The use of affirmations has become very popular. How do these positively formulated statements affect the psyche and how effective are they?
The chicken and the egg
Our emotions are the result of our thoughts and not the other way around, as many think. So, it does make sense to try to influence our mood and emotions by consciously choosing positive thoughts.
What are affirmations?
Affirmations are positively formulated statements or thoughts that you repeat over and over in yourself or out loud. You are, as it were, reprogramming your thinking.
The gullible mind
Does the mind just accept these affirmations? Yes, the mind believes everything you say to it and lets the body respond to it.
Think of a guided meditation in which you are suggested to imagine that you are lying on a beautiful beach. You hear the murmur of the sea – it is said – and you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. The wind gently moves your hair. Mmm… delicious. Your body relaxes and your heart rate slows down. Why? Because your mind believes what you tell it and then the brain passes on relaxing signals to your body. It does not matter whether or not what you say to yourself is true: this also works when you are sitting in your office chair.
In the evening you walk alone through a quiet part of the city. In a dark alley, you hear an unexpected noise. Ooh… what is that? Am I safe here? What if I get attacked and robbed, or worse? Your thoughts run wild and suddenly the adrenaline rushes through your body. Your muscles tighten, your heart rate goes up and you are super alert. You are on edge and want to run away. Then you see a cat run away… you sigh in relief.
Mind and Body
In both cases, your body and emotions react to what you say to yourself in your mind and the image you form in your mind’s eye. This only takes place in your head and does not have to be reality. Your mind will not even notice if you are fooling it.
With affirmations, you can influence your mindset and with that, how you feel and even how much vitality you experience. When you use positive affirmations, your subconscious mind takes them in and accepts what you say as truth. You will notice the effect, especially in the short term. Sometimes it is so striking that your mood changes completely in an instant.
In your mind are also deeply held beliefs about yourself, others and life. Beliefs are thoughts that you have repeated many times, perhaps even in multiple lifetimes, leaving deep grooves in your mind and soul, as beliefs.
My own limiting core belief
My core belief is: I’m not good enough. This is a belief that is held by many people, deep down. If I boost myself with ‘I am good the way I am’, it usually feels good, especially in the short term. In the long run, it doesn’t do much: the belief keeps coming back.
However, if you keep saying something to yourself that you do not believe at your core, this has a polarizing effect on deeper layers of your psyche: you create a dichotomy because you go against deeply rooted beliefs.
If I keep telling myself “I am good enough” or even “I am great” I am rejecting the part of me that does not agree with this. This part does not heal through the affirmations but goes underground and disappears into the shadow. From there it exerts a sabotaging influence.
How do you prevent affirmations from having a polarizing and sabotaging effect on your psyche?
Within Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we have the following experiment: one night when the ‘I am not good enough monster’ reared its head again I went on – completely against the positive-affirmations-feel-good-cult – saying to myself out loud “Indeed, I am not good enough”. I did this consciously in a silly voice.
At first, I was afraid that I would ruin my mood even more. I had to go through the resistance and kept saying this to myself, always in wacky voices. After a while, I laughed and to my surprise, I felt my body relax completely. Afterwards, I slept very well.
How is this possible?
Over the next few days, I kept repeating this and soon found that the thought of not being good enough had no effect on me anymore. I had detached myself from identifying with this belief.
In ACT this process is called defusion: you let go of the fusion, that is, the identification with your negative core beliefs by accepting them instead of fighting with them.
Revolutionary? Well, I thought so!
Are affirmations redundant?
Affirmations work great to boost yourself with focus and intention. However, please let go of the idea of mind-control. That will work against you.
Affirmations cannot heal a limiting core belief. Positive affirmations that say the opposite of your belief, will only cause the belief to settle deeper into your psyche.
Acceptance and compassion for what you encounter in yourself are healing because you do not reject anything. What you accept can come into the light and integrate. That is healing and wholeness.
If everything is allowed in your inner experience, the suffering will disappear.