Yes, Affirmations Can Be Difficult & Painful...But They Work.

Lisa Martens

Photo by Miguel Luis on Unsplash

With all the lovey-dovey feelings around affirmations and positive thought, I'd like to communicate with those who find affirmations to be extremely painful.

For some people, saying "I love you" to themselves feels like a lie. It's enough to reduce one to tears.

When affirmations or positive thoughts go against everything you have been taught, they aren't easy. It's difficult to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

When an affirmation is painful, start slow.

When I started trying affirmations, telling myself that I loved myself, that I deserved a good life, and that I could have a happy future was all too hurtful. These words felt ridiculous. They felt like lies. I resisted and felt hurt. How could anyone really do this? I thought that there must be something wrong with people who told themselves these things. They were clearly full of it...full of themselves. I couldn't be like that.

For people who have built an identity around negative thoughts, positive affirmations hurt.

When affirmations are painful, begin with a diluted version of that affirmation. "I love myself" can become "I like myself" for example.

I use phone reminders to make sure I read my affirmations every day. Scheduling a set time to tell yourself affirmations can make it feel like a chore. But if a phone note just pops up every day and you read it and then complete the task, then you've told yourself an affirmation without having to set aside time to do it. After all, how often are we on our phones?

Beginning affirmations is difficult, and it does not pay off immediately. It's uncomfortable. It requires being okay with being uncomfortable. Many of us have only believed in terrible things, and starting to believe in positive change feels a bit ridiculous and indulgent.

That feeling does eventually change. Remember: If you have been engaging in negative self-talk for years, then it will take time to undo that damage and begin to find positive self-talk more natural.

Experience the self as a changing being.

People who have experienced trauma sometimes have a sense of foreshortened future, or an idea that the world is bad, or that they will only get worse, not better. I used to think I would be dead by 30, and so I made no real life or career plans.

I just didn't think the future was real.

In order for affirmations to work, one must be open to the idea that positive change is possible...that all of life is not just a swirl down a drain.

This means aspects of your personality that you might consider fixed might actually be fluid. Maybe it's not a rule that I can only have sex under certain conditions. Maybe it's not a rule that I can only watch cartoons. Maybe, with enough work and gentle exploration, I can begin to do things that I was once too traumatized to do. Maybe one day, I can enjoy a movie without jumping.

Maybe, maybe not. The idea is to be open to the possibility of change, and curious to how much one can change.

If the future is real, and it's coming, what do you want from it?

Start easy and find the sore spots.

For me, an affirmation I resisted was "I am safe." It felt like a lie. Safety? Safety wasn't real. So many people were out there with evil plans to make me poor. I had experienced sexism and racism. I saw cruelty, injustice, and early death. I saw people struggle to keep their insurance so they could stay alive in a system that didn't care if they died.

How could I believe in safety? Wasn't that a fairy tale? Wasn't I naive to believe such a thing? Wouldn't it be better if I did away with the idea of safety?

I resisted this affirmation hard. When I explored why, I found more trauma. Then I realized that, while stability was not a "real thing" that was "out there" in the world, I had to give myself permission to feel safe in order to accomplish what I wanted.

If I wanted to learn, to work, to write—I had to tell myself I was safe. I had to build a safe space for myself.

I was right in that safety wasn't a thing on the outside. I had to build my own safety. Safety does not exist "out there." There are a lot of forces that are at work to keep one down. But I could pick friends and relatives who helped me feel safe. I could begin to pick the people who made me feel secure and special. I could watch less news. I could focus on what actions I could take, instead of worrying how other people were going to stop me.

And yes, that requires vulnerability. I might try my hardest, and still be turned away, ignored, or belittled because I'm Latina, because I'm a woman. If I want to try literally anything, I have to understand that that's a possibility.

As hurtful and as awful as it is, I decided I had to try and go full-steam ahead. If "they" want to stop me, they have to do the work to stop me.

Instead of telling yourself the affirmations that you feel fine with, focus on the affirmations that hit a sore spot. There will be something to unpack there.

Go on the journey without thinking of the ending.

A year ago, I would have thought that I was "almost done" with all of this. But no—there is always something to discover. There are always affirmations that hit a sore note. There are always people and issues that I realize I have avoided.

Avoidance is a way to protect oneself. We may avoid thoughts, people, or places that remind us of a particular time and place. However, when we give in to avoidance, our world gets smaller, and smaller, and smaller. Trauma, anxiety, and avoidance are hungry and always ask for more. They won't be satisfied with making your life just a little smaller...they will keep going forever.

When it comes to mental health, I realize that it's not something that ends any more than brushing your teeth, exercising, or washing your hair ever comes to an end. We must tell ourselves affirmations and clean up our minds in the same way we must wash our clothes, do the dishes, and paint the house.

Up the affirmations every so often.

I change my affirmations about every 3-6 months. Once I got used to "I like myself", I upgraded to "I love myself."

I've noticed positive effects over the past four or five years...that's how long I've been doing this. I'm not as jumpy at loud noises. I have a job I enjoy much better than the one I used to have. I feel better about writing and sharing and promoting my writing. I now see writing as a real job, and I didn't before. I used to think I had to suffer and hate my job in order for it to be real work. I don't think that anymore.

Using affirmations to help change how you feel about yourself and your life is not an easy fix. When I think of how long I told myself hurtful words, it makes sense that it would take years to feel better.

It's not easy, and they're not working as quickly as I would have liked. It definitely hasn't been a pretty journey. There have been tears, uncomfortable feelings, and memories explored.

But—They are working.

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