Creative Commons License credit: Jacob.Enos

I’ve never been a big fan of affirmations. Many spiritual people are, and I respect that, but I’m just not certain they work. The first time I ever tried doing affirmations, probably 15 or more years ago, I felt, well, incredibly fake telling myself something that just didn’t seem true. As they say around here, you can dress a pig in a bonnet, but you still got a pig (you just gotta love rural America). So, I rarely if ever used them. And I never use them now.

Al Franken

Of course, affirmations are probably the most ridiculed aspect of the entire self-help movement. Remember Stuart Smalley? I loved Al Franken standing in front of the mirror on Saturday Night Live and saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog gone it, people like me!” There seems to be a almost cultural bias against affirmations. So, maybe it isn’t just me.

So what isn’t quite right about affirmations? It seems to me that affirmations are fundamentally flawed. They always have an underlying assumption that says “something is wrong with me.” For instance, lets say that you are Stuart Smalley and you think you aren’t very smart. Every time you look in the mirror you say to yourself, consciously or otherwise, “God, I’m stupid.” You have come to believe this statement, deep down, with all the attached emotions and feelings associated with it.

Affirmations would have you start repeating to yourself, “I’m smart enough.” The idea is to counter the negative statement with a positive one. But does it work? Not for most people. Let me give you an illustration to show you why I say that affirmations don’t work. (Thanks to Hale Dwoskin for the following illustration which he often uses at Sedona Method retreats.)

Affirmations start with the negative statement, “God, I’m stupid.” Let’s represent this negative statement with a frowny face:

Frowny face

When you say an affirmation, you are attempting to change the negative to the positive belief, “I’m smart enough.”

smiley face

Everything should be good now, right? Well, no. While you may repeat the affirmation, the negative belief hasn’t gone anywhere. It is still firmly planted in your mind. So what you get, in fact, is this:

both.gif

And if you keep repeating the affirmation, day after day, it will get more and more in conflict with the old belief until you end up with a mess:

mix2.gif

Is this what will always happen with affirmations? No, of course not. Sometimes they are successful. But millions of people have attempted to make changes in their lives with affirmations and, unfortunately, they quite often do not work. You simply end up with a subconscious mess. So, what can you do?


Creative Commons License credit: peresebastian

It seems almost obvious to me now that the better approach is to root out the negative belief instead, to let it go. If you look in the mirror and say, for instance, “God, I’m fat and ugly,” you are making a whole series of judgments about yourself that may, in fact, not be true.

Have you ever questioned these basic assumptions? Have you looked at the feelings that hold these judgments in place? Have you asked yourself what you might be gaining from believing that you are fat and ugly? Have you looked at your fears about being overweight, or your fears of being thin? What messages did you hear as a kid about being thin or good looking? You could ask a dozen more questions about yourself and thereby call into question your mantra, “God, I’m fat and ugly.”

In fact, you may discover that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. Nothing. You aren’t skinny. So what? I mean really, right at this moment, are you any worse for wear? Are not all the negatives you’ve heard about being overweight somewhere off in the future? Are any of them here right now? Are you going to die right now if you don’t lose 50 pounds?

Whenever I get firmly rooted in right now and out of the fearful future, I quite often find that I’m far more capable of acting, far more motivated to make changes. I’m more open and more willing to try, to risk, to dare. And you probably are, too. Losing weight, exercising, whatever your personal challenge may be, suddenly becomes less daunting and more doable.

In a recent article, I wrote about the Sedona Method, a great program for helping to undo the negativity and judgments that we carry. Another program that I’m a fan of is Byron Katie’s “The Work”. Both of these techniques can be useful tools in letting go of the judgments and negative beliefs that keep us stuck. And they are, in a certain sense, valuable tools to have on the spiritual journey. They help us to uncover a much truer perspective about ourselves that helps us to see the fundamental truth about who we are.

And one last thought for you: I have a hunch that every time affirmations seem to work for someone, it is because at some level the person actually let go of the original negative belief. The success stems from the letting go, not the affirmation. That’s just a hunch, so I could be wrong. You never know!

I’ll leave you with a funny video that I watched this morning that got me thinking about affirmations. If affirmations work for you, then by all means, use them. But if not, I think you will get a kick out this video. Enjoy!


