Well, yes, and no. Affirmations are frequently the stuff of comedy routines, but they are also a serious psychological technique.
We actually use affirmations every day, even if it’s just a “Whew!” when we have avoided a collision, or a fist pump when a job is finished. Those are instinctive pats we give ourselves, with not much consideration or planning behind them.
More commonly, affirmations are intentional, even scheduled, positive messages we repeatedly give ourselves to counteract the negativity we have internalized in life – the criticism, bullying, betrayals, and just other crap we’ve had to endure probably through most of life so far. In cognitive therapy, a client and a therapist work together to identify the damaging beliefs that trouble the client and come up with more positive messages to replace the negative ones whenever they arise. The affirmations of cognitive therapy have been proven particularly effective in addressing depression and anxiety, which go right along with self-esteem.
Affirmations work because our brains believe whatever they are told repeatedly, both negative and positive. “You can’t do it,” our negative voice tells us. “You’ll only screw things up again. No one loves you. What a stupid thing to do.” That voice is remarkably persistent, replaying its venomous messages all day, every day.
If you instead feed your brain nourishing thoughts, positive change can follow. I like to borrow from Louise L. Hay, the New Age author who re-popularized positive affirmations in the 80’s in her book that I always recommend, You Can Heal Your Life. That, and other materials at www.HayHouse.com, are really helpful. I mention her a lot in my book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want! Hay’s primary affirmation of “I love and approve of myself as I am” touches many sensitive areas. Love and approval are very basic, primitive needs. The statement indicates that your biggest critic – yourself – has changed sides and self-approval is the new normal. When you do this, especially over time with repeated practice, your life changes. I used this when I was really young, and it helped me have the confidence to build my business and really take charge of my life.
Certainly, you can create your own affirmations, and you will likely find such self-messages can be even more effective and focused. Find a quiet place to consider what it is you’d like to change or reinforce. Choose just a few issues to begin. Think it through until you feel clear. Write out an affirmation for each issue that positively reflects what you want. Keep it short and direct and in the present tense. Be specific – not, “I’m a great runner,” but, “I run daily and increase my speed and distance each week.” It may take several tries until the words are right. After a few tries, you may want to edit your affirmation until it is comfortable.
Practice your affirmations several times a day for several minutes at a time and in between whenever you aren’t engaged with something else. Relax as you do so, but pay attention to the affirmations as you repeat them. Believe in the result. If it works better for you, try writing the affirmations, while stating them aloud. Leave affirmation notes to yourself; put a Post-It on your bathroom mirror. Put another one in your gym bag. Stick another one on your fridge. Lots of authors have found that the more you repeat, read and think about your affirmations, and the more specific they are, the more effective they will be. Louise Hay says it can also be powerful to look into a mirror when you state your affirmations. It takes a second to not feel like an idiot, but keep at it. Beyond the initial feeling of self-consciousness, there is a deeper feeling that is profound. Speak them firmly and with conviction; this is your new truth and you need to stand behind it. See what comes up for you, emotionally, when you try this. Then see how it changes, over time, when you practice it.
Keep at it. This process can takes time. You may see changes in your thinking and feeling very quickly, but it may also take weeks, or possibly months before you notice a difference. Fortunately, it’s a pleasant process. You are telling yourself good news in short bursts; how burdensome can that be?
If you’re skeptical, open your mind enough to test it out. Start out with one affirmation with a measurable outcome. Work it. Encourage yourself to believe that the affirmation is true. It took many years of negative messages to put you down, it might take some practice of positive messages to build yourself back up. And when you do, the goals in your life that are really important to you can begin to emerge as just everyday life.
To learn more about how to do this, and apply Cognitive Therapy to other challenges in your life, email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text at 310-339-5778 for more information or to book an appointment.
Ken Howard, LCSW is a gay, poz (24 years), sex-positive, LGBT-affirmative, licensed psychotherapist who has specialized almost exclusively in working with gay male individuals and couples for over 26 years. He provides counseling, psychotherapy, or coaching sessions in his office in Los Angeles (near Beverly Center), or via phone or via Skype, nationally and world-wide. Ken is available Monday through Friday, including evenings, and two associate clinicians are available on early weekday mornings, and Saturdays/Sundays. Your referrals are always welcome.