.
Some of these positive affirmations include statements like "I am worthy of success", "I embrace challenges as opportunities for growth", or "I am capable of achieving my goals".
These statements are designed to instil a sense of belief and motivation within musicians.
But in my practice, I find this approach can do more harm than good.
Let me explain.
The Limitations of Positive Affirmations in Overcoming Self-Doubt
As musicians, we often face a unique set of challenges when it comes to self-doubt and self-criticism.
So it can be tempting to simply repeat positive affirmations in the hopes of banishing those negative thoughts.
While there is some truth to this advice, it is not always effective for everyone. Some people find that when they try to think positively, they actually feel worse.
This is because while some are receptive to thinking positively, others experience internal resistance to those words.
When they think "I am confident and calm", for example, they may hear a voice in their head that says "No you're not. Can't you feel your heart racing, or these sweaty hands? You're anything BUT calm. And remember that time you messed up? Why would you even DARE imagine being confident?"
This kind of negative self-talk can be debilitating and can make us feel worse if we don't genuinely believe the positive affirmations we're telling ourselves.
So while positive affirmations claim to offer a quick fix and may work for some individuals, they may not address the underlying issues contributing to self-doubt. Simply repeating positive statements without addressing the root causes or engaging in self-exploration can feel disingenuous or ineffective for many musicians.
It is crucial to acknowledge that self-doubt and negative self-talk are often deeply rooted in personal experiences, external expectations, and comparisons with others.
So what can we do instead?
Compassion and Self-Exploration Over Affirmations
My favourite approach is to recognise that our thoughts just happen by themselves and that we have no real control over them.
Think about it: When was the last time you consciously crafted a thought?
My experience is that thoughts just pop up when they feel like it — and research has supported this by showing that many of our thoughts occur automatically.
In other words, the thought process is beyond our control.
Why should we spend precious energy trying to influence it?
What To Try Instead
Instead of focusing on controlling and changing our thoughts, I propose these strategies:
Observe your thoughts without judgement.
Notice when negative thoughts arise and simply acknowledge them, without getting caught up in them.
Practise self-compassion, recognizing that we are all human and that it's okay to make mistakes or to feel nervous or anxious at times.
There are several reasons why this approach can be more effective in addressing self-doubt and negative thinking patterns.
Firstly, by recognising that thoughts occur spontaneously and that we have limited control over them, we can adopt a more compassionate and non-judgmental attitude towards ourselves. Instead of trying to forcefully change our thoughts to be more positive, we can learn to observe them without attaching undue importance or criticism.
This observation allows us to develop a deeper understanding of our inner landscape and thought patterns.
Self-compassion plays a vital role in this process. Acknowledging our humanity and embracing our imperfections allows us to create a safe environment within ourselves. We realise that making mistakes or experiencing moments of nervousness and anxiety is natural and part of the creative journey.
By cultivating self-compassion, we can develop a more balanced perspective on our abilities and shortcomings, resulting in a healthier self-image.
Practising mindfulness techniques can complement this approach. Mindfulness involves intentionally directing our attention to the present moment, without judgement. Through meditation, breathing exercises, or other relaxation techniques, we can cultivate a calm and focused state of mind.
By anchoring ourselves in the present, we reduce the tendency to dwell on past failures or worry excessively about future outcomes. This shift in focus promotes clarity, resilience, and a greater sense of control over our thoughts and emotions.
Other mindful approaches to managing our thoughts and emotions can also work. These include meditation, breathing exercises or other relaxation techniques.
The Common Thread
As you might have noticed, the common thread in the above suggestions is to calm our minds and to focus on the present moment, rather than getting caught up in worries about the future or regrets about the past.
Now I admit, these are not as easy as practising affirmations in the mirror every morning. They require conscious action and willingness to fail.
This approach requires conscious effort and a willingness to embrace vulnerability. And it may not provide instant results and setbacks are inevitable.
However, by adopting a compassionate and mindful approach to our inner dialogue, we lay the groundwork for long-term growth, self-acceptance and artistic development.
All in all, while positive affirmations have gained popularity and can be effective for some individuals, it's important to recognize that they may not work for everyone.
Each person has unique experiences, beliefs, and thought patterns that shape their response to affirmations. For some, positive affirmations may resonate and have a positive impact.
But if positive affirmations do not work for you, you are not alone — and there is a valid reason why.
If these thoughts resonated with you, or you have some questions to discuss further, why not join my Colour & Connect Hour? It is a small group call where we can talk about music, brainstorm ideas for your performances and get creative. It’s free and casual, but if you can’t make the time slot, we can always arrange a tea date instead.