A painting of the words "choose joy" in bright green, red, and blue.

What Affirmations Can’t Do

Affirmations are statements that people make to themselves that help them handle common obstacles and prepare for events and actions that might otherwise paralyze them with fear, or set them up for failure.

In a previous article about affirmations, we remembered the comedian Al Franken, and his famous Saturday Night Live character named Stuart Smalley. Stuart is a frumpy, modest man who dresses unremarkably and who looks completely unprepared to take on the world. At the start of each episode or skit, he turns to himself in the mirror and reminds himself, “I’m good enough, I am smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me.”

The laugh line comes from the deep contrast between his affirmation and the timid, mousey Stuart Smalley.  He seems lost in self-doubt about the smallest details. He doubles back on his assertions, and questions every decision. There is no way that a simple affirmation can help him take on the world. 

In one episode he is dressed for halloween in a t-shirt with a skeleton on it. He says, “I was going to dress up as a feeling, but what does dread look like, other than my mother?”

A photo frame saying "One small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day."
The power of affirmations is real. Photo by Binti Malu from Pexels

Smalley’s insecurities ooze out of every action and every word.

Affirmations alone will not change him. And so we laugh.


Affirmations can’t …

Affirmations are unable to change what is real. 

That is, a person who is afraid of speaking in public will not immediately become a charismatic speaker by virtue of repeating the right affirmation. 

You won’t be a better parent because you say to your reflection, “I am a good parent.”

Even the best, most powerful affirmation will not cause you to be able to play the piano or dunk a basketball.

That is, an affirmation cannot and should not be magical thinking about something you want to have happen. 

By themselves, affirmations can’t even really rewrite the scripts that exist in your head. They require support structures around them in order to be effective.

Stuart Smalley can affirm himself all day, but unless he puts in the work to address his hidden scripts about his abilities and his appearance, he will remain the same deeply insecure person forever.


Affirmations can …

You might be thinking, “So if affirmations can’t change us, why are we talking about them at all?”

No one said they can’t change us. What must be clear, though, is that they cannot do the work of change by themselves. They are part of a larger, more complex system that works to change us by giving us new skills and strategies for doing what needs to be done.

Affirmations can work in conjunction with structured therapy or counseling to help you be prepared to take on the obstacles that you face.

That is, though they can’t change reality, they can help you change your reality.

They are a tool in your tool belt to put you in position to apply what you have learned about yourself, and your skills and strengths, to tackle the problems you face.

So in previous articles we have examined the case of Sara. She was unable to complete a simple phone call to order a pizza because she believed she was, in her parents words, “exceedingly shy.”

A painting of the words "choose joy" in bright green, red, and blue.
Change starts as easily as deciding to make a positive change. Photo by Bekka Mongeau on Pexels.

So she learned an affirmation that helped address that.  When she knew she had to have an interaction that made her anxious, she told herself “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.”

But this affirmation didn’t work all by itself. She had practiced different kinds of interactions with her therapist and with her loving and encouraging sister. She had gained confidence in her ability to interact with other people. So when she invoked this affirmation, it brought with it all of this practice and the skills she had built along the way.

So don’t think of an affirmation as magic. Think of it instead as a pep talk.

But just like a football coach at halftime, or a mentor talking to you after a bad decision, the affirmation is not giving you new skills. Instead, the affirmation’s role is to remind you of the skills and strengths you already have.

A photo of therapist Sakina Issa working at her computer.
Contact Sakina today.

Do you wonder why you get trapped in the same dead end relationships, or struggle with financial worries though you seem to make enough money to get by? Are your family struggles overwhelming you to the point that you seek to escape from them instead of looking forward to seeing them on holidays?

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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