This was originally posted on the Living Inquiries web site as “Real life Interjects” on the Living Inquires web site.
Synopsis: Affirmations can create more cognitive dissonance, and suffering, when they are not coming from lived truth.
“You’re Good Enough, You’re Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like You.”
You might recognize this quote from Stuart Smalley, a character who played on Saturday Night Live in the 90s. Stuart was known for his positive affirmations, including the one above, and wrote a book of Daily Affirmations. Whilst the character and the book are based in comedy, there are hidden gems of wisdom in using affirmations and many transformational modalities are based upon their use.
While some approaches largely depend upon the use of positive affirmations, lauding their effectiveness, their critics suggest that they are little more than wishful thinking, essentially ineffective when it comes to sustainable change. Breaking it down simply, the first camp might assert that the positive affirmations will become reality if said enough and that until they become reality, you can “fake it until you make it” using positive affirmations. The second camp suggests that using positive affirmations may be like planting pretty flowers on top of a smelly, full septic tank- the pretty flowers can only hide the smell for so long, leaving cognitive dissonance- and smelly yet pretty flowers.
Who’s right? In their own way both camps sound plausible. After all, it sounds logical that repeating a positive phrase repeatedly would eventually start to “soak in,” right? And at the same time, it also makes sense that repeating phrases over and over won’t really get at the deeper stuff. In my own experience, both are true.
Personally speaking, affirmations have been helpful for me.
While exploring the depths of my psyche using somatic inquiry or other deep process methods, hidden belief systems are often found, along with how they were formed and/or what continues to keeps them alive.
A belief system I recently wrote about was “ignoring my feelings is a loving thing to do.” I had been exploring presence, and all sorts of memories arose in which I saw how my mom took care of me involved her ignoring my emotional state – i.e. not being present with me. Through somatic inquiry I was able to remove various layers of meaning that were Velcroed to the belief system and the pain body. As the layers dissolved, so did the belief. I was left with the declaration, “being present with feelings is a loving thing to do.”
Whilst the old belief had felt quite real, somatically speaking, only moments ago this new pronouncement felt genuine and authentic. To help ease this new truth into place, it was useful for me to repeat it to myself every once in a while over the next couple days. Said another way, it was useful to gently utilize it as an affirmation until it became more integrated.
In my own experience, this is an effective use of affirmations: using an affirmation, which already has some resonance, in changing out old belief patterns. I suspect that the efficacy and sustainability of using affirmations in this way is hinged upon (1) the clearing out of an old core belief, which (2) makes room for a new affirmation (3) that resonates as an actual truth, as opposed to just a thought one wishes to be true. After all, knowing something from our being is more sustainable and meaningful than something from our minds. (Consider, for example: how fulfilling is it to love someone from our minds, as opposed to from our hearts?)
Speaking of something coming from the mind, instead of the heart…
This brings me to my frustrations with the use of affirmations; they are often from the mind, hoping that they will (often magically) make their way to the heart. I call these empty affirmations (as opposed to affirmations which already have some felt resonance). Because we’re already a mind-biased and a body-phobic culture, I don’t think strategies that are mind-focused are ultimately healing. Generally speaking, utilizing empty affirmations requires even more mental involvement (pretending/ strategizing/manipulating) and oftentimes leads to more dissociation. For most of us, subtle affirmations may begin in our childhoods, extending into our adult years.
The use of affirmations can confuse the psyche, starting from when we were young.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before. Many of us were probably told this in our childhoods by (perhaps) well-meaning adults. Many of us have likely told this to our own children, perhaps from an innocent desire to help, and/or comfort our child so that s/he feels better.
While well-intended, it is confusing for a child (or an adult) to be told that there is nothing to be afraid of when they are actually, in that moment, feeling afraid. It can be discombobulating or create a sense of dissonance when one feels one thing to be true and then is told that something else is the truth. Moreover, the child’s actual experience and feeling is discounted and invalidated. As you might imagine, shame is a likely side effect.
But what is a child to do? Because they were met with a mental response to their emotional pain body experience, they are likely to then employ their own mental strategies to cope with the emotional overwhelm being experienced. In other words, they will dissociate. The child, not wanting to risk further rejection from their parent, may pretend that they are ok, stuffing their feelings down in the process. Or their response may get louder or stronger, in which case they may be labeled dramatic or “too sensitive.” Either way, they are discounted, which goes counter to what we all want – validation, acknowledgement and/or someone to be present with us whether they agree or disagree with what we’re experiencing.
(As an aside, one can see in this simple example how pervasive gas-lighting is in our culture: one person says how they feel and another (who has more power in the dynamic) says that they don’t.)
As it is not ultimately helpful for an adult to repeat an affirmation to a child when it goes counter to their actual experience, it is not sustainably useful for us to repeat an affirmation to ourselves when it is counter to our actual experience. (It may be temporarily useful, and I’ll get to that later.)
When, as an adult, we use this affirmation to help ourselves in this way, it can (1) mimic or echo the same discount or invalidation we received as children, which can (2) confound the dissonance even more, (3) perpetually discount or invalidate our own experience, which may then (4) lead to an internalized state of dissonance and/or (5) increase dissociation.
We continue to experience dissonance, and so we continue to struggle, maybe even more so. We want relief, but the (empty) affirmation denies our actual experience and creates more resistance to it. (Some relief may be found temporarily if any part of the psyche can “buy into” the affirmation. More on this later.)
Real life interjects. Literally.
As I’m writing this on my porch, the sun is setting.
