Positive affirmations are widely promoted as a tool for personal development. They are being recommended to people for overcoming depression, anxiety or achieving success. The very word ‘positive’ suggests that it is something that is good for us and so the beneficial impact of ‘positive affirmations’ is generally taken for granted. So… could it be possible that positive affirmations may have a negative side effect? From my own experience and those shared with me by other people I will say that the answer is yes. Wait – don’t panic! If you have been using positive affirmations, please don’t think that it may have done you any permanent harm. Yet in order for them to be truly helpful in improving the quality of your life it is important to be aware of how they work and when using them may be counter-productive.
Positive affirmations are based on the idea that we can ‘rewire’ our brain by ‘feeding’ it with positive thoughts (instead of the ‘negative’ ones that we tend to chew on). This, in turn, is connected to the idea that our thoughts affect how we feel, both emotionally and physically. For example, if we feel scared of an exam or a job interview we may repeatedly say to ourselves ‘I am scared,’ ‘I am going to fail,’ ‘I am not good at job interviews,’ etc. And the more we repeat it the more panicky we feel, physically too as our body responds to the signals that our mind sends to it. This, of course, doesn’t help in dealing with an exam or a job interview successfully. So positive affirmations are designed to re-direct our thoughts, and subsequently, emotions towards the more optimistic and empowered state. But… there is a glitch…
And the glitch is: there is no smoke without fire! If we fear failing at a job interview or exam it is usually because we have experienced what felt like a failure before. It could have been a seemingly small event (like giving a wrong answer in the class), but it would have engendered a fear and mistrust in your abilities. If that hidden volcano of pain and fear continues to burn, it would be fruitless to try and dissipate the smoke. Or we will have to do so continuously, which is very energy consuming and draining. Have you ever tried telling yourself ‘I have many fulfilling relationships’ when your guts are screaming ‘I am horribly lonely!’? It takes a great force to stifle this scream. And it feels like doing violence to your self.
One of my clients compared his experience of using positive affirmations with building a glass palace. When a storm comes – the palace collapses. Here lies a risk of positive affirmations: very often they serve to mask the wounds that need healing first so that we could create the life we want. Just like a house needs a firm soil and strong foundation before we erect the walls and lay down the roof.
These are some of the more obvious ‘side-effects’ of ‘positive affirmations.’ But there are also problems at a deeper level. They concern our perception of our selves and the world, our authenticity and ability to embrace and accept ourselves and others for who we are. We make sense of our world by sorting things out into categories. Sometimes, however, our picture of the world becomes too simplistic as we divide things into ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘black’ and ‘white,’ while ignoring the complexity and richness of life experiences.
For example, everybody feels angry from time to time. Yet if we think of ‘anger’ as ‘bad’ we may deny its presence in us by affirming ‘I am a peaceful person.’ But this doesn’t make our anger go away – it just prevents us from acknowledging it and dealing with it, which may cause quite a lot of damage to us and our relationships. Similarly, with sadness. If we insist on always feeling ‘happy’ we may overlook the whole areas in our lives that are far from being in perfect balance. Thus we may socialize and go out with a lot of people and not notice that we don’t have any real close friends…
Denying the so-called ‘negative’ feelings in ourselves also makes us judgemental towards other people. When we are overly self-critical we find it hard to forgive and empathise with people who do not live up to our standards. We also find it hard to forgive ourselves when we fall short of our self-ideal… And then we fear that others will not be able to forgive and accept us as we are. So we live hiding behind a façade, which precludes an authentic heart-to-heart connection.
I find it helpful to look at our emotions and passions as we look at the sea. We don’t say that the sea is ‘good’ when it is calm and ‘bad’ when it is stormy. We may admire the breaking foamy waves as we admire the silky stillness. There is beauty in both. And, similarly, there is beauty in the rich variety of our emotions. We need not fear them because they make us ‘bad’ – they simply make us human. Reaching deeper for humanity within us also helps us connect on a more profound level with other human beings. And where we perceive that our emotions spring from a wound, we can attend to it with patience and loving care and help it heal. It is only in parallel with the work of healing that we may use positive affirmations – not in stead of it. This is my deep conviction.