Repeat After Me: Do Affirmations Work?

IMG_1107My skeptical side has never given much thought to affirmations as they are presented in most self-help books. I never really believed that standing in front of the bathroom mirror first thing in the morning, looking into my sleep glazed baby blues and repeating the phrase “I love you” to myself could have any effect on my psyche.

But my annoying ability to see two sides to most stories always follows that up with “Why not?”

Indeed. If affirmations are a cousin to neural-linguistic-programming, then perhaps it’s true that changing the way we speak to ourselves will change the beliefs we hold about ourselves.

But not all affirmations are created equal.

Research at Stanford University discovered that “…timely affirmations have been shown to improve education, health and relationship outcome, with benefits that sometimes persist for months and years…[writing about core personal values]…they touch off a cycle of adaptive potential [and] a positive feedback loop…”

In other words, taking time to write about those things that have heart and meaning for you is affirming. What makes you happy? What brings fulfillment? Journaling these answers, really considering their truth, is supportive. It helps you to feel good about yourself. This is a much different approach to affirmation than what I was taught when I was studying complementary healing modalities in Ireland.

Louise Hay was all the rage when I managed a health food store in County Donegal in the 1990’s. You Can Heal Your Life had been published and many of the body therapists I knew were advising their clients that the root of physical illnesses might be based on emotional trauma. They believed Hay’s premise that illness could be reversed through the repetition of specific affirmations. Hay has claimed to have healed herself of cervical cancer without medical intervention but this has never been proven.

Remaining positive through even the darkest moments of life is one thing. But I believe Hay’s advice is dangerous, irresponsible and unethical.

I feel the same way about every motivational speaker and product that tells you that changing your thoughts can change your life. This simply isn’t true. You can’t think yourself a parking space. Or a new job. Or a new love. This is what’s true:

Change your thoughts and you can change the attitude.

Change your attitude and who knows what might happen.

Yet a 2012 article from Psychology Today, Why Don’t My Positive Affirmations Work? explains why my advice might also not be so great: “Unreasonably positive statements such as ‘I accept myself completely’ can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem…when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better.”

May a dose of healthy realism with a dash a pragmatism is the best course for navigation the ups and downs of life.
Still, I’ve decided to find out for myself. For the month of August I’m working with an affirmation. I say it each morning and throughout the day. I’ve written the words on three notecards. One is taped to the bathroom mirror. Another is taped to a kitchen cabinet. The third leans against my desk lamp next to my computer. It has all the hallmarks of a reasonable reminder. It is written in the present tense (“I am” not “I will be”…even if what I am doesn’t feel true) and it is undoubtedly positive:

I love myself. Today. Just as I am.

Later this week I’ll take a page from Stanford’s research and journal about what brings heart and meaning to my life. What makes me feel whole.

Anyone want to take this ride with me?