When Do Affirmations Become More Than Just Words

affirmations - image of neon sign that says, "Screw it, let's do it"

As I stood at my dresser, my reflection stared back at me from my mirror. Surrounded by a myriad of multicolored post-it notes. Each note had written on it an affirming phrase– ranging from “I am Beautiful!” to “I am Strong!”– in black Sharpie marker. If you’re in recovery from any sort of disordered eating, I’m sure you are all-too-familiar with the “positive affirmations” written on my mirror…and maybe your own. 

Affirmations- not as easy as I expected

Early on in my recovery, I was told affirmations were going to be an essential part of my healing process. AND THEY ARE. However, I think I was expecting to write these little phrases down in my journal, put them under my pillow, and absorb the positive messages via osmosis. 

For nearly a decade and a half I flooded my mind with affirmations through endless post-it notes, index card flip-books, as well as a plethora of over-sequined art therapy projects. But despite my best efforts, I was left empty handed in the self-esteem department. I felt downtrodden. I felt as if, by this time, I had repeated to myself “I am Beautiful” at least a hundred thousand times… so why hadn’t I come to believe it? 

A mental block

It was almost like there was a filter preventing the affirming messages from reaching my brain to be processed. Then I learned there WAS indeed a filter. That filter was in the form of the beliefs I ‘d already created about myself. And they were physically blocking the affirmations from registering and disallowing me to believe them.

Recognizing my mental block was the first step. The next step was to remove that block. This is where the digging came in and where I was spectacularly grateful to have access to a therapist. We uncovered the truth, which looks different for everyone. 

My truth was: when I was a very young child I developed a sensory disorder that caused tension in my family. It inadvertently triggered my (loving and well-intentioned) parents to instill negative messages in me about who I was as a person. The messages stuck with me like a ball and chain into adulthood. Until I realized through my personal growth work they no longer served me. And I began the process of letting go of them. (FYI: I’m still going through that process!). 

Just the acknowledgment of the source of these negative messages allowed me to slowly release the filter that was keeping me from processing the affirmations I needed to believe about myself in order to move forward with my recovery. It is belief that it is imperative to our healing. For each of us to find what’s preventing us from believing the positive messages our recovering selves want us to believe.

Start small with affirmations

The third step to believing affirmations in recovery is to start small. “I am Beautiful.” When we’re in recovery, how many of us believe THAT?! If you do believe that you’re beautiful (or any of the great things that you SHOULD believe about yourself)….wonderful! Kudos! But many aren’t in that place right now. 

So, what are some traits you possess (or you want to believe you possess) that would be easier to persuade yourself of? For me, I didn’t know if I was very many things, but I knew for darn sure I was resilient. So, every day I told myself “I am resilient,” and worked up from there. “I am resilient” turned into “I am strong,” then eventually, “I am enough” and “I am good.” And those were ultimately the core things I wanted to believe about myself. 

Another idea is to start with objective, rather than subjective, truths and affirmations about yourself. My favorite examples were “I am a volunteer/humanitarian” and “I am a sister/friend/daughter.” These types of statements both affirm a goodness within oneself and establish an identity outside of the eating disorder. 

When affirmations become beliefs

Affirmations have a simplicity to them that may make them appear to be “easy” on the surface. But in reality, what is simple is not always what is easy. We can recite affirmations until we’re blue in the face and never believe a word of it. When do affirmations become more than just words? When we become realistic about them and become willing to break down the barriers of WHY we refuse to believe them to begin with.

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