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July 25th, 2010

What Works: Are Affirmations Lying?

Can the concept of affirmations be reconciled with radical honesty?



A reader, Janice J. Holladay, LPC, raised a great point the other day after reading my old column on radical honesty. She had just read a book about affirmations and said:

“It seems that trying to fight a self-defeating belief system with something one knows is just a lie is not the way to go. The book suggests that you say/believe it anyway even though it’s “not yet” true. I just don’t see that lying to oneself ever serves any purpose, and we all do it enough anyway.”

I have been asked variations of the “Are affirmations lying?” question many times, and it is a common source of confusion for people new to spiritual and self-improvement work.

My answer is: It depends. Not because gradations of truthfulness are OK, but because there are different types of affirmations. So let’s break it down. Saying, “Today will be a good day,” is aspirational. Saying, “I am thin,” is, well, a lie. (It is for me anyway, and if it weren’t you probably wouldn’t be saying it as an affirmation.)

Affirmations can affirm the best qualities or aspects of what is true. I say in morning prayers, “I pray that today I be of maximum usefulness to You and others.” That is not a lie, it’s a hopeful intention. Or take Paul Tillich’s statement, “You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know…. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

This is choosing to focus on and affirm something which is true, but which we have trouble connecting with.

On the other hand, saying, “I am happy,” when you’re not is simply denying reality. There are grey areas sometimes, to be sure — not in Truth, but rather in where the line is between hopefulness and delusion.

Fake it till you make it?

But the trouble for a lot of people comes into play when they encounter ideas like the popular saying in the recovery world: Fake it till you make it. Many people interpret this as an instruction to pretend something is true which isn’t. But it has value if understood in a different way. That phrase is often used about praying even though you’re not sure you believe in God. It’s not saying you should pretend to believe; it’s saying to take the actions you would if you believed, even if you don’t. So, for example, you get on your knees in the morning and pray even if you’re not sure it’s doing anything. You might even say, “God, if you’re there…” or “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but…”

It’s not dishonest to affirm something good that is true but that we struggle with believing. And it’s OK to take actions that are contrary to how we normally act, as long as we embrace or aspire towards the idea that they’re grounded in.

In the notorious Stuart Smalley parody of affirmations by Al Franken in his Saturday Night Live days, when he says, “I am good enough, I am smart enough,” he is affirming truth — similar to the Tillich quote. (But that last part of the famous phrase, “and, doggone it, people like me,” may or may not cross the line into dishonesty. LOL.)

For me, it’s back to radical honesty

Let me also say that my strict belief in no lying is not shared by everyone. Ethicists and spiritual leaders I admire have varying opinions on special cases. But I believe in my heart that radical honesty is the way to live, and as I mentioned in my column about it, the day I encountered the teaching of Jesus, “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No'” (Matthew 5:37), it changed my life. While I had always considered myself to be an honest person, it exposed to me all the little lies we do, supported by questionable rationalizations.

I don’t use traditional affirmations myself, and they do rub me the wrong way. Instead, as I said, in my morning prayers I look forward at the day and express my hope and expectation that I will meet its challenges and opportunities.

What’s the harm with the other kind of affirmation? I think it runs the risk of just enabling people to stay in denial, rather than setting a goal with distance to travel before getting there. Some people really need to focus on reassuring themselves that things are OK — especially if they are compensating for self-hating messages they’ve internalized from childhood, but I’m not sure it leads to growth and improvement. And more importantly, even if there’s some short-term case to be made for being dishonest, you can never go wrong with being honest, and there are usually corrosive side-effects of dishonesty even if they can’t be seen in the short term.

So, if the affirmation is affirming something that is true — “I am worthy of love” — or if it’s stating our intention to live up to a goal — “I pray that I be of maximum usefulness today” — then there’s nothing wrong with it, but if it’s denying reality — “I am thin” — then it is a lie. Whether you think that’s permissible is up to you. For me it’s not.

What do you think? Do you agree with me, or do you think affirmations that stretch the truth are OK, that reassurance and comforting trump reality? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Patty

    Statements that affirm what the Bible says are true, because the Bible is true. So if we say, I have been healed, and that is consistent with scripture, it is true and will manifest in our lives.

  • cathyf

    St. Ignatius says at the beginning of the Exercises: “I want and I choose what better leads to the deepening of God’s life in me.” I like the present tense – it doesn’t matter that we haven’t chosen well in the past, and the future we can get to when we get there, but today we are going to have choices, and this is what I desire today as my choice.

  • Julia

    Excellent balance, and one that I need to hear, having internalized what I know in my better moments is a false dichotomy between affirmation and intelligence/honesty/depth. I have, however, been blessed with a few people in my life who have shown me by example that these things at their best go together.

    By the way, I presume by your use of the phrase “traditional affirmations” you are really referring to popular convention, which I believe is entirely different from tradition, but that’s just a quibble.

    In all seriousness, I sincerely AFFIRM your perspective on this question as being well-rounded, helpful and right on target!

  • Monica

    Hi Phil! Great post!! I’m going to use it as inspiration for my next blog post, and I just want to say I came across this right after discovering Lisa Nichols (motivational speaker) and watching a video of hers for 2 hours. It’s all about doing the soul work to become the person we are intended to be – and she talks a lot about how we fight the “champion” inside of us waiting to get out, aka our truest potential.

    So with that, I can’t help but think we often lie to ourselves anyhow. “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t do that, look at where I’ve come from,” “Who am I to think I should be with that person?” Isn’t that all lying to ourselves? Aren’t we talking to the person we believe we are, but not really the person we actually are, or can be?

    I think affirmations, if nothing else, wake up our potential and say maybe you can do that, maybe you do deserve that, maybe you are thin “your potential is” and you should do what it takes physically to reach that potential. It’s unfortunate, especially for young women, we feel we cannot say those things to ourselves, and instead put ourselves down. I think when we do that, that is when we are truly lying to ourselves.

    P.S. I carry around an affirmation in my wallet I took with me after participating with a Jewish teen girl circle. Mine says Courage is Mine: Proverbs 8:14. Simple enough, but quite frankly, we need to be reminded.

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