You see them everywhere. Pithy exhortations telling us to buck up, look on the bright side and be happy. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Today, I am brimming with energy and overflowing with joy.”
“Everyone loves me”.
And my particular favorite:
“My body is healthy; my mind is brilliant; my soul is tranquil.”
Geez. Positive Affirmations like these have been around since the 1920’s. Ever since French psychologist and pharmacologist Emile Coue “discovered” the antidote to negativity – the affirmation. Coue’s affirmation was “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. and he believed that repeating this phrase would cure negative thinking and boost self esteem. So started the quackery that affirmation will change your life. I was reminded of Coue’s influence on a recent trip to NYC. The AirbBnB I was staying at had affirmations in every room. Far from salving my existential angst they irritated the hell out go me. One, in the bedroom, was telling me to “Make my own path”
Why the downer on ‘Affirmations’ you may be asking. Well, they don’t really work. Or to be more accurate there is no evidence they work, but plenty of research has shown they don’t. The first suspicion that they may not be all they are cracked up to be was provided by Canadian psychologist, Joanne Wood. Wood was suspicious that affirmations might violate self comparison theory. The bottom line is that much as we might like to hear (or see) positive messages about ourselves the theory contends, we need even more to feel a sense of internal coherence. Wood’s research found that like overly positive feedback, unreasonably positive self statements like, “Everyone loves me”, can provoke contra-dictionary thoughts in people with low self esteem. She concluded, “repeating positive self statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them most”.
But wait, to quote an often used affirmation, “I can achieve anything I set my mind to”, is there hope for the ‘Affirmation’ . Well yes there is. The trick is to create your own, based on things that matter to you. Your values and beliefs, character strengths and experiences. When I work with clients I am always moved by the strength people have shown to navigate the worst (and best) that life can throw at them. Sibling suicides, trauma and abuse, depressed parents, failure and loss to name but a few. These turning points exposed in a profound way these people’s inner strength and beliefs. And it’s these beliefs we should be using as self-affirming. A couple of months ago I worked with a small group of women who were adult survivors of the US Foster system. They’d been controlled their whole lives. Abused, sexually assaulted, separated from parents and siblings they had developed a quiet authority and inner strength. They were also, as you might expect, vulnerable to self-doubt, feelings of shame and self loathing. Working together we created a new version of affirmations based on positive psychology and neurolinguistics. A mosaic if you will of their experience, hope and resilience. The women chose an image that had meaning for them and, against that image, we put ‘power words’ and phrases that came from their experience. A couple of examples are illustrated below.
In my mind these are a much more powerful and accurate set of motivational statements because they came from the experience of these women. They had lived these words and phrases. So rather than looking at a poster telling them how to feel, they looked at a carefully crafted mosaic that reminded them of how beautiful and powerful they are. Many of us tend to look outside ourselves for answers yet my belief is that everything you need to be alive, productive and fulfilled you have inside of you.
So next time someone tells you to ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘make your own path’ tell them politely that you are marching to the beat of your own drum.
Interested in creating your own ‘Power Word Mosaic’? Get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org