When words of affirmation don’t work

Lately I’ve been trying to find what messages resonate with me. I have friends that advocate for the power of words of affirmations. Some of them get daily texts with affirmations, some write them on on their social media, some offer them freely to lift people up. When I try to listen to or read these same messages, I don’t feel anything. No boost in mood, no pep in my step. Am I supposed to feel something? Am I difficult to reach? Am I beyond the help of words of affirmation?

I couldn’t help wondering, is everyone feeling motivated by words of affirmation but me?

“I am worthy. I am a good person. I accept and love myself.”

I roll my eyes and laugh when I read these types of messages. Not because there’s anything wrong with them but they just feel either boring or corny to me. To me they’ve always felt like things people should already know and not need to be told. I’m clearly wrong here and I acknowledge that. A lot of people don’t know or feel these these things about themselves, a lot of people need to hear it either from themselves or others in order to believe it. That’s fine but what about us that don’t? Sometimes these words feel preachy, which I do not react well to (I’m not religious, I don’t know if that’s relevant or not). Other times they feel like they’re being shoved down my throat, mostly when people use the words “you” instead of “I” or “me” when talking about their own stories. Almost like people are telling me what I should do and how I should feel, even if that isn’t their intent. Self-help books that tell personal stories have always been more helpful to me than ones that tell me what to do. I just really don’t like being told what to do, is that obvious yet?

“The researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals in individuals with low self-esteem. When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, the researchers argue, there is not mere resistance but a reinforcing of self-perception. People who view themselves as unlovable, for example, find that saying that are so unbelievable that it strengthens their own negative view rather than reversing it.” – Ray Williams

I’m not completely devoid of feeling, I promise. I’m an easy crier and I love to cry. I cry while listening to music, I have a pretty long playlist of songs that make me cry before the end of the first verse. In case you want to know that that looks like, it’s titled CryBoyz  and there’s a lot of John Mayer, The Smiths, OneRepublic, and John Legend. I can’t get through an episode of This is Us without crying, hell, I cried while watching Girl Meets World. Anything “heartwarming” will leave me an absolute mess. Anything romantic in a movie? Might as well be cutting onions. Commercials where kids are pouring cereal for their dad? Forget about it. I feel amazing listening to Oprah. I’m Every Woman make me feel unstoppable. I’ve never felt more empowered than the first time I listened to Formation, even more than Run The World. When I listen to lectures from Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, or even a TEDTalk from someone who is doing something that I think is incredible, I feel both inspired and motivated. There’s no doubt in my mind that I could succeed after listening to all of these people talk about how they succeeded, or even how they failed. Is there a difference between motivation and affirmation? Do they go hand-in-hand?

“What was found was that those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts about themselves. In fact, the subjects were in a better mood thinking negative thoughts, than they were when asked to focus on positive affirmations.” – Carmen Isáis 

If someone were to tell me “you are enough” I’d likely respond with “of course I am, I know that!”. I don’t get a different result when I tell myself the same thing. I’ve tried for weeks, trading various words of affirmation to find something that works for me and it turns out, none of it did. If anything, I felt more insecure and doubtful than before I started. I consider myself a Type A workaholic busybody while also having a more laid-back live and let live view on life than necessary. Maybe it’s my personality that keeps these messages from reaching me? For better or for worse, I’ve always been pretty sure of myself without any added help. I’ve always been self-deprecating and cynical in both my humor and in my coping mechanisms. I knock myself down a peg or two all on my own and I build myself up without even trying. I don’t take myself or life very seriously but I care a great deal about a lot of things and my work and education are incredibly important to me. I don’t have as much self doubt as it probably seems like I do, my insecurities are more often tied with how I look than who I am as a person. I don’t feel uncomfortable with saying I’m good at a lot of things nor does it make me feel bad to know that there are things I’m mediocre at (do not give me any math problems to solve). I never feel like I need to declare my worthiness in order to feel worthy of what I want or deserve. I’ve never felt the need to tell myself or anyone else how smart or capable I am because I’ve never felt that I wasn’t either of these things, even if I was told I wasn’t. Maybe my self-esteem is higher than I think it is. Maybe it’s not high enough? 

“The idea that self-haters will love themselves if (and because) they say they do — just as repetition helps children memorize the multiplication tables — is laughably, even offensively, simplistic.” – Anneli Rufus 

The short answer is no, I’m not alone in this. I fell down a research hole and found many articles about why they don’t work for everyone. Most suggests low self-esteem doesn’t allow these messages to come through, some suggest high self-esteem may not allow the person to feel the necessity and the positive effects are negligible. Some cite the Meyers-Briggs Personality Types perceive words of affirmation differently but mostly center their research around love languages. There are Reddit threads full of INTJ/P (as I have been more INTJ while growing up and now am certainly more INTP, just say I’m somewhere in between) either trying to understand why their different personality-typed partner needs words of affirmation from them or talking about how words of affirmation don’t give them anything either. I read personal cases about people that, like me, feel they don’t need them and some that don’t believe in them but use them anyway (Here’s an article from someone who doesn’t believe in affirmations but found they still worked for her). While I felt like a lot of people were having a similar struggle with positive affirmations, issues like mine were outweighed by people that felt an overwhelming sense of self-doubt and suffered from low self-esteem. Coming from a long-time sufferer of moderate depression, I get it, but considering that isn’t my average mental state anymore I can’t completely relate to them. 

“For the skeptics, like me, a more effective approach is to let go of trying to change how we feel, act calmly, and remember all the blessing of life and reality as it is.” – Anal Ghosain 

Maybe there are different wellness languages like there are different love languages (mine is quality time followed by acts of service, thanks for asking!). I ultimately feel better when I allow myself to be realistic about myself and where I am in life. I feel just as good when I allow myself to laugh at my imperfections and my failures as I do when I gloat about my success. I feel like someone put a battery in my back when I’m actively doing or learning something. I’m more likely to believe I’m capable of something by trying it rather than just telling myself I can. I feel more empowered by consuming things that make me feel good. Listening to my favorite writers talk about their craft or innovators talking about being inspired or, yes, Oprah talking about literally anything – these things have more of a positive effect on me than looking in the mirror and telling myself “You can do it!”. What I also take from this is to stop trying to force something that doesn’t feel organic to me and isn’t making me feel good. When I’m real with myself, when I’m at my most authentic, that’s when I feel the most affirmed.

Obviously take all of this with a grain of salt as it’s just my personal experience and may or may not apply to anyone but me. Words of affirmation work for a lot of people, they make a lot of people feel amazing and ready to take on the world. I’m not fighting anyone on that, I’m happy for anyone that they work for. Do you, boo.