I remember the first time I heard about positive thinking. I was a young child complaining to my mother about how I shouldn’t have to help wash the dishes. She said, “Whining and complaining will never get you anywhere, you need to look on the bright side.” Outraged I rebelled, ” What do you mean? There is no bright side about washing dishes.” She shook her head at me and sighed like I really didn’t get it. Something in life was completely hidden from me and for now I would just have to stew in my misery.
As I got older, I learned that as humans we each interpret the world differently and some of us have better lives than others. Some of us are more positive than others. It wasn’t until the film ‘The Secret’ came out explaining that if you think ‘it'(whatever it is you want) and focus on ‘it’ you can have ‘it’, so of course, if you have a ton of negative thoughts then you end up with a crap life manifesting the negative. Suddenly, I had been handed the keys to the kingdom, the human race is endowed with magical powers.The ball has been bounced back to our court. We are no longer at the mercy of a random universe.
The ‘Secret’ was incredibly popular at my work place. My co-workers and I jumped on that bandwagon creatively constructing gigantic vision boards with pictures of mansions and sports cars, hot pictures of men and women we wanted to marry.We became a world of possibilities. I tuned into more and more self help information and spiritual teachers. They were all saying that if you change your thoughts to the positive you can have the life you want.
So I did it: daily positive affirmations while staring at my vision board. I had felt like such a failure in the relationship department, recently divorced and still single. But I cheered myself up by putting a hot picture of Javier Bardem on the right hand corner of my board. He became my daily virtual boyfriend. Next to him I had a picture of two wedding rings linked and another picture of me and my future partner riding bikes together. Of course, I did not know who my future partner was going to be, but I believed that as long as I focused and stayed positive, I would get what I asked for.
Within 3 months of practicing my positive affirmations in front of my vision board, N asked me out. He even looked like Javier Bardem. We were a couple within a week. I thought it was kismet. In hindsight, maybe I should have been careful for what I wished for because even though I got it, I wasn’t very specific in my request for the type of partner (except for the picture of Javier). I definitely got somebody, but it was not the partner I had hoped for. Perhaps, it was the partner I needed? Maybe the universe knew better than I? Or the affirmations and vision board had nothing whatsoever to do with anything? Anyway, I can go around and around with these questions and never know the answer.
So now that I am healing after divorcing the N, I have decided to use positive affirmations and visualization again, but in a different way. I do not want my efforts to backfire.But, I am curious how they work. Most importantly I have learned that bypassing pain only prolongs the healing process.
I have found it to be helpful to be in a positive environment surrounded by positive loving supportive people. In fact there has been some research that a positive outlook contributes to better health and well being. This still makes sense to me, but there is something else I have found to be true this time around. Being positive does not mean that we deny negative emotions. In the past as I mentioned I used the affirmations as a way to try to get what I want rather than as part of a healing process.
One of the ways positive affirmations can backfire is when we use positive statements to drown out negative statements and painful feelings. This causes us to push the negative feelings even farther away creating even more problems. When we deny we are experiencing anything painful this requires a lot of energy to push the feelings away. It depletes our life energy force and can cause anxiety and depression because the energy has to go somewhere it will come out in symptomatic ways and also interfere with us actually being able to focus on the positive.
It can also make someone feel even worse about themselves, if they end up not believing the positive statement. Then they feel bad because they are not even able to feel positive. An antidote to this may be to reflect views that you actually hold and make the statements very specific and realistic. For example, saying a statement like ‘I am always loving.’ This sounds impossible. Instead how about: “I enjoy spending time with close friends.” This will bring positive memories, create gratitude about the friendships you have, and is doable.
Some psychologists argue that trying to correct negative thoughts can actually increase them. For example, have you noticed that when you try not to think about something you end up thinking about it even more? Steven C. Hayes is a psychologist who wrote a piece published in Time magazine titled “Happiness isn’t Normal” believes we should concentrate on identifying and committing to our values in life. He explained that once we are willing to feel our negative emotions, we’ll find it easier to commit ourselves to what we want in life. This is because even the negative emotions are informative and can help us create the life we want. We just need to know how to work with them, so that we don’t allow ourselves to self-sabotage.
Another way affirmations can backfire is by creating a lack of action. Visualizing and repeating affirmations must include some inspired action. We can get really comfortable with these practices and never actually do anything. One of my affirmations is ‘I have a healthy exercise routine and feel great.’ So I started a yoga practice that has finally become a habit. Every time I go, I really don’t want to, but I make myself because it is the habit that creates a positive mental state. Without the action then I am not receiving the benefit of the new habit.
The third way affirmations can backfire is by making us feel overly responsible about having to be a super happy positive person and guilty for not being more positive. We would have been better off not trying to be positive in the first place because now we have an additional emotion to deal with, on top of what was bothering us in the first place: the guilt for being unable to convince ourselves to be optimistic about our situation. Instead of accepting our negative feelings in the beginning and dealing with the problem directly, we waste our time and energy by judging ourselves over having perfectly normal emotions.
The last thing to watch out for when using affirmations has to do with creating expectations about how the universe is going to unfold. The notion that only good things can happen. The illusion that we are GOD and create all of reality. This idea can create powerful expectations that can be incredibly disappointing. I refer to the Serenity prayer to help keep myself more balanced. ‘God grant me the Serenity to Accept the things I cannot change. Courage to change the things I can and the Wisdom to know the difference.’
We can always look for the wisdom and compassion within us when using tools in healing. We do the best we can becoming aware of our thoughts and how they affect our feelings. Then we can take action.