Positive Affirmations Don't Work
for the people who really need them most.
I went to a therapist when I was 17. In the second session he made me stand in front of a mirror and say positive affirmations like, “I love myself” and “I am worthy.” I remember his head hovering behind me in the mirror, smiling while I repeated these phrases like they would somehow cure me. I never went back to see him.
Honestly, positive affirmations have always felt a little forced, inauthentic, and awkward for me. I tend to lean towards more "realistic" or "empowering" thinking.
If you’re in a really dark place, positive affirmations can feel like bold face lies.
I've found that no one wants to admit this? It's like we're told over and over that positive thinking should work and will work, so we just keep repeating "I'm the best!!! I love myself!!" and looking around the room thinking, is this really working for you? Am I doing something wrong?
I'm not denying the power of language. Language is extremely important and it's a huge part of the work I do with clients. Every time I write about this, someone inevitably tells me that I need to do my research on the power of positive thinking and language. Yes, the science is very clear that positive and negative thinking impact us mentally and physically. But, it's not so black and white.
Positive thinking has been shown to be more effective in subjects with higher self-esteem. For people with lower self-esteem, positive thinking is counterproductive. They eventually realize they are lying to themselves and this actually leads to increased depression. Hyper-optimism also has been found to carry an additional risk of depression because hyper-optimists have been shown to lack preparation when confronted with risk or a difficult situation. It's not as simple as: positive affirmation on repeat = happiness.
If you think your positive affirmation is a lie, it's not going to work.
Let’s say your goal is to love your body. That would be nice, but you’re not going to love your body every day. There are still probably going to be things that get to you, days where you don't feel great, and times where you look in the mirror and negative thoughts pour in. If you are in a place where you hate your body, loving it probably seems pretty damn impossible. If you think the goal is to always love your body, you're going to feel like a failure on the days where that positive affirmation feels harder to integrate.
If you hate your body and start repeating "I love my body" over and over, it might feel good for a moment. But, pretty soon it will just be noise. And then you will notice you don't actually love your body and the way you treat your body doesn't resemble someone who loves their body. You'll come to find that you're lying to yourself. The affirmation isn't making you love your body. If you're anything like the hundreds of people who have shared this exact scenario with me, you'll probably start to feel like a failure. It's not your fault. The affirmation was just too much of a stretch for this moment.
If there's no behavioral change, it's not going to work.
The affirmation, "I love my body" has to be backed up by action that informs the belief. If you are continuing to engage in behaviors that deny this belief or are completely opposed to it, it will become even more difficult to integrate the positive affirmation.
We have to look at both our thoughts and our behaviors. It's a great practice to ask yourself, "how can I act out this affirmation?" How can you show yourself what you want to believe?
If there's no effort to create internal acceptance, love, and self-respect, it's not going to work.
When we use affirmations we're trying to reach a place of love, acceptance, and self respect for ourselves. In order to believe an affirmation, we have to believe we are worthy of kindness. If you still hold onto a core belief that you're not worthy of love or kindness, the affirmation will ring hollow.
This is how I like to use affirmations:
First I start by asking what the goal is - let's stick with the body example. "I want to love my body."
what would it look like to love your body? How would your life be different? What would it feel like? How would you know you held that belief? Would you feel this way all the time?
What belief do you hold about your body right now?
What feels possible right now?
Could you see a world where you felt ok about your body?
Does loving it seem possible right now?
What would you say to yourself when loving your body is hard?
What can you do to show your body love?
Depending on the answers, we can start moving from
to seeing a possibility for neutrality
and then into a place where the positive affirmation feels possible (maybe most or some of the time) and you're able to act out that affirmation through your thoughts and behaviors.
It's important to point out that no positive affirmation is true every second of every day.
You're never going to feel great about your body or any other part of your life all the time. The goal again is acceptance, the ability to hold space for that fluctuation, and believing that being kind to yourself is positive.
If you want to transform your affirmations, try this:
If you want more on this, check out my book Toxic Positivity.
Alright, I’m off to prep for this hurricane!
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