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The Power Of Affirmations
In the process of become a qualified psychologist I worked part time at an esoteric store called the House of Isis (named after the Egyptian Goddess Isis, not the terrorist group). In the days before online shopping this store was one of the only ways to access spiritual self-help in Joburg, the city where I grew up. Trailblazer Linda set up shop in the early 1980’s— back when people weren’t so familiar (or comfortable) with the concept of the mind-body connection, tarot decks, or crystals.
I was told that when the store was first opened, fervent individuals would gather outside both rallying for it to be shut down whilst simultaneously praying for Linda’s soul. I imagine they were both uncomfortable with her sacredness (and perhaps their own) and the complex feelings about spirituality her store stirred up in them. The image of angry protestors picketing outside an esoteric store may be a hard image to envision now that mystical works are so much more accessible and tolerated than before, but back then it was a leap. Thirty years later, the House of Isis still stands strong.
The shelves were lined with magical books ranging from the works of Osho, Kabbalistic texts, Tarot, and teachings on Zen and Buddhism, to the more popular A Course in Miracles. The store smelled like lavender and sage, with candles burning next to the cash register. I loved working there. In the mornings I would drive to University and learn about fundamental theories in psychology and human behavior. It was Winnicott, Freud, and Klein, each with their own theories on personality development and psychological well-being. Then in the afternoons I was off to work, selling books on spiritual development and absorbing as much as I could get my hands on, too. It was psychology by day, mysticism by night—and in the space of those seven years my worldview expanded exponentially.
At around about the same time, a friend gifted me a popular book called You Can Heal Your Life by the late Louise Hay. If you’re aware of Hay’s work, you’ll know that it was with this book that she popularized the use of “affirmations” in self-healing. For example, if you were feeling unloved, you would repeat the affirmation, “I am lovable,” until you began to feel it was true. Having sold over 35 million copies, her book is a seminal work, both well-respected and well-used.
So I thought I’d give affirmations a go.
Driving my beat up red Citi Golf, I would plug in my affirmation CD (yup, you read that correctly—the year was 2006) and belt out my affirmations. Stopping at a traffic light was always amusing, with passers-by giving me the side-eye. Apparently saying “I love my body, “I love my life,” “I love my work,” and “I am abundant” to yourself in your car alone is a weird thing to do! But I didn’t care. I wanted to feel better and move past my (then common place) feelings of unease and overwhelm, which would often strike at the most inopportune times for no apparent reason at all.
Repeating affirmation after affirmation, I began to notice that I did indeed feel better. I felt calmer when I could recognize (in the moment) my feeling state, and the event that had triggered it. Affirmations helped me to become more cognizant of my own inner emotional life, and helped me learn how to alter my feeling states. Did I become financially richer for affirming “I am abundant”? Not quite, but I did learn that abundance could be a state of mind. And that with it you could learn to enjoy the landscape of your life—even if you currently found yourself in a trench, broke as ever, wishing you were sipping a fresh coconut water on a beach.
At around the same time, I noticed that a regular at the store would come in week after week, purchasing one self-help book after another. Curiously he also began to look physically worse and worse as the weeks went by- his is disheveled appearance spilling the truth about his deepening inner turmoil.
One day, when the store was particularly quiet, we got to chatting. He told me all about his life and the issues (low self-esteem, anxiety, insomnia, and a lack of a loving relationship) that he was trying to fix. And you name it, he’d tried it. If it offered a way out of his pain, he did it. BUT none of it was working in the way he wanted. Or, perhaps more accurately, the relief that he experienced was never as long-lasting as he would have liked.
This presented something of a conundrum for me. As someone who had come to love and train in a wide array of the healing arts (energy healing, meditation, yoga, body talk, EFT), how was this possible? How could affirmations be working for me, but not for him? Did some people just not really want to change? Could you be stuck with pain which was impossible to transmute? Naively, I thought that he must be doing something wrong.
