Why “Affirmations” are Bullshit

May 10, 2013 in self-coaching, tough love, Uncategorized

Talk to me for more than 8 seconds.  You’ll see that I can get pretty woo-woo pretty fast.  Yes please, let’s discuss thought work, The Work, body scanning, compassing, whatever else you got.  I want to hear the great convo you had with your spiritual guides, Richard IV and Jessica Rabbitt.  You gained clarity communing with a fox on your two-day nature quest?  Tell me everything.  Oh, you’re late for coffee because you were doing your daily gratitude meditation?  Dude…legit.

I’m down to talk energies and auras and divine essences.  I’m way more excited to tell you I love witnessing your authenticity than I am to tell you I love witnessing your ass in them jeans.  Need someone to hold space for you?  Honey, I’ll hold your space.  I’ll hold it forevsies.

I get that the goofy lexicon of personal development begs parody (“I would like to validate your gentle mirroring…”).  I get that some of these practices earn their weird rap.  But I’m cool with that, and here’s why:

Practice works.  Practice is the utilitarian side of woo.  Mastermindy, thought-ninja coaches are good at what they do because they have tools: questions, models, body-mapping, whatever they got.  And the good tools, like all good tools, aren’t passive.  They require active work, in-depth reflection, a diligent practice of self-awareness.  Like any other helpful tools, they will help you if you use them.  If you don’t, they’ll sit in the dusty garden shed of your mind, wondering why you still suffer so damn much.  In short: use the tools.

But.  BUT!  Avoid the bullshit, uselessness-masquerading-as-a-tool known as AFFIR-FRICKING-MATIONS.

I’m not talking about the thoughts you consciously jam on because you believe them and want to remind or (ahem) affirm yourself of your belief.  By all means, take a minute before a big exam to remind yourself that you did your work, and you prepared, and are ready to crush it.  Think on how lovable you really believe yourself to be before a hot date.  Or, if you’re terrified of either of those things, just remind yourself that you’re allowed to be terrified and that’s okay.  Seriously, all of these sound like awesome reflections.

But awesome reflection is not what I’m calling out.  I’m calling out the future-focused, flowery bastardization of conscious thought that’s taken over the self-help world and sullied the very word “affirmations.”  Here are some examples of the kind of stuff that makes me cringe:

Repeat: I’m a gorgeous, strong, sexy, healthy size [whatever I want] just waiting to burst out of this size [whatever I am] body!”

Just set the intention of: I am a rich, multi-million-dollar business genius, and money hurls itself at me effortlessly!”

All it takes is believing: My perfect partner is coming to me at rocket-speed without me lifting a finger!”

“Write on your mirror everyday: I am a world-traveling, money-generating, life-loving, genius gazillionaire creative maven, with a fit body, hot partner, and fulfilling career!!”

“But Emily,” you protest, “they’re so prettyAnd they sound so lovely and hopefulAnd they look so motivational on Pinterest!”

Please.  Sugary affirmations are the short cut of personal growth…the “click to make $1,000 in your pajamas” of soul work.  They are the bogus sidebar ads – the false magic bullets – of spiritual wellness.  There are two major ways in which this flavor of affirmations stifles your personal growth practice:

1. They lie.  If you have a goal to complete a triathlon, you probably want some juicy, motivational thoughts.  You might think, “I’m going to surprise myself with just how much I can do.”  Rad.  That’s an awesome thought.  But if you’re heading to workouts thinking, “I am a world famous, record-smashing triathlete,” we got problems – unless of course, you actually are a world famous, goal-smashing triathlete.  Point being: do not hang your emotional well-being on a lie.  Your brain is wayyy too smart for that.  Whatever thought you feed it, it will hunt for evidence to support that thought.  Lies are setups for failure.  When your brain goes hunting for evidence of your triathlon-completion and comes up nill – every time – it’s gonna turn on you and make you feel shitty.

A better idea: think true thoughts.  What are you really doing?  In the triathlete example, “I’m going to surprise myself with just how much I can do” is a great thought!  It’s motivating, but it’s not stuck in fantasyland.  Your brain is going to look for evidence for that thought, hunt for ways you can surprise yourself with your ability.  Now you’re setting you and your mind up for success.

2. They make you lazy.  I don’t care how much you ‘intend’ to be published or how many pictures of famous novels are on your vision board; your book won’t make the best-sellers list if you never actually write it.  Too many people buy into the idea that affirmation leads directly to manifestation.  This idea sounds très sexy, but it’s actually just a huge asshole in disguise.  Think of your thoughts like the tools of the trade, for whatever it is that you want.  We’ll keep with the book example: having sexy-sounding thoughts is like having top-of-the-line everything.  Awesome layout design, a savvy editor, an eager audience, a gorgeous office.  And that’s all great to have…but none of it is going to write your book for you.  Only you are going to do that.

A better idea: choose thoughts that motivate you to action, not just to gratification.  “I’m a successful, celebrated novelist” is only helpful if you’re a successful, celebrated novelist.  “I can do something everyday to bring me closer to literary super-stardom,” is a major step-up.  It inspires action towards what you want.  It’s great to keep your eye on the prize; it’s even better to actually put yourself closer to the prize.

Now, since I love you and I want you to have a magnificent life, here is a two-question litmus test for de-bullshitting your “affirmations” and winding up with awesome, consciously-chosen thoughts (and listen, call ‘em affirmations if you want.  Just don’t fall into the easy trap of believing hot-sounding lies.):

Question 1. Do I believe this thought?  It might mean “I’m a smokin’ hot, ripped, bikini model who eats all I want and loves exercise” just got turned into “I can make choices to support my health.”  Don’t worry about whether or not your thought sells.  Get yourself a few thoughts that feel real; you’ll soon realize how much more rewarding it is to be honest with yourself.

Question 2. Does this thought feel good? I don’t mean I’ll-have-what-she’s-having, Ryan Goslinglicious, amazeballs good.  Your thought might not send you Maria-Von-Trapping through the Alps of your mind.  But does it make you actually feel a bit better, or more motivated/clear/capable?  Excellent!  You now have a great thought…go gather thee evidence, sweet Brain!

Intending for the results or changes you want is great, and it’s an important step in your self-development.  But you know what else is important?  Being honest with yourself, and empowering yourself to get those results or make those changes.  So stop giving bullshit affirmations a seat at your table. And start keeping company with conscious thoughts that support you where you are, on your way to where you want to be.

And seriously, if Richard IV and Jessica Rabbit are your spirit guides, I wanna hear all about that.