How to Make Positive Affirmations Really Work For You

2016-05-10-downsized

Flashback to just a few years ago: I hate showering. I wish I never had to be naked. Merely being present in the same room as my naked body is uncomfortable, let alone confronting it in the mirror. Also, clothes are safe. They give me a sense of security and containment. As if my clothes are the only thing that kept me from spilling out all over the place.

When I shared these thoughts with my therapist, she suggested positive affirmations to begin feeling more comfortable in my skin and to love my body. Rather than avoid my image, or spend time in the mirror just to check and critique it, I was to stand in the mirror, look at my body and say,… “I love you”.

I resisted. When I finally mustered the courage, I lasted less than 2 minutes before I found myself sobbing.

When I told my therapist, she said to keep doing the exercise, assuring me it would get better. So here is how it went:

Me: “I shouldn’t have had that lunch. Look at my belly… gross”

Affirmation: “I love my body”.

Me: “Who are you kidding? Look at all that cellulite! I hate my body.”

Affirmation: “I love my body, cellulite and all!”

Me: “What a crock. All the exercise you’re doing is worthless.”

Affirmation: “I love my body”

Me: “STOP LYING TO YOURSELF!”

Affirmation: “I do, I do, I do love my body! I.HAVE.TO.LOVE.MY. BODY!!” ( desperation seeping in).

I was committed, but inevitably, the result of these exchanges were tears, desperation, a sense of failure, and hopelessness.

How could this help me get better? Mirror work and positive affirmations actually made me feel worse. I eventually gave up, and never brought it up again in therapy.

The idea behind positive affirmations is that repetition of the desired thought will replace the habitual old thought if repeated often enough. Reciting self-loving affirmations while gazing at my image would help me associate the affirmations with myself, and eventually, believe them.

What I have since learned is that positive affirmations – in any area – do not always work. Worse, they can backfire. Because just as you see in the example I gave above, I was starting out with an affirmation that was too far removed from my current belief. “I love my body” was an affirmation that my whole being rejected, vehemently. I was outright lying to myself, and couldn’t be bought into it.

Furthermore, because that critical part of me heard something so outrageous, I couldn’t help but argue with the affirmation. This created a feedback system such that, I was now exposing myself to more of the critical voice, essentially reinforcing it. My positive affirmations had no chance at winning the back and forth “argument”. The critical voice was much louder and persistent.

So how do you make positive affirmations work for you?

Start slowly. If you want to begin loving your body, start with an affirmation that your critical voice cannot vehemently reject. For example, “I have a body”. Can’t argue with that, right?

That may sound silly. But simply starting with any sentence that includes “(my) body” without a harsh criticism attached to it, is progress. And you don’t have to do affirmations in front of the mirror. Begin practicing at random moments, when you are feeling good. For example, when you’re around your family, with friends, spending time with your pets, or doing something you love to do. This attaches the affirmation to positive emotions and strengthens them. Do them as often as possible. The key is that you aren’t giving the critical voice an opportunity to become reinforced.

From there, you can progress to “I am grateful for my body. It allows me to do so many things I love to do, such as…” and fill in the blank. Listen to music, read, hug people, walk, draw, play, write, work…

Begin with a goal of simply attaining a level of gratitude for having a body, or body parts that some people don’t. Eventually, if you’re like me, you will get to a point where you feel better doing affirmations, and you may even find that you can begin to “like” parts of your body.

Once you become accustomed to at least appreciating your body, you can step up your game, and progress to doing affirmations in front of the mirror.

And keep in mind, you do not have to “love” your body to be recovered. Most people have something they might change about their bodies if they could. Just focus on progress and gratitude. Take tiny little baby steps.

This principle of using positive affirmations in baby steps applies to any area in which you want to use affirmations. Start with something neutral that’s easier to believe, and work your way up.

Most important of all: don’t forget to give yourself a ton of credit for even the smallest steps of progress. Baby steps do not mean baby progress! It takes an incredible amount of courage sometimes, just to begin.

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3 Comments

  • This is such a great article. I have always struggled with affirmations, and now I know why. I thought I was the only one that they just weren’t working for, and I wondered what was wrong with me. I am going to try this!

  • oh man, and my therapist would laugh and laugh because as she knows I think positive affirmations are the bunk. I’m just like, yeah….right. Don’t know how I can ever make this work for me. But, as I always say, if it works for you that’s great. It just may not be for me.

  • Hi Susanna! Thanks for the comment and your honesty! I totally get it! I used to think that positive affirmations were bunk too. Im a “give me the facts please” science loving woman, and guess what? I found out they aren’t bunk. Not when you do them right. There is a lot of science to back up their value. Affirmations change the wiring in your brain, and create habit loops of seeing yourself in a positive light. There is a part of the brain that is responsible for our habits of thought (in the basal ganglia). We can’t get rid of the old wiring, but we can lay down new wiring… The key is repetition, emotion, and attention 🙂

    Your negative thoughts got there through repetition. In other words, through negative “affirmations”. Whether what you affirm is positive or negative, your brain doesn’t care. It will create the habitual thought (or behavior). So if you believe that someone who constantly speaks negatively to themselves will feel terrible, the same is true when you speak positively about yourself – you feel better. When you feel better, you do better:)

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