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.