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30 Responses to Affirmations? None for Me, Thanks

  1. Barbara says:

    Hi Tom,

    Affirmations never seemed quite right when I’d read them. There was always a falseness I felt I had to assume in order to get in alignment with them. Like the girl in the video investing in her future castle life. The departure from reality to fairytale was often not a long trip.

    I also think there was a direct parallel to what I was trying to correct in my life. I kept looking for what was true, including and especially the stuff I was deluding myself about and with. Faking it until I make it, as the saying goes, seemed like more of the same.

    Repetition of untruths rarely looks different than untruth to me. Affirmations most often seemed to cover rather than uncover.

    Maybe a nice gig if one can somehow keep it alive…I don’t think I ever managed.

  2. Per Jonsson says:

    Haha, funny video :)

    I like your smiley illustrations too..

    Anyway, in the old Sedona basic course, Hale says that affirmations are like putting golden apples on top of rotten apples, eventually all the apples are going to rot!

  3. Evan says:

    Hi Tom,

    I think the truth in the affirmation approach (we need to understand its appeal too) is that how we approach something does affect our response. This insight is largely misapplied I think.

    The best critiqueI have heard of the affirmation approach comes from a friend of mine: it’s like pulling the wool over your own eyes, hoping that it will work if you do it fast enough.

    To go a little deeper. Doesn’t advocating the here and now presume there is something wrong with being “there and then”? Perhaps this advice also presumes a judgement? I’m not sure – that really is a genuine question. It may be difficult for me because if it is a judgement then it is one that I (largely) agree with.

    It’s difficult to avoid being negative about being negative. There are knots here that I find intriguing.

  4. Tom, great article. I think what many people either don’t realise or forget is that the “language” of the universe is one of intent – it doesn’t respond to what words we’re using, but rather to our underlying energy or level of consciousness. Much of the literature on affirmations gets very hung up on getting the words “right”, e.g. affirmations must be in the present tense, don’t use this word, do use this phrase etc etc. But regardless of how much you repeat a positive sentence, if your underlying energy is negative, fearful or limiting, then you’ll simply be creating negative, fearful or limiting experiences in your life.

    That said, I think affirmations can help people to move from a lower level of consciousness to a higher one… but, this happens when people are also committed to releasing their negative or limiting beliefs. It doesn’t happen when affirmations are seen as some sort of magic mantra that will change one’s life simply by constant repetition.

    Mags | Woo-Woo Wisdom’s last blog post..The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

  5. mel says:

    i loved this!

    i *do* think we should remind ourselves of our strengths and successes, so we don’t get caught in negative self-talk. but we need to be realistic about our self-talk. sometimes, getting caught up in the negative self-talk (i’m stupid, i never do anything right, nobody likes me) is just as ridiculous as the affirmations!

    (i say after i spent a couple of good whole days throwing myself one gigantic walking pity party!)

    i think we can affirm ourselves without resorting to false hope affirmations.

    mel’s last blog post..local wildlife

  6. Tom,

    Great insight about what is wrong with affirmations, that they are ultimately attached to a flawed, self-conscious identification with something that needs to be “fixed.”

    You are already everything you’ve ever wanted to become.

    I absolutely agree with your breakdown and love the smiling face graphics!

    Slade | Shift Your Spirits’s last blog post..If Your Cup is Full, Stop Pouring

  7. Tom Stine says:

    @Barbara I’m completely with you. I just never could see the point.

    @Per I forgot about the apple analogy. I remember Hale using that one, too. Thanks for the reminder!

    @Mags You are right about the affirmation lit. You gotta get it “just right” or else they don’t work. Or you might turn yourself into a turtle or something like that. And I agree: it is the energy underlying. If you feel like a lazy slob, then, well, that’s what you will tend to be no matter what you tell yourself.

    @Mel Thanks for the comments. I do think there is some value to “affirming” what is already true. But do you really believe it? That’s the key. You gotta already know it deep down.

  8. Tom Stine says:

    @Evan I like the pulling the wool over your eyes critique. Makes perfect sense.

    As for your question: does advocating here and now presume there is something wrong with “there and then?” Good question. If you are denying your memories of “there and then” (and they are only memories), then I would say yes, you are pushing away your memories. But I find that when thought is firmly planted in now, there really isn’t a “there and then” at all. Again, there and then is just a thought about the past. If those thoughts arise, as long as I don’t attach to them in any way, I’m not denying them or saying there is something wrong. I think all we are doing is putting awareness on the present moment instead of thoughts about the past. Does that make sense?

