I connected to the power of affirmations back in graduate school. I had heard about mantras and knew that words have power, but I never really thought affirmations would have a concrete effect on my mental health, until I started actually working with them.
I’m going to share with you what I have learned in my life and clinical practice about how to use positive affirmations to create new visions of what is possible, new narratives about who we are, and new futures for us to be excited about. Affirmations can help us access hope, feel encouraged in the face of difficulty, and develop confidence to bounce back when we encounter setbacks.
But how do we find the right words or phrases?
In my private practice, I usually start by listening to my clients’ negative self-talk: “I can’t do this”; “I don’t know who I am”; “I’m stupid”; “I’m ugly”; “I’m a horrible partner”; “My boss hates me because they know I’m not competent.” And the list goes on …
The negative self-talk is always the exact opposite of what my clients truly desire. So after allowing them to express and process their difficult emotions, we start exploring why they feel that way, where those belief systems were created, and whether they are true. Often, they are not true at all. Once the limiting belief is clear, articulating the affirmation is easy.
Although affirmations may reflect a future state that we desire to attain, they should always be phrased in the present tense, for example “I am confident and comfortable with myself”. Through regular contemplation they become our reality. Affirmations need repetition to become part of our new belief systems. After all, we are often unconsciously repeating our negative self-concepts throughout the day. If your brain is muttering, “I’m not good enough,” all morning, during lunch, and then on the way home from work, one mention of a positive affirmation won’t do much. But as soon as you notice your mind wandering , then you can return to your positive affirmations throughout the day. My experience is that gentle, consistent repetitions are better than trying to force the affirmation into your brain all at once.
We don’t need to fake affirmations. They have to feel real. If a client feels he or she isn’t enough, repeating, “I am successful” might just trigger the opposite feeling. After all, our minds listen to what we mean, not what we say. In reality, the right affirmation might be, simply, “I AM enough.” And enough is good enough. Often, people feel they have to use affirmations to strengthen the competitive side of their minds, but that usually backfires. The best practice is not to get into competition, even with our own selves, and reach for the words that feel soothing and peaceful.
Affirmations can be practiced on your own, without a therapist. The benefit of therapy, however, is that a trained professional can hear the deeper meaning behind your words and help you get to the source of any limiting beliefs. Having a therapist isn’t a substitute for doing your own work, but it can be a mirror for the words you have always needed to hear, from yourself, to yourself.