A picture of carry out pizza.

Do Affirmations Work?

Last week we checked in with a woman named Sara. When she was a child, she had learned from her parents that she was “exceedingly shy.” This harmful script prevented her from completing a lot of normal daily functions. In particular, an obvious struggle she had was talking with strangers on the phone.

In one case, as a high school student, her sister helped her prepare for a phone call to order a pizza for the family, and still Sara was unable to complete the call. It turns out that when the person who answered the call was another student from her school, she abandoned her script, panicked, and hung up.

This is how our negative stories can sometimes trip us up.

If you pay attention to conversations you have with friends, you will hear the negative stories they tell about themselves all the time.

“I can’t dance.”

“Oh, I am terrible at math.”

“I can’t write worth a darn.”

“I would never be able to stand up and talk at the PTO meeting!”

A picture of carry out pizza.
Ordering pizza doesn’t have to be hard. Picture from Pixabay.

Whether these are lessons your friends have picked up from their experiences, or from scripts and lessons from teachers, parents, and loved ones in their lives, they are being limited by what they believe is true.

They are limited by what they believe they can’t do. They are limited by what they tell themselves they can’t do.


Where do affirmations come in?

Your brain believes these stories your loved ones tell you. Then, to save time and energy later, it repeats those stories so your loved ones don’t have to.

If one time you looked foolish while trying to dance, you might skip the step where you try dancing again. Instead, you will play the “I can’t dance” script and watch from the sidelines. When you don’t get mocked for dancing, your story is confirmed. You CAN’T dance! And when you don’t dance, NO ONE MAKES FUN OF YOU!

Voila, you have a destructive self-talk that prevents you from doing something that might delight you and make you feel healthier and more alive. After all, very few people ever dance for the benefit of others. Most of us dance for ourselves!

So where do affirmations come in? 

Affirmations are intended to replace the negative self-talk that a person picked up along the way. 

In working through a personal process, often with a counselor or therapist, a person identifies the lessons they learned or the scripts they say to themselves. 

Then they explore the story behind that script, and replace it with a more accurate statement.



Sara, you will remember, was afraid to make phone calls. Her script, learned from her parents, said she was “exceedingly shy.” This had gotten her out of a lot of social interactions when she was younger, but it left her believing she could not interact with others.

Of course, that script was wrong. She just needed to learn how to do it.

Public speaking might be the right affirmation – and some practice – away. Photo from Pexels-Christina Morillo.

In fact, her sister was on the right track when she helped Sara develop a script for the pizza order. They just didn’t anticipate that a friend from school would answer the phone.

And Sara didn’t need to be told that she was an expert in conversation. She just needed to be reminded that conversations are fluid events. They change all the time. They don’t always go the way they are planned (though ordering a pizza is usually a pretty safe, structured conversation!)

Keeping in mind that conversations are fluid, Sara and her therapist worked together to develop a script that said, “I have conversations all the time. Sometimes when I say the wrong thing, I can just say ‘oops!’ and correct myself. People don’t mind when that happens.”

This script – this affirmation – helped her work toward overcoming her social fear. 

Now when she was preparing for a conversation with strangers, she could repeat that affirmation. 

Did it work? With this script, and other support from her therapist, Sara has largely overcome her social phobias. 

She has now lived in various states and other countries, and has traveled to four continents. She works for an exclusive trust in New York City. Though she sometimes still has anxiety about upcoming interactions, she is better prepared for them. She does her research first, and she knows how she wants the call to go.

But if it doesn’t go the way she hoped, she knows to recover. She simply thinks, “I have conversations all the time. Sometimes when I say the wrong thing, I can just say ‘oops!’ and correct myself. People don’t mind when that happens.”  

In short, she has figured out how to interact with others. But affirmations are not a silver bullet, and they have their limitations. Learn more about that next week.

Do you have scripts in your subconscious 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.

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