The Love Byte of Affirmation

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Affirmations, a subspecies of thought, have the power to attract and to constellate our affects, bodily sensations, postural alignment, how we move, availability of energy, and sensory utilization as well as neural circuitry.  The entirety of our bodyminds responds to affirmations, just as they do to denigrating thoughts about ourselves, other persons or situations.   We can learn to harness the potential of affirmations to program ourselves to operate or run in a desired way.

If we borrow the vocabulary given us by software programming, we might think of the use of affirmations as essentially downloading bytes of code into our wetware.  Self-affirmations are thoughts, and specifically the kind of thoughts we call beliefs. When encoding beliefs works best, these beliefs must dovetail well with the programming that already runs.  This explains why potent affirmations must underscore narratives about ourselves with which we can agree, at least for the most part. When we grow up in households, and communities, we imbibe the predominant beliefs on a daily basis—about ourselves and our communities and those outside our immediate neighborhoods, towns, states, and even countries. As children our minds are open and curious.  Our permeable cells and senses saturate with the thoughts around us—happy, encouraging, worried, condemning, complaining, illuminating, or dismissive?  Particularly, when we hear over and over again, thought patterns, or belief subscriptions, we often incorporate those rigorously reinforced bytes of code as unquestionable.

Yet, we retain the capacity to construct and utilize affirmations purposefully: to increase our courage in tough situations, for comfort when we have suffered insult, rejection, or when we have disappointed ourselves or others, and to bolster new behavior, thought patterns and their consequently more uplifting affects.  Affirmations, when practiced diligently, can shift our perspectives, bolster our endurance, and prime us to gather our wits or our energy in order to behave or make progress on our goals in a desired way. Due to their newness in our thought-repertoire, affirmations must be repeated often enough to achieve the reiterative familiarity of second nature, and to dominate the multiple narratives that we maintain within ourselves.

Robert Sopolsky writes, in his fascinating book, Behavior, about the concept of automaticity, an alternate word to describe what happens when someone studying a piece of piano music, for example, now gets through the complicated trill “without thinking.”  In terms of the brain science, the neural activity moves from prefrontal cortex to a reflexive part of the brain.  With mastery in sports, in music, in a second language, in all types of activities, this geographical migration within the complex landscape of the brain takes place over time with practice, practice, practice.

Louise Hay reiterates that every piece of inner monologue is an affirmation or endorsement of beliefs, whether useful or unproductive.  She says that the deliberate use of self-constructed affirmations serves to eliminate unproductive thoughts or to create new ones which can offer us help in changing.

When we construct self-affirmations in a specific use of language that speaks to us and sounds like us, and hones our awareness of exceptional stories from our lives to lend support, then these affirmations help to shape our supportive behavior around them.  As an example, when fearful of learning something new, if I affirm that I can learn most things by studying them enough, then constructing time and effort to study the materials I have collected for the purpose, both buttresses and benefits from my affirmation.  The term, “exceptional stories,” taken from Narrative Therapy theory, refer to the moments in our lives when, even if shy, we have spoken up and voiced our concerns; or when, even if we feel prone to procrastination and avoidance, we just up and do something without over-thinking it.  It is much easier to affirm behaviors or thoughts that we have actually experienced, even if more rarely than our commonly held thoughts and typically produced behaviors, than to affirm foreign thoughts and behaviors that do not ring true.

From an online article in Psychology Today by Ray Williams, (May 5, 2013), called, ‘Do Self-Affirmations Work? A Revisit,’ we read: “There are other researchers who question the validity and utility of self-affirmations. Canadian researcher, Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who have recently published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, concluded repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

The researchers asked people with and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.” They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves. The low-esteem group felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not. However, people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive affirmation–but only slightly.”

This research is helpful in our understanding that wholesale affirmations, a one-size-fits- all concept, does not work as well as affirmations that support our main or exceptional narratives about ourselves.  For our affirmations to work, they must fit criteria of authenticity, and customization in our own use of language.  They must be consistent with our deeply held beliefs.

Williams goes on to write, “These findings were supported by previous research published in 1994 in the Journal of Social Psychology, showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better.”

And it makes sense.  We feel like frauds when people compliment us for something we do not think we deserve.  But when we feel truly seen for what we do, and noticed for that, and when the acknowledgements are “right-sized,” a phrase used in 12-step programs, then we can accept and feel boosted by such social recognition and support.

