I remember standing backstage when I was quite young, waiting to be called onstage for my first performance in a song festival. I may have been 12 or 13 years old. I was about to sing a song I loved from the musical The King and I, titled, “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”
Happy was far from what I felt as I stood there in my new dress and black patent shoes. I would have turned and fled had I not somehow really listened to the lyrics of my song as they streamed through my head:
Make believe you’re brave
And the trick will take you far.
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are.
As I recall it, those words gave me just enough courage to walk in front of the audience and perform my chosen song. That was my first memorable experience with the potential power of positive affirmation. But, in truth, I was already open to the concept because my mother believed strongly that thoughts are things and words are powerful – they could serve you well or bring you harm.
But leap ahead 50 years or so, and you’ll find me a Doubting Thomas when it comes to the usefulness of contemporary positive affirmations. It doesn’t help that my husband thinks the practice is lame. His exact words, offered with a mocking tone, were, “Whatever gets you through the night.”
But my good friend Bea recently told me that she repeats affirmative phrases whenever she feels herself sliding into a dark place. And another dear friend, Jim Duchesneau, who published a book and songs project called Effective Ways to Heal from Depression, Anxiety, Fear and more…, told me about how he uses a similar approach to restore his own equilibrium.
Because of these two I decided to study the process a little more deeply.
According to many sources on the internet, affirmations are “positive statements that can help you to challenge and overcome self-sabotaging and negative thoughts.” One very popular YouTube video offers the following statements as the most powerful phrases in use today:
My friend Bea told me that she has learned over her years of study with both books and mentors that the most effective affirmations begin with “I am” or “I have.” But her three favourites do not follow this form:
She told me, “Everything is now! Now is the only point from which you can change anything. Keep working with your affirmations for five minutes a day, every day. And by day nine or ten, you will start to feel the benefits.”
So, the idea is to repeat these sayings several times in one sitting. And then do it daily for a month. Thirty days seems to be the magic number. But is there any real science to back up the value of repeating these kinds of statements? Again, I was doubtful. But actually, there are some interesting studies.
From an Annual Review of Psychology by G. L. Cohen and D. K. Sherman:
“Self-affirmation interventions typically have people write about core personal values. The interventions bring about a more expansive view of the self and its resources, weakening the implications of a threat for personal integrity. […] timely affirmations have been shown to improve education, health, and relationship outcomes, with benefits that sometimes persist for months and years.”
Another study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) finds that “future-oriented affirmations may be more successful than past-oriented affirmation” and that the use of affirmations is “associated with greater change in sedentary behaviour following the affirmation intervention.”
Jim Duchesneau, who suffered for seven years with severe suicidal depression, told me that he could not say “I am a good person,” or “I am loved.” He explained, “When I was very depressed, I simply could not relate to something that positive.”
Instead, he began with statements drawn from the Metta Mindfulness practice that he could relate to, such as, “I wish to feel safe,” and “I wish to feel that I am loved.” Those statements had a semblance of truth that his mind and body could accept.
Later, as he began to recover from depression, his ability to accept more positive statements changed: “With time, I actually moved up to repeating phrases like ‘I am ok at this very moment in time.’”And later, he could use the more personal, I am… phrases, as well.
But his favourite kind of self-talk phrases contain the words “acting as if.” Jim told me, “With those words, I’m not claiming that I am this or that. But I am ‘acting as if’ I am content, or fearless or good or worthwhile. Those kinds of statements, my heart can believe.”
Amy Sher, an energy healer who also works with very sick patients in hospital settings, is known for her book, How to Heal Yourself from Depression When Nobody Else Can. In an interview she told her listeners that the words she uses to penetrate the subconscious are, “I am now free.”
“The reason we use the wording ‘I am now free’ is because, in all my testing, that was the one phrase that the subconscious mind didn’t resist. It resists being told what to do, being reprogrammed, being all of these different things, but no human resists freedom, and that’s where the magic of that phrase comes.”
She also stressed that you must pair the use of mental training with a commitment to take action. “What taking action is about is being careful that you are not handing your life over to the universe when there are things you could do to help move your life forward.”
My initial motivation to look into the value of affirmations stemmed from my desire to create a guided meditation for a singing course I am developing, called, Wake Up Your Life with Singing! In my many years as vocal coach and professional singer, I’ve learned the vital importance of being in a receptive state of mind when you are learning to sing. Especially later in life when old habits can be difficult to change.
Now, after doing the research for this article, I’ve got a few new tricks up my sleeve! Based in part on what I’ve learned, I am creating a guided meditation that I believe adult singers will be willing to accept. Here are the first three phrases:
When it comes to believing in the power of words, I am still my mother’s daughter. I remember a quote she often said to me: “Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionately to their occupancy of your thoughts.”
Have you used positive affirmations? Have they worked for you? If so, in what way have they benefited (or not) your life?