Affirmations took their turn in the spotlight about twenty years ago as the biggest thing in alternative medicine. Everybody knew them, everybody talked about them. Books on the subject were flying off the shelves as fast as they could be written, and it seemed like a week never went by without some new program or modality popping up, many of which are still used today.
All this is just a little weird, considering that affirmations actually make things worse for most of us.
I was skeptical of affirmations from the first days of their popularity, largely because of a friend of mine who used them constantly. This was a guy I saw every day, who happened to have stomach problems. They weren’t life-threatening, but they did cause him daily discomfort. Every day I would hear him talking to himself under his breath, “My stomach problem is healing right now. My stomach is going to be completely pain-free by the end of the month. My stomach is already healed, it just hasn’t fully manifested yet.” Then, he would double over and clutch his stomach in pain. I asked him once if he thought it was helping. He paused and finally responded, tentatively, that he thought it was. But it was obvious that he was in doubt.
Fast-forward to the doctor’s office six months later. My friend was there because his pain had gone from inconvenient to unbearable. The doctor told him there would have been an easy remedy if only he had come in sooner, but now the problem would require surgery. That was the source of my initial skepticism, and in the twenty years since my suspicion has been confirmed by endless repetition. Finally, about six years ago, the first double-blind university study proved that for most people, affirmations make things worse.
Here’s the basic principle. I’ve talked before about the power of placebos. A placebo simply means believing something that isn’t true—in this case, something good: that your illness is healing. About thirty percent of the time, this actually works and has a healing effect. The other seventy percent of the time, nothing happens. At best, this is how affirmations behave. The trouble is, that’s the best-case scenario. You see, in many cases, as with my friend, the person saying the affirmations doesn’t actually believe them. So what does a positive statement do to you when you don’t believe it?
Well, the study explored this question using lie detectors. The only thing a lie detector does is to measure physiological stress, which works because—at least for the vast majority of people—telling a lie is stressful. So by making an affirmation that he didn’t believe, my friend was putting himself in physiological stress, repeatedly, every single day. No wonder his problem was getting worse!
Fortunately, there is a version of this concept that I believe does work, which I call truth-focused statements. It’s a very simple concept that is basically the same as affirmations, except that you only use statements which you actually believe. Even if they turn out not to be true, they can’t hurt you as long as you’re not deceiving yourself. That’s really what the whole thing comes down to. Defacto beliefs (beliefs that are true) are best. Placebo beliefs (those you only believe are true) can be useful. The real monster which we must all try to avoid is self-deception.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!