Three Cheers for Intentions and Why I Prefer Them Over Affirmations

When things work out, it affirms our personal power and our connection to God, possibly even leading to a quality of hubris. When things don't go our way, however, it relegates us to being confused and disconnected, and suggests that we're at fault for any imperfections in our life.
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I've recently found myself in numerous conversations about the pros and cons of affirmations. For whatever reason, it's a hot topic in my corner of the world. Even last week, a new client let me know her opinion about them. "I'm sorry. I hope I'm not offending you, but I hate affirmations and I'll do any homework assignment you give me as long as it doesn't involve repeating some phrase about something that I hope might be true but that isn't true."

I chuckled in response, pointing to my shelf with Oliver Burkeman's book subtitled: Happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking. I reassured her that although I consider myself a strong supporter of the positive psychology movement, I've actually never, in my 18 years of offering counseling, encouraged a person to utter an affirmation. Intentions on the other hand, I find quite valuable, but I see an enormous difference between the statements I am joyful and May I be joyful--much more than just two words.

I didn't feel as strongly about this topic when I was a new graduate student and hadn't yet learned about the importance of being present with what we're feeling, or the downsides of inserting cheery pronouncements into our day. I hadn't yet seen how people can use the positive thinking movement as a way of escaping the messy nature of life -- how it can become a strategy for avoiding the reality that none of us entirely creates or controls our circumstances. This was also long before the popularity of Pema Chodron's encouragement around embracing life's difficulties, or Brene Brown's research about the value of accepting our vulnerabilities.

When I first encountered affirmations, I assumed they might be helpful for everyone. It made sense to me that they could increase what's now called neuroplasticity -- giving people access to new ways of thinking and more expansive possibilities in their lives. At worse, I assumed repeating an affirmation would be a benign daily practice, like adding a multi-vitamin.

These assumptions changed for me after talking with people about their experiences with affirmations. Some had been inspired by workshops, books, therapists, or spiritual teachers to adopt a daily practice, but they were now feeling disappointed and confused that their proclaimed quality was no more a part of their life than it had been when they started. Even though they had affirmed, "I am happy," "I am strong," "I am wealthy," "I am in love," they weren't feeling happier or stronger or wealthier or more in love. They struck me, however, as being quite intelligent, sincere, and psychologically healthy so it didn't feel right to simply blame them for somehow not doing the practice correctly or sabotaging their efforts. Instead, it just seemed that repeatedly wishing for things to be other than what they were hadn't worked for them.

I also saw that practicing affirmations could increase, as opposed to alleviate, inner-conflict. For some people, it caused them to push away aspects of themselves that weren't lining up with their expectations, or to judge themselves for not always having a positive disposition. At times, it became a set up for self-blame by exaggerating the truth that thoughts make a difference into an all-or-none extreme.

This affirmation-mentality can create a double-edged sword. When things work out, it affirms our personal power and our connection to God, possibly even leading to a quality of hubris. When things don't go our way, however, it relegates us to being confused and disconnected, and suggests that we're at fault for any imperfections in our life. Worse yet, it can lead us to blame others for the tragedies or illnesses they're experiencing -- becoming a strategy for distancing ourselves from the fragile nature of life.

In contrast, I see intentions as offering a healthy bridge between where we are and where we want to be. By using a phrase such as "May I feel joy," or "May I feel strength," we can stay present with our current experience and our hoped-for future without denying either. This broader perspective can help us avoid polarization between the actual and the ideal, while helping us cultivate compassion and acceptance for our situation. Because we often use such phrases when wishing others well ("May you have a wonderful birthday"), wording our intentions in this way can foster self-kindness by reminding us that we can be the recipient of our generous thoughts.

We can name our intention as a prayer that invites spiritual support, or as a means of remembering what we most want to bring to fruition. Either way, I've always appreciated how intentions feel like a polite request as opposed to an entitled demand. They seem to reflect better manners. I also find that intentions best represent our role within the bigger picture of life. They remind us that we can have some control over our reality, but that there are other factors at play which we'll never fully comprehend.

For me, intentions invite a sense of trust that good things can happen -- that positivity doesn't have to be forced. They offer hope that by expressing how we genuinely feel and working with what really is, positive things can arrive in their own way.

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