2018 is still just a baby new year. An infant, really. And yet, we are already disappointed. We promised ourselves that this year would be different, that we would be different. And yet we’re not. And we’re confused.
We did the things the internet self-help gurus told us to do. We gazed into the mirror and said to ourselves, “I am beautiful, loveable, and the universe wants me to be happy.” We did it three times a day. And what happened? Fucking nothing.
You wanna know why? Because affirmations are basically bullshit.
That’s a pretty unpopular assertion for a yoga teacher to make, so while I’m at it, I’d also like to add that the Law of Attraction is a marketing gimmick and the Universe doesn’t give a shit about you. Oh, and all the “science” that “proves” that your thoughts create matter are geniusly rigged schemes to get you on board with someone’s program and they want to sell you something really fucking expensive.
Studies conducted by Joanne Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo show that the use of affirmations, or positive self-statements, not only don’t always help, sometimes they can actually be harmful.
Her research states that, “among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement or focused on how it was true felt better than those who did not, but to a limited degree. Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ‘need’ them the most.”
Who are those who need them the most? People with low self-esteem.
“When people with low self-esteem repeated the statement, ‘I’m a lovable person,’ or focused on ways in which this statement was true of them, neither their feelings about themselves nor their moods improved—they got worse,” Wood says in her findings. “Positive self-statements seemed to provide a boost only to people with high self-esteem—those who ordinarily feel good about themselves already—and that boost was small.” In other words, unless you’re already feeling good about yourself, positive self statements aren’t going to make you feel any better, and they could even make you feel worse.
But why? Why doesn’t repeating nice things to yourself—a ritual touted by woo-woo healers globally—make you feel good?
“Not all affirmations are equal. If an affirmation is perceived as exaggerated, then not only could it not be helpful, but the results could be negative. It can’t feel too Pollyannaish. It can’t feel too far out of someone’s reality,” says Sherry Benton, chief science officer of TAO Connect (a digital platform that gives people easy access to recovery treatments) and professor emeritus of psychology from University of Florida. She tells me that about 70 percent of our internal dialogue tends to be negative. “It protected our species for thousands of years. We’re never going to get to the point where we have a constant stream of positive thinking. And the more we judge our thinking, the worse it gets.”
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Benton’s indicating that if you say something to yourself that runs counter to your real belief system, your brain will refuse to accept it. Basically, you will argue with yourself, and then you will judge yourself for the internal dialogue you’re having (affirmation versus deeply held belief) and feel shittier than you did in the first place.
Plus, as Gary John Bishop, the bestselling author of Unfuck Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life points out, a lot of people are “using affirmations to put a band-aid on their shitty lives.” He adds, “Affirmations are there to overcome something you think you’re not. I haven’t met many high performers in life who stand by their life built on affirmations.”
What Bishop proposes is that action is what is needed to change people’s lives. Action does begin with language, or as Bishop puts it, “life exists in the very next thing that falls out of your mouth.” But it can’t end with words. “If you’re not happy, you have to do what rings your bell in terms of growth, you have to make it your business and act on it.”
But neither Bishop nor any of the other sources I spoke were ready to entirely write off the use of affirmations. Ilene Ruhoy, neurologist and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology, says, “Affirmations can be helpful and powerful. They can help you achieve things.”
So, what’s the diff between a helpful affirmation and a neutral or potentially harmful one?
Benton says, “When people create their own affirmations based on their own experiences and grounded in reality, they can have a positive impact, the reward centers of the brain are stimulated and they can actually change the activity in your brain.” Ruhoy agrees, saying that affirmations must be “feasible, possible, and realistic.”
If it seems like common sense that talking nicely to yourself should make you feel good, then it follows that you also have to be able to believe yourself. You must be trustworthy to yourself. In order to be trustworthy, you must make reasonable statements.
You can’t tell yourself you’re a tiger to unleash your inner wild, because as Gary John Bishop says in Unfuck Yourself, “First of all, you’re not a tiger. And second, you’re not a tiger.”
So no grandiloquent affirmations. And no affirmations dangling around without any action to follow. “What you need to affirm is the next step,” Ruhoy says. “If you achieve the next step, then you get encouraged.” In other words, your mind isn’t going to let you jump from point A to point Z. If you don’t look like a supermodel today, you’re also not going to look like a supermodel tomorrow. But you could start with something small, like brushing your hair.
You could even start with visualizing yourself brushing your hair or affirm hair brushing to yourself, because it’s just not that far fetched. All is not lost as long as we make our goals manageable. “We can rebuild neurological circuits,” Ruhoy says, ‘but to do so, small steps are of the greatest value.”
If you want to change your life or your thought patterns, you’re going to have to get real. “Typical positive affirmations don’t take into account the systemic and structural realities of most people. If you have a minimum wage job, ‘Money flows to me freely’ is an insult to your eight-hour work day,” Bear Hebert, a New Orleans based yoga teacher who teaches a class called Affirmations for Assholes. “Why not affirm our current efforts towards self-betterment rather than trying to manifest some fantasy future that may never be accessible to most people because of the racist, capitalist patriarchy we live in?
So, if affirmations “ring your bell,” as Gary John Bishop says, go ahead and use them. Just make sure they are close enough to reality that they don’t create whole new patterns of self-hatred.
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