Out On The Couch
Whether in therapy, in self-help books, or in broader discourse about mental wellness on social media, there is a lot of discussion about positive affirmations. In general, the idea behind positive affirmations is to “train” the brain to look for opportunity and growth rather than perseverating on failure and stagnation. But are positive affirmations for everybody? Of course, some people might make jokes about being pessimistic—but for people who are working through trauma, positive affirmations can have deeper consequences. Relational traumas related to coming out, familial acceptance, social relationships, and systemic oppressions can impact gender and sexuality minority communities similarly.
Working with trauma and marginalization
A person with trauma is more likely to be looking for the “lie” in any statement, internal or external. To use an overly simplistic example, saying/thinking “everything is going to work out great” can be harmful for someone processing trauma because they likely used that same rhetoric to try to convince themselves that things were fine when they very much weren’t. For a person in that situation, the positive affirmation can feel false, like gaslighting themselves into minimizing their trauma.
Obviously this isn’t true for everyone: some people working through trauma will respond excellently to positive self talk. But it’s important for therapists and clinicians to remember that trauma can radically change the way brains process information. Here are three trauma-informed alternatives to positive affirmations to discuss with your client:
Resource based affirmations:
“I have the tools & support I need to respond to this situation”
This option does a few things: it recognizes an uncomfortable/unhealthy situation; it recognizes that overcoming the situation will take work; it recognizes that it is not the sole responsibility of the individual experiencing it. For this sort of statement, it might be useful to work with a client to identify what those tools are and who are their healthy sources of support.
Another benefit to this sort of statement is that in it, there is the tacit admission that the situation might not improve. Even when we have the tools and support we need, we don’t always respond effectively, and sometimes a situation is truly outside of our control. This statement recognizes those areas without ignoring or giving in to them.
Reality based affirmations:
“Even though I feel unsafe now, that doesn’t mean that feeling will last forever”
One of the scariest things about emotions is that they can feel inescapable. Often, we respond to “negative” feelings by trying to will them away. Instead, recognizing their presence and there ephemerality can be a helpful way to simultaneously get better at identifying feelings as they are occurring, and to recognize that the feeling can pass with time.
Mindfulness based affirmations:
“Is this feeling about something happening now, something that happened in the past, or something that might happen in the future?”
Questions can be a great way to help frame these sorts of ideas because it can help your brain get out of a loop: by asking yourself a question and then answering it, you get a pause from that thought spiral. This question urges you to consider the source of the feeling without judgment. Instead of saying “this has nothing to do with right now,” you invite yourself to recognize the feeling and also the way it may be disconnecting you from the present.
Working from an affirmative approach can also help reshape messages and belief lesbian, bisexual, gay transgender, queer and other sexuality and gender marginalized folks may have received about who they are. Working with clients to find supportive affirmations that are more helpful can be an effective part of clinical work.