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Why affirmations can mess you right up (and what to say to yourself instead.)

“Affirmations are like screaming that you’re okay in order to overcome this whisper that you’re not. That’s a big contrast to actually uncovering the whisper, realizing that it’s a passing memory, and moving closer to all those fears and all those edgy feelings that maybe you’re not okay. Well, no big deal. None of us is okay and all of us are fine. It’s not just one way. We are walking, talking paradoxes.”
— Pema Chödrön, Start Where You Are

I came of age in the New Age of the ‘90s. I had affirmation cards before I had business cards. And I tried to love affirmations, really I did. But affirmations didn’t do me any favours. When my mouth was saying, “I am fearless and courageous!” My brain was saying, “I’m scared shitless.” So then not only did I still feel scared, I also felt like a fake.

If you say that all is well, when all is not well; or that you’re skinny when you’re feeling fat; or that you’re healthy when you’re sick—well, to state the obvious, you’re lying to yourself.

Self-deception creates a cognitive dissonance so that, despite the positive-sounding phrasing, you’re creating inner tension and conflict.

Contrived affirmations take you out of the present. Rather than facing what’s real, we try to plaster over the difficult truths with happy thoughts. This is false optimism and it’s damaging. It undermines our capacity to be with what is, and to access our real strength and spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity includes the capacity to acknowledge our fears while maintaining our confidence and faith.

Affirmations have become a tool for fear management, rather than the more productive process of fear analysis, or as Pema Chödrön puts it, “uncovering the whisper . . . moving closer to all those fears . . .” Fear is natural and it deserves respect and compassion—don’t insult your fear by smothering it with saccharine affirmations. Be scared. And . . . be brave.

Scientific research proves that positive thinking and affirmative words work. No argument there. Do we need pep talks? Hell yes! Are you the very best person to coach yourself through despair? Hell yes! Do we want to end our suffering and return to limitless bliss, and infinite awareness? Yes, yes we do! Do we need to talk ourselves through it? Abso-speakin’-lutely!

So, then, speak the truth. Affirm your desire. Declare your intentions. Recall your successes. Your psyche will believe you. Your body will feel you. Your Soul will thank you for the straight-up communication.

Here’s how:

You’ve got an important meeting. You’re scared. You really want this to go well. Look in the mirror and tell the truth: I’m scared. I really want this to go well. I most desire to feel energized, creative, leadership, and love. So far, your unconscious trusts you. You’re in integrity with yourself. This is actually helpful.

Now if you really want to get your energy up, state some beliefs: I believe in the goodness of humanity. I believe that I’ve got what it takes. I’ve got the best intentions and I’m full of creative ideas.

Keep it up. State some facts, some evidence of your greatness—recall your successes. I nailed this the last time. I won the debate competition. I gave the best wedding toast ever heard. The team raved about my last round of ideas.

There’s more where that came from. You can give voice to what you’re doing that’s working in your life right now. I see that I am already living this in my relationship with my best friend. I am courageous with my husband. I’ve been having my most creative ideas ever this week.

If you want to keep stoking your fire, pour on the desire: I want this job. I really want to feel at ease. I desire for this pain to lift. I desire to be swept away by compassion. I intend to finish first in my league.

And then really go for it and state your intention: I am going to give this my all.

All truth. No filler. You didn’t bullshit yourself once, nor did you adopt someone else’s projection of your perfect reality.