Odds are you’ve heard of affirmations. Odds are if you’ve heard of them, you’re probably thinking of Stuart Smalley, which is not an appealing association. Most of my clients reject affirmations when I first introduce them because they associate the practice with laughable ridiculousness, zero results, and, well, just plain uncoolness. I get it. There’s nothing sexy about affirmations.
But I still use them. Every single day I read an affirmation from an app on my phone. Today’s is “I am confident, enthusiastic and passionate about everything I do.” I want to confidently, enthusiastically and passionately recommend affirmations to you as part of your mental healthcare routine.
When I start working with a new client, I always recommend using an affirmation app simply because everyone who comes to me sees themselves negatively at least to some extent. Every client I’ve worked with could benefit from self-compassion development and true self-care. Long-term, true self-care is about self-knowledge, but in the short-term, most clients don’t know themselves well enough to take true, gentle care of themselves. So I give them a few, nearly universal habits to integrate into their lives right away. The first of these habits, affirmations, is so easy to integrate that clients have very few obstacles getting in their way of achieving their homework. And a sense of short-term achievement opens the door to long-term hope.
But the benefits of affirmations aren’t just temporary, nor are they limited to a placebo effect. The latest research on affirmations is mixed, but anecdotally, my experience with clients reveals their value: Successful clients integrate affirmations into their work right away. And here’s the kicker: It doesn’t matter whether these clients believe their affirmations or not. In fact, most retaliate with negative thoughts about themselves at first, refusing to believe the positive affirmation applies to them. But the mere practice of simply getting positive thoughts into their heads, even for the millisecond they’re there before negative thoughts take over, is useful. Affirmation practice offers the brain new options, alternatives to old habits of thought.
With consistency over time, and alongside active therapy and other daily self-care practices, affirmations become easier to accept. The beauty of affirmations is they can be tailored to the individual; the app I use offers the option to delete affirmations you don’t like as well as create your own affirmations. When I hear a quote that resonates with me, or read something by a person I admire, or recognize an area of my life I want to work on, or identify a new value I want to develop in myself, I create an affirmation around it. It helps take the abstract to the concrete, from wanting to be a better listener for my kids to reading “I listen to my children well” (for example). It helps make the passive active, the reactive proactive.
Long term, affirmations become another instrument for living out true self-care. When a negative thought pops up as a response to an affirmation, the true success is not in eliminating that thought but in greeting it with self-compassion and curiosity. When affirmations are one part of a genuine self-care practice, working alongside regular mindfulness meditation and reflective journaling, those negative thoughts that creep in become both opportunities for agenda- and judgment-free attention as well as occassions for acceptance practice.
My (granted, unproven) theory is this: First, affirmations offer an easy homework assignment that makes success in therapy feel attainable at that ever-tenuous beginning stage of healing. Second, affirmations offer the brain alternatives to old thought patterns, opening the door to new ideas about the self (and once we see ourselves differently, we’re able to see our relationships and the world differently). Third, affirmations become a vehicle by which to practice the most important skills needed for long-term healing (mindfulness, self-compassion, and acceptance).
Affirmations don’t create self-esteem out of thin air, and they certainly don’t create healing on their own. They work as almost all self-care practices do: As an instrument in a symphony. Can a Vivaldi lover still enjoy Four Seasons if an instrument is missing? Of course. Would it have the same effect? Nope. Do yourself and your mental health the favor of integrating affirmations into your true self-care routine, and enjoy the beautiful music that is mental wellness.