  9. Tom Stine says:

    @Slade Hey, thanks for the comment. Glad to have you here. Yes, that really seems to be the key, the identification with something that needs “fixing” something that is flawed. When that is let go, it seems to me that change spontaneously happens if it needs to happen. But most of the things we don’t like in ourselves really aren’t problems. Like the woman in the video, she says she is overweight (obviously the actress isn’t). But in a sense, so what? Oh, sure, we can point to possible health issues, but the “problem” is really only in her mind. As she is, she is just fine.

    Again, nice to have you here. Thanks for the comments.

  10. Harold Loomis says:

    I find affirmations very useful. If I find the need to make an affirmation I go ahead and do it. Because, right after making the affirmation the feeling of lack or negative energy that brought up the need for the affirmation then rears it ugly head. As soon as this lack or negativity arises, I release it. If I did not release all of it, I can state the affirmation again and release again what comes up. Or I can wait until the need to make the affirmation again comes up and do the process again.

    A possibility: If a person does not have an opposite belief within them and they make an affirmation, it could be like making an original belief and this could come true in whatever time frame is working for that person. I suppose that one keeps in mind that a belief that works for now may become a limitation later. Enough guessing.

    Keep up the good work Tom.

  11. Evan says:

    Yes, it mostly makes sense.

    I just aggravated about the loose talk about ‘here and now’. It’s so often just a reduction to a crass sensory state (‘leave your mind and shoes at the door’ kind of thing).

    For me the meaning of this slogan is a widening of awareness not a narrowing (or giving up) of awareness.

    I think investigating our negative is far more productive than just contradicting them with an affirmation. I do like Harold’s thought about using affirmations ‘diagnostically’.

    Evan’s last blog post..Three Benefits of Being Childlike

  12. Tom Stine says:

    @Harold Good idea to use affirmations that way. i can see how that would work well. Great idea. I’m going to try it and see what happens. I’m always looking for a new way to let go of junk.

    @Evan I’m going to have to write a post on this here and now stuff. I agree that it is all kind of loose. Kind of like the “it’s all an illusion, there is no doer” stuff you hear from the Advaita crowd. While that is TRUE, it doesn’t mean anything unless you’ve really awoken to the truth. Okay, give me a few days. :-)

  13. Evan says:

    Look forward to it.

    Evan’s last blog post..Online Counseling

  14. Davidya says:

    Tom – I quite laughed when your blog post arrived. Immediately I saw how your perspective is ruled by your path. You have a more mind driven path and thus find affirmations a falsehood and waste of time. A more intellectual approach requires precision that affirmations don’t offer.

    Its quite true theres a lot of mush around affirmations. As there is indeed about almost everything spiritual. But as Mags and Harold observed, there is value there as well. If you are on a more heart-driven path, you are driven more directly by belief and thus want to manipulate belief more directly. Affirmations can help there.

    Its quite true that the key is in clearing old trash rather than adding new things and yet further conflict. But don’t blame the tool for being abused. Everything can have a value at some point. And that same tool can be used to blame. And it can be used to mess things up.

    One could say that the entire world is an affirmation. Everything arises out of consciousness, is intended. So mastering intention is a key aspect of living well.

    Of course, if you are not very conscious, its very easy for intention/affirmation to just be another layer of illusion. As you observe, to be another story of blame and making wrong. The video certainly illustrates that. (laughs) But if we see how we’re constantly intending, understanding better ways to approach it can be helpful. Affirmations can help us see how our very language can be one of making wrong. And that can be a powerful lesson.

    I recall seeing an interview with James Ray, one of the fellows from The Secret, soon after the film was released. He observed that if we keep asking for something over and over, we don’t believe it. The key is in asking once, right, in the first place.

    The concepts around affirmations can help frame that intention correctly, hence the effort at wording. (oft abused to become planning without doing or magical thinking)

    I shared your opinion of affirmations for a long time. Now I see there is great power hidden in the mud ;-)

    Davidya’s last blog post..Stroke of Oprah

  15. Mark says:

    Tom

    I agree with you that over all affirmations don’t work. Have you heard the saying “fake it till you make it” used in many of the self help books. I’ve tried this before but it just never worked for me. I like your reference to a pig in a bonnet. It is after all still just a pig.

