“Affirmations? Really?” That used to be how and what I thought about them. Of course my introduction to them was from the Saturday Night Live character, Stuart Smalley, and his daily affirmation, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” This scathing introduction to the world of self-help was just the type of fuel an adolescent me needed to make fun of those willing to look for something that would make them stronger, more resilient. Of course I was thirteen and knew everything at the time, so I should probably cut my younger self some slack ;]
All joking aside, I’ve come to see affirmations in a much different light as when I was a teenager, and have been using them as a way to help create a sense of stability. To build confidence and help give myself the guidance I so desperately needed in my childhood. Of course I had to swallow a little bit of pride first. If you’ve read my post on toxic masculinity, you’ll know I was brought up to believe that things like affirmations were for the ineffectual, the weak.
According to my family, I was a man at eight years old after my parents divorced. I became “the Man of the house”, or so I was told by almost every male role model. Almost as a way of consoling me, as if to say “buck up son, no time to be upset, you have new responsibilities to get after”. Looking back this all seems ridiculous, but when I was eight, it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders.
From my younger perspective, men took what they wanted and were the embodiment of confidence and strength. If there was a problem, the man would take care of it using sheer force. There was no need to account for feelings, or even others points of view. So from this mindset, affirmations weren’t something a man needed because he already imbued strength and confidence by virtue of being a man. They were a given.
I even came to live life to my family’s standard of what it means to be a man in the ways that made my family comfortable. Something I’ve created an affirmation around to combat this sense of toxic masculinity that was handed down to me. But it was hollow. I pushed everyone away with cutting criticisms and needed to numb the feelings I had been ignoring in order to be who I thought I should be, according to how I saw those closest to me behave. It was anxiety producing and most of the time I was filled with fear.
And all this fear that was growing unchecked, was fueled by pride and bravado. I was perpetually putting down others to make myself seem more confident, more capable than I actually was. The nature of my thoughts were negative and born from insecurity. And I was practicing them constantly. The more I practiced them, the deeper I sunk into the hollowness I was creating around me. There’s a Modest Mouse album I used to listen to often, and its name embodies this sentiment for me, “Building Nothing out of Something”.
And that’s what it felt like for sure. After I had burned all my bridges, I was left completely alone, with only my negative thoughts to keep me company. That was about six years ago, and since then I’ve been rebuilding, well, just about every aspect of my life. From relationships to people, to food, and maybe most importantly, to myself. I had to find a way to replace that constant negative self talk and doubt that had become my M.O. for so long. That’s when I began using positive affirmations.
I think the idea took root while I was taking a psychology course at a local community college. My professor, Gerry, was an upbeat woman in her early sixties, who spoke a lot about positive psychology. This branch of psychology focuses on the individuals strengths, to live a fuller, happier life with more meaning. Affirmations, for me, are a way to focus on these, the positive qualities of my life. The areas that help me effect change in my world.
But there was a lot of unchecked emotional baggage I needed to go through (that I’m still going through), in order to know what aspects of my life to focus on and how I was relating to my emotional experiences of them, so I could give my affirmations direction.
I mainly focus on the ways that I’ve experienced trauma and how unsafe I feel around others. As well as the loneliness of the neglect and verbal abuse I experienced in my childhood. I’ve been doing this work with the help of a therapist, who has been an invaluable resource for me on my journey, and if there’s one bit of advice I can give, it is do not go this alone.
There are many times where I need the guidance of someone who knows about the path I’m on. And if you were left with caregivers like mine, you may not have many healthy lessons to reflect back on. This is exactly where outsourcing some healthier new views on how to handle experiences in the present, that may bring up old ways of reacting to emotions that may help you to see them from a more positive, strength based perspective. This can make the difference between establishing a healthy, lasting change, or opening an old wound that you may not be capable of processing alone at the time.
And it’s after the work of understanding how we react to our emotions and experiences is done, that we’re then able to forge affirmations that can help us to facilitate change. Mine are a work in process, and alter slightly as I come to understand how I react to the maladaptive lessons I’ve learned to use over the years, to navigate my emotional states.
