Positive affirmations and Gratitude lists are very popular nowadays. But do they work?

There’s always been something about positive affirmations that didn’t sit very well with me. Something felt fake somehow. I’ve met dozens of people affirming 10 times or more daily that they were happy and joyful when they looked absolutely miserable. And that incongruence, that incoherence between what they said and how they looked baffled me.

I’ve then read Louise Hay, as many of us have, and decided to try it for myself. And this sense of unease I already had kept growing. Somehow, it didn’t feel true. I kept repeating my daily affirmations, from when I was swimming to punctuating every step of my daily commute walk – but they still didn’t fully resonate. Have you had a similar experience?

I even started to notice that some of the positive affirmations were working backwards: when I was saying them, instead of feeling a positive response, it would trigger the feeling of the unresolved issue. So for example if my positive affirmation was “I am confident”, as I was saying it I noticed it triggered in me the insecurities and the feeling of lack of confidence…That’s when I realised it didn’t really work for me. Pema Chodron, one of my favourite mindfulness and meditation teacher, describes positive affirmations as follow:

“Affirmations are like screaming that you’re okay in order to overcome this whisper that you’re not.” 

And I guess that’s why I’m not comfortable with positive affirmations. Because they act like a plaster on unresolved issues, and because of how the unconscious mind works, if it has decided that you were ready to resolve an issue, the more you plaster a positive affirmation on top of it, the louder it will scream that issue for you to hear it. So maybe cut to the chase, and instead, drop into that issue in order to resolve it.

As for Gratitude lists…I am warmer towards this one. Because I do believe it’s a question of focus. Our brain is quite limited in terms of its capacity to focus on multiple things at once. So the more you focus on your problems, the less space there is to notice the good things in life. It is therefore important to train the mind to focus on what’s good in life, on what you want – rather than the problems and negative things.

However, there’s another pitfall with gratitude. Once again, I practised this on myself “to see what it was all about”. And sometimes, no matter how hard I practised, I still didn’t manage to feel grateful. No amount of daily gratitude list would do. I would still be bogged down by my issues.

And then I thought of my grand-mother. She was an amazing woman, beyond courageous and brave and faced very hard times in her life. But every time she stood up and kept fighting. However, I noticed that she was always complaining; about politicians, about the state of the city, about kids playing loudly and carelessly in the street, etc. And it used to do my head in. I couldn’t understand why she was focusing so much on what was wrong around her!

So when I started to think of my Grand-mother, my first conclusion was that I got it from her, that’s why I couldn’t maintain my gratitude practice. Or rather, why it felt like it wasn’t heartfelt. I continuously forced myself to focus on the positive, but it came from my head and not my heart. But then I asked myself another question: why couldn’t she focus on the positive?

And that’s when it dawned on me. She couldn’t focus on the positive, because she had never managed to let go of the pain she accumulated during the traumatic events of her life. She suffered a great deal, and at her time, therapy or coaching wasn’t as accessible – or as acceptable – as it is nowadays. So she bottled up, got back on her feet by herself, and kept all her sorrow hidden inside. And that’s how it manifested: she got an outlet through complaining about mundane stuff.

I then took a look back at myself and wondered if I might have the same reason for struggling with my gratitude project. And BAM! I was spot on. I realised that the reason I couldn’t consistently feel that deep gratitude, despite the huge efforts I twas putting into it, was because I too, still had some unresolved pain and anger from the past. And those emotions were haunting me subtly – I wasn’t consciously aware of them in my daily life – they “just” prevented me to feel grateful for my life, for the great things I have.

So I am inviting you to check in with yourself; if like me, you’ve tried positive affirmations or gratitude practice but it doesn’t feel “real” or “genuine”, could it be too that you have unresolved emotions from the past that need to be healed?

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