    For me if I’m in a here and now moment and that moment has a negative bent I can affirm a positive thought until I’m blue in the face, it isn’t going to change the here and now is it?

    And one final thing Tom, You said, and I quote “I could be wrong” perish the thought.:)

    Mark’s last blog post..You’ve justa gotta be joking right?

  16. Davidya says:

    Hi Mark – I had the same experience with affirmations. The issue comes down to belief. If you “fake it” but don’t believe it, it will never work as the built in assumption/ intention is to cancel it. People oriented away from belief systems have lousy experiences with affirmations.

    But when you go deeper into it and find the power of intention, you find how much of your world is structured in belief, a set of stories of “how it is” which have surprisingly little to do with how it actually is. Inversely, that points to how powerful affirmations are.

    No matter how much we debunk affirmations, if you watch your mind, you will find that you are affirming all the time. And some of it perhaps not what you would consciously want to affirm.

    In that way, its a useful thing to study. But for many of us, more in understanding than necessarily a practice. I found, like Tom, that doing the emotional clearing more directly was much more effective. But that rather depends on where you are on the path. The woman in the video was a long way from emotional self-awareness.

  17. Harold Loomis says:

    If I make an affirmation, it is like creating a new belief. If I already have an operating belief in that area of my live and it is in conflict with the affirmation that I have just created, the conflict will manifest itself in several ways.
    A feeling of lack.
    A negative feeling.
    A muscle tick or involuntary movement.
    A change in word pronunciation when saying the affirmation.
    A change in sound volume when saying the affirmation.
    An unexplained pain/ache felt in or on the body.
    Etc. the list can be long.

    Some of the items on the list may not be noticeable when saying the affirmation, therefore, an observer is sometimes needed to point out what happened when I gave the affirmation.

    Anyway the above list points to conflicting beliefs with the now stated affirmation/belief. If I really want the affirmation to work, I need to release the prior conflicting beliefs or I will not feel very great until the conflicting war is won by one of the beliefs.

    Hope this helps.

  18. Tom Stine says:

    @Davidya I wasn’t sure where you were headed with this one until I read your second comment. Now I get it. I think Mark nailed it on the head: the “affirmations” I’m discussing are of the type that I would call “fake it until you make it.” The key is fake it. You know, being a Stuart Smalley, staring in the mirror, and in the most insipid voice tell yourself you are “good enough.” Al Franken nailed it: notice he always said “enough.” Stuart doesn’t believe his own affirmation!

    So, David, I think the thing we are discussing really goes back to some of our early discussions on thoughts. Mind and thoughts, or we could say “psychic energy” literally create the physical universe in my view of things. The entire world of form is then a mental creation. You are calling it, in effect, an affirmation, and I see your perspective. But it clearly isn’t a “fake it ’til you make it” kind of affirmation. It is a pure energetic creative SURGE. I’d be more inclined to call it WILL.

    Maybe we are debating semantics, maybe not. I do get what you are saying. Lately, I’ve had the experience of looking at various areas of my life and sensing that my mental framework was too “small” to contain a certain facet of my life. For instance, I saw how the “mental space” seemed too cramped to allow for significant wealth in my life. Not that I’m gunning to be rich, but more that it seemed to explain why money seems to “leak” out of my life. As I sat with the “energy” of this, I could feel an expansion occurring, as if greater energetic space was being created.

    I have no idea what I was really doing, because, well, I wasn’t really doing. It was pretty spontaneous. But it felt like beliefs were changing and shifting around. I think it was akin to what you describe in your comments as “affirming” but not quite so conscious and wordy. Hmm…. That just gave me an idea. I wonder if “beliefs” are just a word picture for the “psychic energetic state” I’m more or less referring to above in this comment. Interesting. I’m going to have to play with that. It would make the whole idea of beliefs simply a method for accessing this energy.

  19. Tom Stine says:

    @Mark You know, as I was commenting to Davidya, something about all this stuff has to do with the energy behind the words or idea. An example: when Jesus told the blind man SEE, was he affirming this? That’s how it is taught in New Thought churches like Unity. And then people walk around saying “see, see, see” as if that will work. No, in Jesus’ case, he wasn’t affirming, he was voicing the power flowing through him. A real affirmation, if there is such a thing, is an act of creation. A movement of energy that is merely being given voice in the statement. Remember “In the beginning was the Word.” And thus a whole universe of form was created.