It’s only now that I’m learning that my emotions aren’t anything to be ashamed of, no matter how I was shamed for having them as a child. It took decades of repeated reinforcement of the maladaptive lessons I was taught on how to be with my emotions that got me to where I am today, so I wasn’t totally surprised to find out that it takes lots of practice to reinforce the more positive perspectives I wish to embody. A little frustrating for sure, but not surprising.
And this is where it gets difficult. We have to navigate the result of years of negative reinforcement, while introducing the positive aspects of how we want to interact with our emotions. It can be tricky to figure out on your own. Especially if there has been a lot of verbal abuse. This is where persistence is key to making a lasting, positive change and the aid of someone who can help to steer you back on the path when inevitably you veer off.
One way I’ve veered from the path, many times, is when I’m caught in the grip of some irrational fear that I know stems from my abuse in some way. When the fear sets in, usually in the form of negative thinking, my mind insists on believing the horrible thoughts that are running through my head. This usually leads to more fear and anxiety. It’s then that a part of my affirmations will come to mind, like a firm place to hold on to. Some stability. But it’s because of how persistently I practice positive self-talk that I’m able to create the space necessary to gain a clear perspective when I’m in the thick of these difficult emotions.
And I cannot stress enough that it takes practice. The more often you say and focus on the positive, the more often your mind will default to it when thoughts and circumstances pop up, as they do in day to day life events. For example if you’re insecure about meeting new people, or being judged, the more often we say to ourselves, “it’s okay to be me, just as I am,” the more likely we are to remember this sentiment when we are in a situation where we are being introduced to someone for the first time.
I say mine once a day, and sometimes, if a part of them comes to mind, I scan my circumstances to see if it’s tied to an old belief in how I’m relating to it and my current situation. If so, I’ll remind myself of the positive ways I want to relate to my thoughts and emotions in the here and now. Then sometimes I’ll repeat the whole of my affirmations, just for a little extra boost of confidence. This usually helps to subside any of whatever anxiety and fear may be present.
And it’s not always easy. To be completely honest, sometimes it just plain sucks. But it never lasts very long and it subsides much quicker now than it ever has. And the more often I practice them, the better and more confident I feel about myself while being able to endure the difficult emotions and finding my footing onto more stable ground.
Practicing affirmations probably isn’t in style. I’m not sure how people would react to me if I told them I regularly give myself pep talks to build confidence and generally feel better about myself. But maybe that’s part of what helps to build the courage we’re seeking. Doing something that isn’t in line with what others see as “tough” or “strong”, but striking out on our own and finding what helps to make us feel stronger, more courageous.
I know it seems clicie, but it’s true, finding the strength in ourselves first, is how we come to feel stronger. It’s not out there, in someone or something else, but right here. All we’re really doing when we use affirmations is reminding ourselves of what’s already right here. The frase namaste comes to mind, the divine in me, recognizes the divine in you. The “divine” is what we’re “recognizing” when we decide to reinforce the search for the strength in ourselves by focusing on the positive in us by using specific affirmations in the ways we feel we are lacking in confidence. Or seeing the positive in ourselves. It’s already right here, we just have to recognize that it’s here.
Using affirmations can be a good foundation to find the personal strength needed to build, or as it was in my case, rebuild the basics of healthy relationships with others, healthy self-image and how we care for ourselves. It takes work, and it can be tough at times. But learning to use the tools of positive self-talk has the ability to strengthen every other aspect of our lives. From who we choose to surround ourselves with, to where we feel we deserve to live or work and how we care for ourselves. If you haven’t thought about it, or are on the fence about them, it may be worth your time to give it some serious thought. Because the nature of your thoughts holds the power to shape your world. Thanks for reading, peace :]
Image Credits: “Ben Eine – The Strangest Week : Smiley Faces / Acid House Faces – Hackney Road / Diss Street, London E2” by bobaliciouslondon is licensed under CC BY 2.0