“They are going to love this proposal!”
“I will call the company and confidently demand that they refund my money or replace my product.”
“I look good today, there’s no stopping me!”
These are examples of affirmations.
Affirmations are positive statements that point out a person’s strengths or best qualities. They can come from other people, or they can come from the individual themselves. They can be developed alone, or in consultation with a therapist or counselor.
Their goal: to provide an individual with the positive self-talk and energy needed to accomplish the hard tasks ahead of them, whether it is delivering an important speech to a group of influential investors at work, or simply getting out of bed in the morning.
What does it mean ‘to affirm’?
For people of a certain generation, their first interaction with affirmations came in the character of Stuart Smalley. This character, played on Saturday Night Live by Al Franken before he went on to become a senator, seemingly needed to affirm his very existence. Disappearing behind bland shirts, pants and a sweater that always seemed to not quite fit, he’d confidently straighten his spine, look into the mirror, and say, “I’m good enough, I am smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me.”
Although this was a comedic send-up of affirmations, the reality is not too different.
To affirm something means simply to assert or state that it exists and can do the thing it is supposed to do. You might affirm to your spouse that you can successfully pick up the kids from school, or that you trust them to manage the checkbook this month while you’re on a business trip.
Specifically, it means to state something as a fact.
So in the case of therapeutic affirmations, the person speaking them is asserting a given statement as a fact.
They can be about a person’s appearance:
“I am the right height and weight for who I am. People find me attractive.”
“Like my grandfather and his grandfather, I am a proud bald man.”
They can be about a person’s skills:
“I am a fluid and competent public speaker who is energized by a crowd.”
“I can be comfortable on the phone and confidently order a pizza for delivery.”
They can be about a person’s qualities:
“I am a gentle, loving person, who can still set boundaries for myself.”
“I am a caring father who makes the best of his limited time with his children and knows that they sometimes they are angry with me, but that does not make me angry with them.”
So why do people use affirmations?
Our subconscious is always telling us stories about ourselves. unfortunately, it has internalized many of the negative and positive stories that we picked up from our childhood and from media around us.
This means that if we were told by our parents that some part of our appearance was not attractive to other people, our subconscious keeps telling us that same story all the time. Or if we were told that we were clumsy after a moment of awkwardness as a teen, we might continue to believe it.
Many of the ways that we behave, whether we are alone or around other people, were constructed entirely the messages we got from others, especially from our nuclear family.
Often the things we believe about ourselves are not true and are actually harmful to us as we interact with others and our world.
The intent of affirmations is to find these hidden scripts that undermine us, and then to rewrite them.
One woman, we will call here Sara, struggled to call strangers on the phone. She had been taught, by hearing her parents say it over and over again to others, that she was “exceedingly shy.” This was the script that came into her mind every time she went to make a phone call.
When Sara, as a junior in high school, was tasked with ordering a pizza for her family, her sister helped her sketch out a script for how the conversation would likely go. Nonetheless, she was sweating when she picked up the phone. When the person at the pizza shop answered, Sara panicked and slammed down the phone.
“What happened?” Her sister asked.
“It was Joanna, from school. I didn’t know what to say.”
“Don’t you talk to her every day?”
“Yes, but not when I am trying to order a pizza.”
Her sister was asking reasonable questions, but Sara already had an unreasonable script in her mind. She was too shy to talk on the phone. It was going to be impossible for her to order a pizza, and when there was a new and unexpected obstacle – the person who answered was familiar to her – she was suddenly “exceedingly shy” again, and unable to move forward in the conversation.
It was easier for her to hang up.
Sara was not alone in having this problem, and a social phobia is a common place where affirmations are used to replace existing scripts.
Next week we will check in with Sara to see how she managed with her situation.
Do you have obstacles in your life that you struggle to overcome? Might an affirmation, or a deep dive into the causes of the obstacle, help you? Maybe Sakina Issa can help. Click the red button on this page to schedule a time to talk with no obligation to see if she might be able to help you move forward.