DIY: Positive Mantras to Get You Through the Madness
No, you can’t chant yourself into becoming George Takei (sorry), but you can at least learn a little self-love.
By Crissonna Tennison, UCLA
If you’re grumpy like me, the recent “mindfulness revolution” went from intriguing to inspirational to annoying in the span of a year.
Everywhere you go, you can count on some billboard or granola bar package telling you to “breathe deeply” and “be present.”
To the uninitiated, mindfulness and its associated activities can feel too much like a yuppie trend to be taken seriously. Its messages can seem overly simplistic, reductive and dismissive, especially if you are someone who deals with depression or anxiety. This is especially true of the advice to use “affirmations,” or statements you say aloud to yourself that you do not necessarily believe: “I am a good math student. I deserve that internship. I have the body of Beyonce and the spirit of George Takei.” It can feel like you’re playing a silly game with yourself. Your stress is real; insulting your own intelligence isn’t going to make anything better.
But there must be a reason that people talk about affirmations, beyond a sadistic enjoyment of being annoying and unhelpful. If affirmations themselves are not powerful, their cultural and historical currency is. Affirmations come from mantras, or repetitive chants found in many religions, specifically Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Hasidic Judaism. Literally millions of people chant repetitive, positive phrases and have been doing so for thousands of years. They must be deriving some kind of benefit from it. What gives?
Maybe it’s a placebo effect. Maybe it’s not. Why not give it a try?
Think about it: Usually, when you are in the middle of cramming for a final before rushing to your internship and then rushing to your job and then rushing back in time for your final and you haven’t slept in two days and your stomach hurts because the excessive caffeine you’ve been drinking has dehydrated you, your view of the big picture is distorted. You’re thinking, “If I don’t pass this final I will fail and I will never be a doctor which means I will disappoint my family and not make that much money and I will spend the rest of my life dissatisfied and doing something I do not love because I am a failure. If I don’t make it to this internship on time, I will get fired and then I won’t have enough internships on my resume to get a job or get into graduate school and all this work will have been for nothing. If I don’t make it to work on time, I will not make enough money to pay my bills on time and then my credit score will go down and I won’t be able to finance a car or a house or OH GOD!”
When you try affirmations, however, your thinking will be more like this: “I am deepening my knowledge of human anatomy AND gaining job experience AND building my finances ALL AT THE SAME TIME!”
Which sounds better?
The thing about affirmations is, they are not magical phrases that will unlock the heavens and grant your every wish. They are statements of purpose and forgiveness, all rolled into one. By using affirmations, you’re not denying reality, you’re simply choosing to focus on a version of reality that serves you. And while that can be very dangerous in political and social realms, it can be a valuable strategy when it comes to self-development and stress management. Last time you took a test while envisioning your disappointed parents and future shabby apartment, did you do well? Did you feel well? I didn’t. Next time, envision yourself as a happy, balanced adult, having a beer on a boat with George Takei. (Does he drink?) That’s your future!
Before you start, there are a few things to consider. You can’t just throw out any old affirmation. You will be repeating this phrase every morning when you get up for like, ever, so don’t make it annoying, and don’t make it too unbelievable. On one level, you’re supposed to be reinforcing a positive thing about yourself that you don’t usually think, but if it’s too outlandish, you won’t buy it, and you’ll go back to being a grumpy skeptic.
For example, if you can’t distinguish between variables and numbers, don’t say “I am a good math student.” Say, “I am working at improving my math skills.” That will keep you from getting discouraged when you fail, and it will give you perspective about what you are really trying to accomplish.
If you’re grouchy and mentally fatigued, don’t say, “I have the spirit of George Takei.” You don’t. Nobody has the spirit of George Takei except George Takei, and it takes many years and decades of awesomeness to develop your own perfect blend of wisdom, humor and empathy. Instead, say “I am becoming a slightly kinder and more knowledgeable person every day.” That way, you won’t annoy yourself by pretending to be something you’re not, you won’t get frustrated with yourself for falling short and you won’t become resentful of George Takei since you can’t be him. (How dare you resent Sulu, you monster!)
Also, it is important to not project too much into the future with your affirmation.
For example, when you are slogging through your internship, you could say, “I am one step closer to becoming employed in my dream job,” but realistically, that may or may not be true, and if you’re having a particularly crummy day, that particular phrase will remind you of the uncertainty of the future and make you feel worse. A better affirmation will keep you grounded in the present: “I am doing everything in my power to build a solid future for myself.”
Ultimately, affirmations may or may not work for you. But at least you can say you tried, and the next time the employee at the juice bar tells you to “Keep calm and….” you can roll your eyes extra hard, warm with your superior knowledge of the futility of it all.