I look out and see the sky behind the trees turning into an orange glow, the tree branches swaying gently. I look up, and the undersides of the leaves are glowing orange, as the top of the leaves are deep green. The sunset is somehow shining upon the bottom of the leaves. I gasp when I see them. They are beautiful and they greet me in mystery.
I am reminded that we must look underneath, we must go under what we normally see, and invite in everything else that exists too.
And perhaps this is why I’m not always a fan of affirmations. I don’t want to make myself mentally ok using affirmations; I want to feel true OKness in my being. I don’t want to cover up experiences, I want to honor them. When I cover up a part of me, I am telling myself that I am not allowed to be as I am. When I say, “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” when something in my system says there is, I’m relaying to myself that something is wrong with me – that I’m doing it wrong – that I’m humaning wrong. The violence in that brings a tear to my eye.
I appreciate affirmations as temporary bandaids when used along with other adjunct work, but not as the main approach. When utilized as a practice, I see time and time again how they ultimately create dissonance and self-harm as it encourages pretending or diminishing as opposed to honoring. I see it in the clients that come to see me, heads filled with dissonance, trying painfully to have “the right thoughts” as they try to have “the right feeling” as they try to be “the right human.” The shame and disappointment are palpable.
Lastly, maybe more than ever, we are in a time of being called to wake up. I have noticed that affirmations can be used to pacify and placate. In my experience that lends itself to mindlessness as opposed to mindfulness. In a time when we really need to be paying attention, using affirmations to gloss over things so that we can go unconscious and be asleep to our lives does not appear to be what is best for our evolution.
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” C.G. Jung
I imagine some of you saying- “ok FINE! But I’m not there yet. I don’t know how to really live in a state of complete acceptance. I can’t always let things be as they are!”
In those moments, I may use the mind to connect with an affirmation I already feel some resonance with to help in supporting myself. In my experience it’s very different to use affirmations that resonate in some kind of real way as opposed to using empty affirmations. Affirmations are most useful when they come from an already lived resonance in the body that feels real, perhaps because there is a deeper level of honesty and authenticity.
Real life Interjects, again
My daughter is on her first overseas trip and is struggling. As her mother, I want nothing other than to say a bunch of affirmations so that she will feel better, so that she will feel safe, so that she will feel ok.
What do I do? More than anything I’d love it if affirmations “worked” on her. I’d love if I could cast a magic word spell on her. But I’ve learned that empty affirmations don’t help her. Rather than try to pacify her fears with empty affirmations, I acknowledged her actual experience while also mentioning some positive things that resonate in some real way for her.
Off the phone, I am confronted with my own fears. Being 4,500 miles away “as the crow flies,” I don’t know if what I’ve said has helped her, I just know that the texts have stopped. It becomes increasingly clear that I can’t make everything ok for her, and I can’t make everything ok for me either.
As I hone into what is going on with me, how it feels to my being that my daughter is out in the world and afraid, I find a sense of powerlessness. Powerlessness is no stranger to me, but this powerlessness feels different than the powerlessness I grew up with. I don’t feel debilitated, I feel humbled. There is a resonance in my being that says it is safe for me to acknowledge, “I am not in charge,” while feeling all the big feelings that come with that. There is something in me that knows “I can trust.” These affirmations nourish me, as they feel true deep in my being. When affirmations don’t feel true for me, and are instead more of a platitude, I don’t use them.
I’ll be honest, faking it doesn’t work for me anymore. If I use an affirmation that feels empty, I honor that feeling and attend to what is actually present in my experience. Anymore, if I use an empty affirmation to cover up my actual experience, pressure will start to build up in my system, I will start to dissociate, and I “go mental”- AND I will continue to feel unsettled. For me, the distinction between an empty and a resonant affirmation is huge and important to pay attention to.
However, there was a time when empty affirmations provided some ready-made assistance for my system, and if you fit into that category then please use them!
Sometimes we need to ground or “land” and affirmations may help with that. Ideally, it is in those moments that a combination of somatic practices and affirmations are used to help the nervous system gain some temporary relief. However, sometimes we aren’t able to land, period. It is during such times that the mind just needs a sense of certainty, and affirmations can provide some temporary relief at those times. Said another way, sometimes we can use the mind to help calm the mind.
Once the mind is just a little more calm, we can start to add the body. While the feet are on the floor, and the back is against the chair, the words “I am safe,” for example, might be repeated while slowly breathing. The nervous system loves practicality, so connecting with and feeling the floor and the chair (for example) can provide physiological relief. Adding in the words “I am safe” may still the hamster wheel mind so that the relief can be felt deeper.
When we really know safety, we won’t need the affirmation, but until that time, the affirmations can be a way to provide ourselves with temporary support. They can teach us to find a sense of inner knowing and trust.
I find it more sustainable and ultimately compassionate to honor what is actually being felt or thought as opposed to try to manipulate it into something we wish it were. Honoring our lived experiences, even when they are uncomfortable, allows us to really honor ourselves, rather than deny or alter ourselves, which has a tone of violence in it. The “fake it till you make it” adage can only go so far until it becomes a form of self-harm, mirroring the lack of care and attentiveness so many of us experienced in our childhoods.
When we include things as they are, we can know sustainable connection with ourselves and with life. When we don’t have to bypass, pretend, and manipulate, a sustainable sense of peace and trust becomes a lived experience as opposed to a pipe dream.
A client today expressed this: “Sobriety for me means not trying to manipulate or control how I feel and think.” I loved this so much, and of course, it is a journey as it has been the default setting for most of us to manipulate, control, pretend and be asleep at the wheel of our lives. Let’s continue to learn, and journey, together.