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Why Positive Affirmations Don’t Always Work (and What Does)

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” ~Buddha

My final exam is tomorrow.

It’s a big one—one that covers a lot of material with a major grade component—and my body is clenched with anxiety.

I pick up my book, flick through my notes, and scan a few scribbles. The anxiety builds like a wave. Cresting on top of that wave? Negative, self-critical thoughts.

I’m never going to retain all this material during the exam. I won’t be able to answer the questions fast enough. I have to be a lot smarter to pass…

I should have studied more. I’m such a loser. Everyone’s gonna think I’m such a failure.

Fast-forward thirty minutes: I’m sitting amidst a pile of empty candy wrappers and potato chip bags, the aftermath of a stress-induced binge.

Stuffing my face feels like the only way to numb my fear. For a few minutes, it works. Until it doesn’t.

I move on, seeking another distraction. Flipping through a magazine? Nope. Music? No way. A walk around the block? Please.

I decide to drown out my feelings with a few hours of TV. First up? A mid-day talk show with a motivational speaker who is supposedly going to change my life.

“You can achieve anything you put your mind to,” the guest says.

“Just tell yourself that you can. When you feel like you can’t do something, think positive thoughts. Use affirmations. Remember: your thoughts shape your reality.”

Smiling broadly, she encourages her viewers to create a positive affirmation, right then, on the spot.

I start talking out loud, trying a few affirmations on for size:

I make beautiful eating choices.

I have a healthy, strong body. 

I love the way that I look.

Saying the words, I feel better. Like, a lot better. I feel empowered, like I’ve found the “magic words” to change my life, at last.

The happy feeling of “empowerment” continues for several days…until I get hit with a tidal wave of anxiety again.

This time, it’s not an exam; it’s something else. My computer gets a virus and I lose a ton of crucial work. Then, all of my clothes in the laundry machine mysteriously turn blue! Minor setbacks, in the grand scheme of things, but it’s enough to send me running to the freezer, scarfing down three giant bowls of ice cream.

My “positive affirmations” are no match for the overwhelming emotions that I’m feeling. The affirmations are like gentle breezes, compared with a violent storm. They just can’t fight back.

And of course, my merciless inner critic takes the floor, once again:

You’re so stupid, you can’t even do positive affirmations correctly. You didn’t say them properly. That’s why they didn’t work. You don’t deserve to have them work.

Many years, tons of self-help books, and a PhD in psychology later, I finally figured out why my positive affirmations never led to permanent transformation. Because they were, essentially, lies. And lies don’t heal us.

Only love, self-respect, and honesty can do that.

When I used to say, “I love my gorgeous body” after an eating binge, it was a lie, because I really didn’t. That particular affirmation wasn’t going to lead to lasting change. That statement was untrue. And sooner or later, my smart lil’ mind figured it out—and angrily lashed back.

I learned, the hard and slow way, that affirmations need to be scripted with total honesty in order for them to work.

Like this:

I am frustrated by my eating habits, but I am learning to treat myself with the respect I deserve. I am learning to do better. 

I am sad about the fact that I’m still single, but I am learning how to relate with men in a more open, brave, and vulnerable way. I am learning to do better.

I am scared about handling this big, new project, but I am learning to have confidence in my ability to achieve my goals. I am learning to do better.

These statements aren’t “empty self-praise” or temporary “mood-boosters.”

They’re honest, self-respecting assessments about where we’re at, what we’re learning, and what we’re capable of becoming. They are affirmations of truth—and the truth will set you free.

About Suzanne Gelb

As a psychologist + life coach, Dr. Suzanne Gelb’s insights have been featured on more than 200 radio shows, 100 TV interviews and too many articles to keep score. Step into her virtual office and discover how to like, respect, and love yourself...just a little bit more.

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