Here I am, standing in front of this mirror, just like my therapist told me to. I screw up my courage and bravely tell myself my new affirmation: “I am in control of my reactions.” I say it five times, write it on the mirror where I have to look at it every day, and somehow….eventually….. I learn that I can’t trust myself.
Yeah, I know. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, right? Affirmations are a well-accepted therapy technique for people struggling with all sorts of things. Whether it’s self-love, trust, overcoming fears, or pretty much anything, if you say it enough it’ll eventually come true. Supposedly. Possibly. Maybe….maybe not.
Lets back up a little bit and look at something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT). One of the main goals of CBT is to retrain your brain to think more positively. It, of course, does a whole lot more than that, but this retraining of the brain is a huge part of why affirmations are a thing. After all, you may attack yourself by constantly telling yourself you’re horrible. Every time you say it, you cement the idea in your mind just a little bit more. So, doesn’t it seem logical that you can change all that by telling yourself the opposite?
Instead of telling yourself you’re a horrible person, you can say you’re a wonderful person! Change one word, and suddenly the whole idea changes too. Say it enough, and just like the negative thoughts, the good ones start to take hold. As silly as it may sound, it really does work. Given enough time and enough repetition (and the desire to actually change the way you think), and you will see a difference.
After all, why do you think it’s stuck around for so long? It’s been proven to work. That said, there are reasons affirmations might not help.
Why affirmations might not work
1. Resistance to change: Truth is, not everyone is willing to accept the change. It’s hard to say (and harder to admit) but there it is. If you genuinely don’t want to see a change in your life, then you won’t. It’s just like the old statement that you can’t help those who don’t want help. If you don’t want the change, you can’t make the change.
2. Not actually doing it: It follows, naturally, that if you don’t actually DO the affirmations, you’re not going to get anywhere. Yeah, I really know that sometimes it’s hard to find the time or to mentally justify the need. I mean, if you can just tell yourself in your mind, that’s good enough, right? No need to stop and say it out loud and all that other silly stuff. Just do it when you remember, yeah? ….No. Unfortunately, the reality is that you will likely forget or just plain quit. And that, folks, is cheating yourself out of something really good.
3. It just feels silly! Oh my god, yes! It feels completely ridiculous! There’s something about standing in front of a mirror, chanting the same phrase again and again, and writing it out that makes me feel like I’m missing a candle, some incense and maybe a naked dance in the moonlight. It’s a little ritualistic. Not to mention I’m a grown woman purposefully talking to myself. Seriously. It’s goofy. But hey, it works. And in the end, it saves me the frostbite from dancing outside in the winter….those poor North Dakota witches.
4. It’s just a lie, anyway. I get this so hard. You’ve spent your life telling yourself horrible things, and now you’re just supposed to say “that’s not true” again and again until…it becomes true? Okay, that seems a little off to me. I get stuck and ask myself “which one is the lie?” When you look back at all the times you’ve known you’re a horrible person and then face this statement saying you aren’t… well, it’s clear the new statement must be the lie, right?
How to make affirmations work
Okay, so we know they work, we know why they might not work. Now, how do we get from no to yes? The first step in this is actually recognizing you’re not getting what you want. If that’s the case, take a moment to really ask yourself why things aren’t changing. And then, look at our road blocks one by one.
1. I’m resistant to change. Let me start by saying, you are so not alone! It’s really easy to be scared of change so deeply that you’d rather stay miserable. Remember, though, you started down this path because some part of you does want things to change. Even if you feel like you’re only going to therapy because you were told to, or you had a momentary inspiration, or the courts said you have to, you still came. You decided at some point that something made this worth it. Find that. Embrace that. And then, try again.
2. I’m not actually doing it. Well now…let’s fix that! First of all, remember you have to actually do things to see something happen. In this case, that means actually saying your affirmations, ya know…just like the therapist told you. I know it seems unnecessary, but this is a moment where you’ve gotta trust the expert. They told you to say it, so say it!
If you’re getting clogged up with other things (kids in the way, work worries, etc.), try to carve out a time. Maybe when you’re washing your hands after you go to the bathroom (you do wash your hands, right?), or maybe while you’re cooking. Talk to your therapist about finding something that works for you. I’m a fan of carrying cards with me so I can look at them when I’ve got a couple seconds to kill.
3. I feel ridiculous! Me too. I don’t really have any tricks to get through this one…you just kinda have to push through it. When I first started, I would actually whisper them to myself under my breath. Still saying them out loud, just not out loud enough for anyone else to hear. As I got a little more comfortable, it was easier to say them out loud, and I’ve even caught myself saying them sometimes when hit by a moment that would normally trigger the negative response.
4. I know it’s just a lie anyway. Okay, I’m gonna push back on the therapists a little bit here and pass on a bit of advice I got a while back. You don’t have to go for the shark right away. Start with the small fish and then work your way up.
So, what’s something you can believe? You feel you’re a horrible person because you hurt people. Okay, find yourself a moment when you did something nice for someone. Hold on to that and remind yourself, “I can do good things.” Yeah, maybe your therapist wants you to say “I’m a wonderful person” but you’re not there yet and that’s okay. Once you start to believe you can do good things, stretch yourself and go a bit bigger… maybe “I can be a good person.” You do what’s good for you, and self-advocate if your therapist argues. It’s more important that you can believe it, and if you push too hard, you may end feeling like you can’t trust yourself at all.
So, there ya go…
Obviously, I’m not an expert but I have lived through a fair bit in my years. I’ve both loved and hated affirmations, but now that I’ve figured out how to make them work for me they are my go to. In the end, if your therapist suggests it I think you should give it a go. Worst case, it doesn’t do it for you, but best case it does. And frankly, you owe it to yourself to try!
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