After all, a lot of what I was learning about from my score of books was aimed at “fixing” something that was “broken.” Low self-esteem? Say these affirmations. Phobias? Try out Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Want to connect to your Soul? Consult a shaman(ess). Holding on to past pain? Simply focus solely on the present moment. For common old “bad vibes,” place your black tourmaline as required. And why wouldn’t you want to fix the things that make you feel like crap? Fixing sounded like a good and rather convenient idea to my younger self.
As our conversation progressed, I asked him whether he had ever consulted a therapist. He told me that he didn’t think simply lying on a couch speaking about how awful his childhood had been would be very helpful. He was of the opinion that therapists couldn’t possibly know anything about the energetic body, or that they were “limited in thought.”
He then went on to share his own heart-breaking story; telling me how his father had abused him up until the point that he had emancipated himself. Deep childhood pain and trauma, something I had no idea how to deal with at that point. My response back then was simply to be kind and tell him that I believed that healing could always happen, and that there was always hope. Something I still feel strongly to this day.
Yet, if I could somehow go back and respond to him now, I would advocate more strongly for therapy. I would speak about how insidious the long lasting after-effects of complex trauma can be. How it can creep into your everyday life, dispersing shadows until nothing else is visible. In my opinion, therapy, in conjunction with his spiritual development, would have been far more worth his time than a life spent solely trying to self-help his pain away.
That said, self-help undoubtedly has its place, offering both affordable and powerful reminders that you are in charge of both how you feel and the choices that you make. But when you’re stuck and can’t go any further alone, good therapy is priceless; potentially saving you countless hours spent trying to uncover your own blind spots. It’s literally what psychologists are trained for.
Fast-forward to 2019, and I’m lying in bed scrolling through my social media feed. The first post I see is an image of a beautiful woman, arms wide-open running through a field of grass. She looks free and happy, with light streaming through her whole being. It’s a gorgeous picture, well-curated, evoking all sorts of feel good feelings. Then I read the words below the post: “The crack is where the light gets in”—Leonard Cohen. Ahhhh, more good feelings. I double tap the picture in agreement with seven thousand others who also hit the “like” button. Cohen’s words are both powerful and meaningful—they evoke hope and a deeper understanding and acceptance of pain.
Personally, I love inspirational quotes (I post them often!), but when I start to actually think about his words, I see a mental image of a ceramic bowl being dropped to the floor. My own mental “Boomerang” setting on repeat; bowl hits floor, cracks hard and loudly, but does not shatter. Bowl hits floor, bounces and cracks before coming to a standstill. Bowl hits floor, reverberating loudly, cracking further with every decibel. Over and over it goes. The “light” part only ever coming after the bowl hits the floor. Then I think about my own experiences of pain, or those of some of my clients’—like when dealing from divorce, infertility, death, grief, addiction, and loss. And I feel the weight of the emotional truth: being cracked open doesn’t feel like you’re running freely through a field in the sunlight. It hurts.
It’s the messy work of healing that is often overlooked in both self-help and on social media. In the “now age”—the term coined by author Ruby Warrington to describe our always- on culture of comparison and instant gratification—it’s easy to fall into the trap of bypassing the pain in an attempt to step straight into the light. It’s also not such a “sellable” or “likeable” prospect to point out that in the depths of any healing process, you will feel like you are literally being cracked open—meaning you may feel like you are being broken into a thousand little pieces. This isn’t a narrative we find in much self-help because it’s easier to focus on the “feeling good” bit. The girl running through the field, arms open wide, free of pain, light streaming in. The catharsis that does happen naturally—but only once you’ve become fully intimate with your pain.
Now, this isn’t to say that you should focus on your pain all the time. You shouldn’t. Either extreme is unhelpful. But a level of discernment is useful when you are actually trying to move past a difficult experience or personal issue. If you, like the man I met at the House of Isis, have experienced severe trauma or painful experiences, side-stepping them and pretending that they haven’t happened is denying the truth of your experience.
