Sunday, November 2, 2014

Positive affirmations

I wanted to do a little thinking about positive affirmations, here.  This is very open-minded of me, who came out of Ayn Rand’s contemptuous dogmatic philosophy (only itself knowing the good, only its adherents being the good), then Janov’s Primal Therapy which sees psychotherapy in a fundamentalist way: itself all right, the rest all wrong.  Primal purity would view affirmations as the attempt to brainwash oneself, to massage the leaves of the psyche and leave the roots unhealed.

Actually, I still believe this from a purist perspective.  Emotional pain really cannot be thought away.  Negative thoughts, contrary to cognitive therapy’s principle, may not be only irrational: They are integrated into a holistic process where they are the right defense against deeper pain, in the way that (toxic) cigarettes are the right defense against entrenched tension, or self-mutilation is "good pain" to an alienated girl.  Therefore they have right and power on their side against the wispy hopefulness of positive sayings.

The primal perspective, though, is not enough.  What if to get better we must not only find and uproot radical pain (birth or childhood trauma*), but also find and cleave to the goodness potential of our birthright?  And what if it remains impossible – as it always must – to eliminate the somato-emotional pain embedded in every molecule, or to evaporate the entire mental self that has grown from it, that stands upon our roots of time which can never be collapsed to nothing?  Then we’ll be required to counter this pain and this constructed self with something.

It would be nice if this “something” were not a defense mechanism or self-medication but the truth, or at least a wand that stirs our pond and frees up the truth at the bottom.

If in the face of transient and permanent disappointments and my flaws, I tell myself that life is good, that “the universal spirit guides and protects me at every step in my life,” or “I am confident,” or “I have faith in myself”**; “I approve of myself,” “I enjoy life,”*** I am revealing and energizing not a simple surface truth or a lie to be believed but a symbolic truth, a living parable.  The symbol attaches to what should be, what deserves to be.  And the oath attaches to the better part of me, my past childhood self that has been bent by many experiences, defenses and time.  Picture yourself, if you are depressed or anxious, as both luminous and dark places, both heavier and lighter places of one ocean, except that the luminous and heavier places are your deeper core of love and goodness that God or nature made you.  You live in the upper parts and on the surface – burnt, wind-blown, lost – and of course it’s from there that you see the horizon.  But you are the ocean, and the phosphorescence at your depths can still be seen, appreciated.  It can still lighten you.

I don’t believe in the validity of self-mesmerization, repeating lines over and over ’til you are changed by them.  This is simple: Your body, still in pain, can’t believe them.  When clients apply the anesthetic of comparing their lives to others’ worse conditions, I’ll sometimes say: If you have a knife embedded in your arm and the blood is flowing, if won’t help you to say, ‘Yes, but look at all the people who have it worse!’  And if you repeat it a hundred times?  I believe you will continue to bleed internally.

One phrase, occasionally said, that shines your true light beneath everything that’s happened, gets you to look beneath.  I remember the drawing a little boy made in play therapy.  It was Gestalt child therapist Violet Oaklander’s ‘Small Boat in a Big Storm.’****  The client is asked to imagine he is the boat, and to draw how he would fare amidst the howling wind, lightning, pouring rain and giant waves.  The youngster’s self-boat had broken into a few pieces that were lying on the sea floor.  Next to them was an open treasure chest, full of gold.  Not remembering his meaning so many years ago, I’ll take it to be the source of our affirmation: Deep down, there is still goodness and light.  Say it, notice it, let it touch you.

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* I believe that in The Primal Scream, Janov rightly states that “trauma” is ‘being left with the babysitter for the fiftieth time’ (possibly an inexact remembrance).

** From David McGraw’s affirmation audio at

*** From Louise Hay’s affirmation audio/video at

**** Evocative drawing exercise is from Oaklander’s book, Windows to Our Children – A Gestalt Therapy Approach to Children and Adolescents, Violet Oaklander, PhD.  1978, 2007, etc.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.