Many people advocate repeatedly saying positive affirmations to themselves, as a way to improve their lives. Affirmations originated with French psychologist and pharmacist Émile Coué (1857–1926), who advocated saying the following sentence repeatedly throughout the day: Tous les jours à tous points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux. (“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”)
There is a very serious problem with this particular affirmation in the repeated word every, because reality just isn’t like that. Even if I am getting marvelously better in many ways, it won’t be in every way. If I say Coué’s statement to myself, it stimulates my internal voice to find exceptions to that universal generalization. It might say sarcastically,
“Yeah, right! How about the way you snapped at your wife this morning — is that better? How about that sore knee that flared up yesterday, so that you’re hobbling around today — is that better? I don’t think so!” So even if the idea of affirmations might be worth pursuing, we need to be very careful about the words we say to ourselves, or they may backfire and produce opposite results.
It is generally agreed that for an affirmation to be effective, it needs to be in the present tense, positive, personal, and specific. For example: “I am healthy, happy, wise, and free.”
Although this sentence satisfies the criteria above, there is an implied always, and I don’t know anyone who is always healthy, happy, wise, and free. If I say this to myself when I am feeling sick, sad, stupid, or trapped, that will contradict what I experience.
Affirmations are often intended to change our critical, negative self-talk into something more positive. However, a new affirmation doesn’t magically change the old negative voice. When we introduce a voice that is positive and supportive, it will conflict with the put-down voice. Most of us already have enough conflicts; we really don’t need another one.
However, if we talk to ourselves in a way that is a bit more subtle in its wording, there are ways around these difficulties. Vikas Dikshit, an educator and trainer in Pune, India, offers the following instruction for someone who is sad or depressed: “Look around and mentally say to yourself, ‘I am sitting on this happy chair. There is this happy table. And these are happy windows with happy curtains,’ etc. Do this for about 10 to 15 minutes every day.”
There is usually a correspondence or equivalence between our internal state and what we perceive around us. A sad person tends to notice sad events, while a happy person tends to notice happy things. When someone talks about a “crappy day,” they aren’t really talking about the day; they are talking about their feelings. When someone speaks of a “cheerful fire,” they are talking about how they feel, not the fire. Dikshit’s method uses the same process, but in a more directed way. Even though talking about happy curtains may sound a bit silly, it is really no different than talking about a crappy day or a cheerful fire. Neither of those things has any emotions, so it implies that you are feeling happy, but without actually saying so.
Since these sentences are about some aspect of the world being happy, there is no conflict in saying them when you aren’t feeling happy.
This kind of affirmation directs your attention to events in the present moment, just as any useful meditation does. Since you have limited attention, this will tend to withdraw your attention from whatever you have been thinking about that was making you unhappy.
When you describe curtains as happy, that connects the word happy with the curtains — and with everything else around you that you describe with that word. After that, each time you see the curtains — and the other things around you — you will tend to think of the word happy, and that will elicit that nice feeling-state.
You can use this method with any other useful adjective, such as loving if you often feel angry, or balanced or centered if you tend to feel scattered or chaotic. Just identify the problematic mood or feeling, think of its positive opposite, and then select a word that expresses this mood to put in the place of happy.
For instance, if you are often fearful or anxious, the opposite of that is safe, and you can use this word to describe the world around you. I feel the safe chair under me; That is a safe rug; This is a safe computer; etc.
Try this now: Think of an unpleasant state that you frequently slip into (such as agitation or resentment). Then think of its opposite positive feeling-state (calm or grateful). Then use this word to describe what you see or hear around you. I see the calm curtains; That refrigerator makes a grateful sound.
This method is an affirmation that will work and won’t arouse other conflicting voices to disagree with it and oppose or nullify it.
Here is another useful affirmation sentence: “What else can I (enjoy, love, accept, appreciate, etc.) right now?”
(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription. This article is adapted from Steve Andreas’s book, “Transforming Negative Self-Talk.” Visit Steve at his website or his blog.)