A friend asked in an email what i think about “positive affirmations” while referencing popular New Age author Louise Hay.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the practice of positive affirmations might include repeating phrases like: “Everything that happens in my life is for the highest good and the universe is always operating in my best interest” or “I am protected at all times and fear is an illusion, there is only love” or “Money comes to me effortlessly when I remember I am already always abundant and free.”

This was my response:

Mind-body process is nuanced The relationships between our experiences, emotions, traumas, beliefs and attitudes about life are complex. I had a teacher who had a very raw take on positive affirmations without deeper inner work; she said they were  “like putting whipped cream on dogshit..”

Though affirmations may seem generally nice and harmless, the downside is that without addressing deeper issues, the belief is essentially in affirmations having some kind of magical power to just heal or transform us and our reality. But if/when they don’t work this becomes a reason to be self-critical. Like you didn’t believe strongly enough, or you must have put something “negative” out there etc…

The magical thinking with regard to affirmations or intentions being what “creates reality” can be very seductive too and has the downside of perpetuating the notion that bad things don’t happen to positive people etc..

While this is initially soothing and empowering, because it is false, it is tragically doomed to fail.

Especially with traumatized folks this can lead to a blaming the victim mentality that actually does more harm than good, but with a painted-on  smile and good intentions.

In my experience, a better practice is something like Buddhist Lovingkindness Meditation. really sitting with phrases that are about self love —while allowing contemplative space for ALL the feelings that arise and for insight into the reasons why we so often are well practiced in self-hatred.

So in this practice one silently uses phrases like:

may i be well
may i be healthy and strong
may i be happy and safe
may a i be free from suffering
may i be filled with compassion

Sounds like positive affirmations right?

But actually there are some key differences:  Done in the context of an inner work practice in which one is applying effective tools like meditation, these phrases become an opening into what is often overlooked: process. You are not simply convincing yourself into believing that if you repeat these phrases they will become true. Rather, you are cultivating loving kindness toward yourself and working with what comes up in the process as the meditation deepens.

Ultimately, one has to look at the underlying issues for why we have negative feelings in the first place, honor the feelings and respect the journey we are on. Too often the pop version of this, a la New Age teachers and authors, uses the idea of positivity to deny, avoid and even judge the deeper layers of work that are the key to healing, growth and integration.

The all too common strategy is to try and block out anything unpleasant based on the belief that you would only perpetuate it by “giving it energy” etc.. But this leads to further denial, fragmentation and lack of authenticity, in the name of “being positive.” It creates a false and disconnected self. This  in turn usually perpetuates the dysfunction of our family and society rather than transforming it.

Essentially i think inner work is always going to be about facing our unresolved painful and difficult experiences, so as to be able to heal and move forward. There is nothing candy coated, warm and fuzzy or airy-fairy about that work.

Here are some examples of some more grounded and emotionally integrated “affirmations” that good friends and healers can give to someone going through a difficult experience:

“Yes, I can tell you are grieving deeply, of course you feel sad —what a painful loss. i trust that if you allow yourself to grieve fully and reach out for support the feelings will not last for ever.”

“Of course you are angry with the person who molested you when you were a child, this is a healthy response and an indication that you are in the healing process. Love that child inside of you who had such a confusing experience and listen to their authentic feelings.”

“Yes, it must be very hard for you that you feel like a failure in your life because you lost your job, I know for myself succeeding at work has had an extra energy of trying to convince my parents that I was good enough, so it is interesting to me that you mention feeling like your father would be disappointed in you. I wonder if there might be a possibility that you are good enough as you are, regardless of what your father thinks, or has thought in the past?”

“No, it is not your fault that you were mugged and raped —no-one chooses to have that kind of experience or brings it on themselves. I affirm that you were innocent in that situation and just in the wrong place at the wrong time, crossing the paths of some really ugly, hateful people. You can heal from this, but it will take time, patience and self-love. You also need to take note of the places and people that allow you to feel safe, and spend as much time as you can taking in that feeling.”

Affirming the authentic and healthy feeling responses to life in turn affirms the human being and in this more nuanced way allows truly positive outcomes to be possible.

Too often the pop idea of affirmation gets this badly wrong and people seeking healing and support actually don’t get what they need and are inadvertently shamed, judged or made to feel they have to act as if they feel differently than they do in order to be “spiritual.”

That’s all.