    Hmm…. So what’s behind the words is all that matters. I still maintain affirmations are a waste of time. It is the power behind them that matters. As you say, Mark, if you are in a negative space right now, no amount of positive affirming is going to break it.

  20. Tom Stine says:

    @Harold Hey, I really like this process you are doing. Very good use. You are almost challenging your system to see what beliefs are lurking underneath. Very cool. As I said, I’m gonna try this one.

  21. May says:

    I used affirmations for a couple of rough months to keep my spirits up and to remind me of my connectedness to everything at a time when I felt completely unconnected and unsupported. I don’t feel that way now, so I’ve stopped using the affirmations. But I would never consider them to be a negative thing, either.

    May’s last blog post..He Healed Me with Love

  22. Tom Stine says:

    @May Thanks for sharing your experience with affirmations. I always welcome other viewpoints. I know that for some people affirmations do work.

  23. kirsten says:

    Hi Tom,

    Came to your site via Urban Monk. I’ve run into this problem before with affirmations. “Fake it til you make it” is too superficial a way to change a deeply rooted thought, like putting on a thin layer of paint over an old building to make it look nice. We have to get to the root of the issue and face it.

  24. Tom Stine says:

    @Kirsten Welcome here. I couldn’t agree more. I like your description: get to the root of the issue. That’s it. Nothing will ultimately change by touching the superficial layers on top. Thanks for the comment.

  25. Davidya says:

    Hi Tom
    Ironically, it is a ‘fake it’, all of experience. The difference is if we don’t believe the affirmation or perhaps the thought, then it has no reality. If we do believe it, it does. But in neither case is it real. (laughs)

    I do agree with what you’ve said though. Only observing that there is some deeper values to it that should not be missed. As you mention in comments, its whats behind it all that matters.

    Davidya’s last blog post..Existence is

  26. Tom Stine says:

    @Davidya I know. In this “business” of spirituality, it gets to be very interesting. Playing a game, really.

  27. Barbara says:

    Hi Tom,

    Somehow this post stayed with me. When an idea stays stuck, I think there’s an element of unfinished personal business calling one’s attention. This proved to be no different.

    One of the things I am personally struggling with is the idea of ‘convincing’ myself of something, which is ‘for my own good’, as I don’t have my own reference point at this time. And I realized that is what affirmations represent to me. Not a feeling of my own, but someone else’s good idea I’d be better to adopt, might like to adopt, etc.. Which may or may not be a good thing…but I more naturally rail against than toward.

    The dilemma is then this idea of change for the better. If I have been stuck somewhere in a destructive pattern, am I trusting the same feelings felt over and over? Or is my bristling about this seemingly better idea just not what is true for me? It is after all when I can see anew that change happens.

    Sounds like I’m not finished with this yet.

    Thanks for the post.

  28. Davidya says:

    Hi Barbara
    If i may suggest, it sounds like you are trying to resolve feeling values with the mind. Desire for change, feeling not good enough, etc. When you can stop the analysis for a moment and just pay attention to how you feel, you can quickly get to the bottom of such apparent dilemmas. Feeling the feelings fully consciously, just for a moment, is usually enough to complete and resolve them. Even stuff we’ve carried for a long time.

    Davidya’s last blog post..Something religious is going on

  29. Tom Stine says:

    @Barbara It does keep coming back for you, doesn’t it? Okay, maybe this might help: feel your feelings. Think your thoughts. Just don’t “believe” any of it. Even your ideas of what is “better” are just ideas, not to be believed. Just let them in, and let them out. You mentioned a destructive pattern you might have been in. So question it: is it destructive? Is something else better? As you question and sit with the questions, the feelings wrapped around these thoughts unwind and flow all by themselves. Then you are free to, well, do what comes up for you then. Odds are it will look less destructive.

    Just some ideas for you. Kick them around and see how they work for you. And I’m getting a great idea for an ebook or two. :-)

  30. Tom Stine says:

    @Davidya “Feeling the feelings fully consciously, just for a moment….” That’s it! Perfect.