In addition, I have learned (and am no doubt still learning) that when we step out of denial and honor our whole story, is when we free ourselves from the shame and guilt that either consciously or (unconsciously) influences our lives. The very thing that researcher and thought leader Brené Brown talks about in depth in her incredible books. It’s also something shamans and psychologists alike have been speaking of for millennia. That is, that the ability to unlock your power lies in honoring your vulnerability and owning your whole story.
Like Brené’s work, a lot of great self-help has roots in psychology. For example, the seminal work created by Louis Hay that introduced affirmations to the masses, has roots in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT (which was founded in the 1960’s, twenty years prior to her work being published). Dr Beck, the founder of CBT found that depressed patients experienced streams of negative thoughts that seemed to arise spontaneously. He named these types of thoughts: “automatic thoughts.” He discovered (through his research as a psychiatrist) that these automatic thoughts fell into three categories for his patients; having negative views about themselves, the world, and the future.
What Louis Hay uncovered in her work is that affirmations can act as an antidote to some forms of automatic thinking. Meaning, they can be especially helpful when you are judging yourself or labelling things negatively.
But we get the full picture in 2009, when Wood, Perunovic, and Lee went on to prove in their published research, PositiveSelf-Statements: Power For Some, Peril For Others, that affirmations both work and do not work—depending on who uses them.
Their research shows how the efficacy of affirmations is influenced by how people already generally feel about themselves. They found that the participants who already felt pretty good about themselves benefited from saying these statements. But they go on to write that: “when people with low self-esteem repeated the statement, ‘I’m a lovable person’ or focused on ways in which this statement was true of them, neither their feelings about themselves nor their moods improved—they actually got worse.”
When I discovered their research, a light bulb went on in my mind; this is why affirmations worked for me, but not the shopper at the House of Isis. Mystery solved.
This story shows that there is simply no neat “one size fits all” cure for any and every of our human issues, although many books & programs are sold as offering the fastest and most effective roots to healing for anyone. On the reverse, I’ve seen well-meaning seekers wind up believing that something is innately and deeply “wrong” with them because this cure does not work for them. They blame themselves, and harshly, when really all they need to do is broaden their perspective and give themselves a break.
That said, if self-help has its roots in psychology, then psychology has its roots in cultural myth. And cultural myth has its roots in primordial phenomena. Primordial phenomena with its roots in Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious. The Collective Unconscious born of the Cosmos, and so it goes on and on, ad infinitum. My point being that everything really is interconnected, especially when it comes to healing. I believe that learning to discern which problems call for which methods in which individual is the true art of healing.
So here is my takeaway for you: self-help has a time and place. It works wonderfully when you are already a relatively high-functioning individual trying to alter self-sabotaging or limiting mindsets, whilst learning new ways of thinking, feeling, and being. But it is not always as helpful when it comes to the deeper stuff, like childhood trauma, or when you find yourself experiencing emotional debris that simply will not go away. In my opinion, it is also risky business when any form of “healing” tries to sell you on always being positive, because you can easily slide into spiritual bypassing mode.
Wholeness and true well-being require acknowledging and experiencing both the light and the shadow. This means being able to look deep into your past, without fear that by doing so you will stuff up your ability to ‘”manifest” your ideal future. When in fact, I have found the opposite to be true—that it’s when I own my fears, especially the ones linked to the past, my ability to manifest becomes effortless. It also means owning up to the unhealthy behaviors and/or relationships that you are participating in. It means doing a thorough inventory of the trash clogging up your side of the street, and taking the necessary action to clean things up. It means recognizing where you indeed do need to extend the light of awareness, both in the world, and within the darker recesses of your mind.
Ultimately, combining spirituality, psychology & ancient myth and mystery, is how we tap into the magic of the Universe. Because where the Soul meets the Psyche is where we activate our own natural healing magic.