Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Positive Affirmations Vs Honest Affirmations

       While the truth can set me free, half-truths and delusions imprison me. I want to make real and lasting changes in my life. I want to be the best version of me that I can be. That requires sticking to the facts and being honest with myself. I’ve found that honesty and straight talk do wonders for my mental and physical health. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”

       Honesty is the foundation on which my mental and physical health are built. Optimism is what allows me to build on that foundation. Obviously, my optimism comes through in my writing because I am often asked about what positive affirmations I use. The answer is that, technically, I don’t use positive affirmations. I use honest affirmations in an optimistic way. I realize such a small difference in phrasing sounds like a ridiculous semantic argument. It is not.  There is a world of difference between being honest and optimistic and deluding myself into false beliefs with positive affirmations that aren’t true.

       Before everyone gets out their torches and pitchforks, let me explain and state that there can be a simple, effective alternative. Years ago, while in a therapy session with a psychologist, I mentioned that I was using positive affirmations every morning. Of course, I expected to be patted on the back and told I was doing a great thing. That isn’t what happened. She looked concerned and asked if I believed the affirmations I was saying. After I had thought about it a minute, I had to admit that I didn’t. I quickly added, “But I will, though.” She laughed. She explained that while my heart was in the right place, I might be doing more harm than good. I’m paraphrasing after all these years, but basically, she said, “If you don’t believe what you are saying you run the risk of two negative outcomes. The first is that you feel bad about yourself because you’re lying to yourself and it doesn’t ring true. A second possibility is that you begin to believe what you’re telling yourself even though it’s not true, and that prevents you from actually making the needed changes. Why would you make changes if you believed you didn’t need to?”

       I have to admit, I had to think about what she said for a few days. And of course, being the science geek that I am, I had to do some research. I couldn’t find any verifiable evidence to support the claim that positive affirmations work. I realized that just because many self-help gurus and motivational speakers recommend positive affirmations doesn’t mean they are scientifically sound or that they are beneficial. What I did find was psychologists and researchers warning about the possible dangers of using positive affirmations.

       I found the study1 done by Dr. Joanne Wood and her team that was published in the Journal of Psychological Science. In it, they show how positive affirmations don’t work for many people. They report: “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.” They cautioned that people should be wary of, “outlandish, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as ‘I accept myself completely,’ [that] are often encouraged by self-help books. Our results suggest that such self-statements may harm the very people they are designed for…” What they found was that individuals who are down or have low self-esteem often experience more negative emotions after repeating positive affirmations. They felt worse afterward.

       After I had thought about it, I had to admit that these psychologists’ and researchers’ findings applied to me. The effects were subtle, but I realized positive affirmations were making me feel worse about myself. Reading statements over and over again that I knew to be false made me feel like a fake or like I had done something wrong because the statements weren’t true in my life. That was troubling because according to whatever self-help guru I was listening to that week the statements should have been true, or would have been soon if I believed strongly enough.

       Once I got honest with myself, I also realized that affirmations that weren’t moving me to action were helping to justify inaction. For instance, the mantra I was told to repeat most often was, “Everyday in every way, I’m getting better and better.” I know that isn’t true. I know that some days I make mistakes that cause me to take a step backward, and that’s okay! How does it benefit me to lie about it? How does that improve my situation? It didn’t, although I believed it did. Believing something is helping me, when it’s not, is a sure fire way for me to stay stuck in a bad situation. If what I did today didn’t work, and I didn’t get any better, but I keep telling myself I did, where’s the motivation to make the needed changes tomorrow? It’s not there.

       Unfortunately, I never got my letter from Hogwarts. I am a muggle (Harry Potter fans unite). That means there is no Secret. There are no magical words that I can repeat over and over as if I were reciting some incantation that will change my life. I don't get a magical genie. I must go about making positive changes the old fashioned way. I must take small positive steps each day while being honest with myself. I get to improve my life by putting one foot in front of the other. Honestly, I prefer it that way. It makes me appreciate things more.

       Thankfully, my psychologist suggested a way to help me take those small positive steps that works extraordinarily well for me. She said that I should tell the truth in an optimistic way. That meant I had to cut out the nonsense. I had to start telling it like it really was, in an optimistic way. I’ve found that I like making statements that are true and based on the facts. There’s no use in sugar coating it or glamorizing it. If I don’t like the truth as I state it, then I can go about changing it. I can make course corrections. If I lie to myself, however, I will be stuck forever.

       For example, I’ve messed up and made tragic mistakes in the past. That’s the truth. The truth also is that today can be a brand new day and the starting of a new life. I can pick a whole new destination. Instead of denying or shrinking from the truth, I can decide that being responsible for my actions is liberating. That brings me to one of my favorite honest affirmations: I am the author of my story. While I don’t control all the plot twists, I do control how I respond to them, and at any point in time, I can decide that this is not how my story is going to end.

       You see, I can use the truth to help correct past mistakes and to make small positive changes each day. I don’t need magical words, delusional thoughts or false statements to do that. I certainly don’t need them when it turns out that, more often than not, they actually make me feel worse.

       I’ve found that the truth is enough, that it’s revealing and inspiring if I allow it to be. Being truly honest with myself was difficult at first because it meant I could no longer coddle myself with cute sayings. Instead, I had to start telling it like it was.  For instance, instead of saying, “Everyday in every way, I’m getting better and better,” I now say, “I’m working on creating healthy habits every day that are making me better and better.” That rings true for me because it is true for me. How refreshing. If that weren’t true, I could go about making it true, and thus, improve my situation. If I were to keep telling myself I was getting better every day in every way and believed that doing so would somehow solve my problems, I would get nowhere.

       While healthy individuals with high self-esteem may experience a benefit from using positive affirmations, the science shows that, in many cases, my psychologist was right. Many people do not benefit from them and are actually harmed by them. It’s time for the truth, for the facts. And if I don’t like my truth or the facts as they stand, then I can go about changing them with honest affirmations. So no, I don't get better every day in every way, but I will do my best every day to make my life, and others, better in as many ways as I can. Ahhhhhh. The truth IS liberating!

When I think of positive affirmations now, I often think of this clip and laugh.
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       As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a fantastic resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
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