Sometimes self-affirmations actually amount to a rewriting (and neural rewiring) of old stories about ourselves with which we have been inculcated to our detriment.  In the excavation-level explorations that sometimes occur in psychotherapy or self-reflection, we can uncover these artifacts and recognize who planted them there.  All of these narratives may form part of our multifaceted identities, and we can exercise the right to revoke, reverse, or debate these no longer warranted narratives.

As an example, Joseph felt depressed a lot of the time and tended to sleep a lot now that he had some good recovery time from drinking accomplished.  He had moments of happiness when his kids visited, when he took long walks in the woods, or prepared a meal for friends.  But he expressed to me his exhaustion at not being able to “fix” himself.  Joseph said, “I know I’m all screwed up, and I just don’t know how to fix myself.”

“How do you know you’re all screwed up?” I asked him one afternoon.

“Well, my mother never stopped telling me how I’d ruined her life and that of my sister, the goodie-two-shoes.”

As we continued to talk, I proposed that Joe contemplate the possibility that, if by some miracle the thought that he was “all screwed up” disappeared, would there be anything to fix?  Would there be any exhaustion around such a project?

“I guess I’ve carried that belief around for a long time“, Joe considered. “Maybe way too long.”

How relieving to become aware of self-negating beliefs as just beliefs; and not ultimate truths.  As Joe worked through the notion that he might think otherwise about himself, he came to the conclusion that he could revoke all-screwed-up-ness from his list of identifiers.

In a University of Pennsylvania article, published November 20, 2015, called ‘The Neural Mechanics of Self-Affirmation,’ “led by Doctoral Candidate Christopher Cascio and Associate Professor Emily Falk and published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,” (incorporating research out of both UCLA and the Michigan Center for Excellence in Cancer Communication Research), the team “used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to find that self-affirmation activates well-known reward centers in the brain. These areas — the ventral striatum (VS) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) — are the same reward centers that respond to other pleasurable experiences, such as eating your favorite meal or winning a prize.”

This research underscores the notion that for affirmations to feel good, then they must sync with our motivational/seeking and reward/redemption emotions and behaviors.  If I want to run a really good half marathon, am both motivated, and self-affirmative (“I know I give this and all races my best”), then I will feel rewarded by both the affirmation as well as by the solid completion of the race.

If I had never run a half marathon then such a self-affirmation would not do much good.  But if I had to get 13 miles down the road, I might successfully utilize the energizing potential of an affirmation like this:  “There is some pace by which I can keep going; even if it is a slow walk, I can keep going.”

One client, Jim, said that for him, trying to be perfectly on a diet doomed him to frequent failures.  In contrast, the willingness to eat modestly well on a holiday, for example, felt freeing.  Within freedom one encounters all possibilities—not only poor choices, but great choices.  Whereas, perfection has as its painful bedfellow, only failure.

Affirming ourselves can help us stay afloat during tough times.  Sometimes affirmations are actually rationalizations. Rationalizing is a psychological defense mechanism that protects us from feeling weaker, smaller, less competent, less than. . .And sometimes it is helpful, in order to keep on truckin’, to indulge in affirmative self-talk:  ‘So she didn’t go to the dance with me;  she’s probably stuck up and wouldn’t want to be seen with me anyway.  It’s better to go with my neighbor.  We’re friends and will have a good time.’  Or, ‘So I didn’t get that promotion.  It would have made for a lot more work without a lot more pay. I’m glad I dodged that bullet.’

In summary, positive self-affirmations work when they meet these criteria:  authenticity, believability, align with some other beliefs about the self, reflect exceptional stories in our own lives, are well practiced, sound like our own language, are specific and not inflated.  And most importantly, learning how to accept the genuine acknowledgement and recognition of others—learning to absorb that on a cellular level—helps us rework our narratives, rewire our brains, and open doors to greater freedom and new possibilities.

Writing Prompt:

What are some your self-limiting beliefs?  Do these sound like people you know?  Or derive from painful experiences you can remember?  What would you like to believe about yourself that will lift you up?  When have you experienced yourself as that (belief) courageous, assertive, open, persistent, etc?

Author: lisafriedlanderlicsw

Lisa Friedlander is a psychotherapist in private practice. She writes essays and loves to quilt together events, situations, memories, ideas, and stories that connect in interesting ways--dovetail, cause friction, make waves, and interweave.

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