The Two Best Affirmations

I question the idea that all I have to do is repeat a few select affirmations and my life will change for the better. Actually, I don’t buy it.

I recently read an article in Elephant Journal that describes the positive effects of “Trite, New-Agey Affirmations.” In the article the author explores extensive scientific evidence showing the power of positive language, how it affects the neurons in our brains and that with repetition we can create a dopamine effect.

I can’t argue with the research because it agrees with everything else I’ve read about the plasticity of the brain and it’s ability to affect how I live my life based on what I think and say. Nor can I argue with the incredible effects of dopamine—anyone who has run a long distance, ridden a bike, done a challenging workout or had a spiritual experience can’t deny the overwhelming sense of relaxation and peace that comes with a dopamine rush.

But . . . do affirmations work?

What I do question is the idea presented in the article that implies that all I have to do is repeat a few select affirmations and my life will change for the better. I question that because I have heard it so many times and have seen the same unhappy results.

The first time I heard about “affirmations” was in the late 80’s. The first one I heard was, “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.” What bothered me when I heard it then was what if I am a criminal or a child molester or a porn distributor? Will repeating the above affirmation make me better at whatever job I do? I thought the statement was seriously lacking in critical details.

Since then, I never really paid much attention to the idea that affirmations can actually change my life. I think I’m deeper and more complex than that. I felt the same way when I was introduced by a well-meaning therapist to a pocket size book of inspirational thoughts. You’ve seen them in the self-help section in every bookstore—Women Who Love Too Much, Co-dependent No More, The 24 Hour A Day Book—books designed to help me stay on the path of spirituality and guide me back when I falter.

I tried using those books, but again, I found them to be shallow and smug for the most part. The idea that reading a sentence or two of inspirational thought and then a paragraph explaining how these words can carry me through the day felt insulting and dishonest.

Do affirmations encourage denial?

One of  my problems is I have a habit of denying what I am truly feeling or thinking. I was raised to keep my mouth shut and smile regardless of what was going on. As a result I grew up confused, angry, frustrated and disconnected from myself. When I sought help in my early thirties and was given a book of trite affirmations it felt like I was being re-abused.

A few days after I read the article in Elephant Journal I found the perfect example of a trite and dishonest affirmation. It was posted on my Facebook page by one of my many good intentioned acquaintances.

 You have a clean slate every day you wake up. You have a chance every morning to make that change and be the person you want to be. You just have to decide to do it. Decide today’s the day. Say it: this is going to be my day.

I understand that the intention is to help me feel encouraged, braver and more positive about myself. But I question the simplicity; are we humans that easily changeable? And if we are, why don’t alcoholics get sober after reading the “24 Hour A Day Book?” Why don’t co-dependent spouses leave their abusive partners and find healthy loving relationships after using “Co-Dependent No More?”

There seems to be a hidden implication in these books and affirmations that I find extremely discouraging, much like diets. The regimen is described—read this, say this, meditate on this or eat only these foods and you will find success. They often go as far as to guarantee that if you follow these steps, or if you use these affirmations for the prescribed amount of time you will be, happier, thinner, healthier or more sane. But what happens if I don’t succeed?

“I’m a great gal!”

I’ve never found a diet that did what it proclaimed to do. I never succeeded in raising my self-esteem by telling myself I was a great gal and deserved all the best in life. The idea that I can make my life different by merely making a decision that “today is my day,” seems silly and dishonest to me.

And the hidden implication is clear: If I were a more developed, more spiritual and better person then making that decision or following the diet would have worked. Clearly the reason I failed is because I did something wrong, which takes me right back to my ancient thinking of “there is something wrong with me.”

Warning label

So, while I do not disagree with the scientific research in the article, I think it should come with a strong warning. I think we are fascinated with the idea that there is a quick fix to our pain and an easy solution to our disconnectedness. I think that we are so accustomed to making dinner in 5 minutes we think we should be able to create lasting peace and happiness by using affirmations for 5 minutes in the morning.

I would offer a deeper solution. I would suggest that nothing heals deep pain but deep work. I would suggest that until we release the notion of the quick fix we are going to continue to be deeply dissatisfied in some parts of our lives. I would also suggest that by ignoring ourselves and our deeper emotions we are doing ourselves and our children a terrible disservice

We are raising our children in a world that lies to them about the nature of their minds. What we are feeding our children and our future leaders is the lie that a yoga class and some organic beef are enough to solve their unhealthy habits. We are teaching them to trust in the fancy packaging at the health food store, rather than sit and listen to their own hearts. We are teaching them that simply making a decision to be a better person is all it takes to build character. And if we are teaching our children this then on some level we are trying to believe it ourselves. I would suggest that given the state of the world, the “instant fix” is an insufficient solution and I would encourage us all to seek deeper solutions to our problems.

Deeper answers

I would encourage us all to make more time and investigate real solutions. Get into therapy, do a ten-day meditation course or attend a spiritual retreat. Send your kids to Outward Bound for two weeks instead of tennis camp. Better yet, go with them; find out who they are away from the TV and the Internet.

We live with a distorted sense of time. We spend hours each day in cars and in buildings breathing recycled air under artificial lighting. We spend our lives in our heads rationalizing our behavior and arguing with ourselves. We think we’ll have time to work on ourselves next weekend, next summer, next year. The truth is we’re all dying slowly and now is the moment to act. Now is the time to find a real solution to whatever is causing us pain.

So, let me suggest this affirmation:

I am a deep and complex person and it is worth investing the time and energy required to heal myself and grow myself.

I have found a practice that works for me and I see it working for a growing community of people. I do not think it is the only practice, but I think it is a powerful and self-respecting practice. Live Conscious is my practice and if you are interested I encourage you to investigate. I encourage you to delve deeply into any spiritual practice which brings you liberation from old ideas. I encourage you to find a way of living that creates richness and joy and a continuous sense of wonder.

My final affirmation:

My life is what I make of myself—moment by moment.







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2 Responses to The Two Best Affirmations

  1. Metta November 16, 2013 at 4:34 am #

    Well spoken, Katherine! The yoga community I practice with has a custom of breathing into our words and feeling them–whether it’s an affirmation, a compliment received, a virtual question. The idea being to connect the way we are doing ourselves in words, to the way we are doing ourselves in sensation, in the body. We also practice breathing and feeling into anti-affirmations, going back and forth between the affirmation and its opposite, feeling into both them at the same time, and so on. Using affirmations the usual way, as you point out so eloquently, is dishonest and ineffective. I would go as far as to say I set myself up to discourage myself practicing affirmations only with mental repetition–and if I discourage myself, essentially I give myself permission not to change anything.

  2. S. Katharine Rivers November 17, 2013 at 7:29 am #


    Thank you for sharing your gift of breathing into words. I am going to do that this morning. I noticed me this morning, as I was waking up from a dream how powerfully I respond to certain words. I deeply appreciate your thoughtfulness and your readiness to share your experiences. I am grateful for your presence and your friendship.

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