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The positive power of negative affirmations

hiking trailI enjoy going on long hikes with my partner, Mike. We both love to exercise, and hiking gives us a chance to talk for hours about random things while enjoying Nature.

Towards the end of a long hike, or if the trail gets really steep in the middle and we get tired, one of us will say, “Let’s use our affirmation.” And together, we’ll slowly chant in time to our footsteps: “I CAN’T do it. It’s TOO HARD.”

As ridiculous as it may sound, this negative affirmation always makes us smile and relax as we keep hiking. By admitting that we’re having a hard time, we’re doing the opposite of mentally bucking up like you’re supposed to when the going gets tough. Nevertheless, we always finish our hard hikes and so far have lived to tell about them; no harm done for having embraced the negative.

There’s something weirdly comforting about affirming the negative for a change. Instead of trying to hoist ourselves into a positive mental state, we affirm our reality exactly as it is. I find it soothing. The going may be tough, but at least I don’t have to add to that burden by pretending it isn’t.

Very few of the people I see as a counselor – all of whom are in emotional pain – start out wanting to affirm the negative. Instead, with steadfast determination they seek the silver lining on each black cloud. But if they manage to find it, what happens to the cloud? It’s still there, of course; focusing on the silver lining doesn’t make it any less black, or any less a cloud.

Trying to concentrate exclusively on the positive, or countering every bad feeling with a thought about something we can be grateful for, creates more pain than it heals.

When we feel bad, the pain is already in progress; no amount of ignoring or distracting ourselves from it will make it go away. Whether physically or mentally, when we’re hurt, we hurt.

Pain goes away when a wound heals, not when we try to forget about it. The body doesn’t ignore a cut finger; it pays attention and sends energy to that place. Why should our minds do something different with emotional pain?

Don’t be afraid to embrace the negative. Doing so, if only in the privacy of your own heart, will free you to heal and move forward in one piece.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting, and ReconnectionClub.com, an online support and information hub for parents. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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10 Responses to "The positive power of negative affirmations"

  • Jessica
    September 6, 2012 - 5:59 pm Reply

    I totally agree. Today I was feeling negative and I just gave into it. I said the negative statements out loud and I wrote them down. I went for it for about 2 hours, and I feel a hundred percent better. I discovered that the thoughts are not creating the feelings, and that the resistance so many are talking about is the resistance to feel and think what we really feel and think.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      September 7, 2012 - 9:42 am Reply

      YAY! Jessica, comments like yours are the reason I started this blog, and why I wrote a whole book on this particular concept. Powerful stuff.

      I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear your session went well; thank you so much for sharing. I hope you keep it up, and that others are inspired to give it a try.

    • Anastasia
      May 28, 2013 - 2:41 am Reply

      I totally agree. Plus, if we are so likely to accept the negative and have it deeply rooted within ourselves, I wonder why people usually say – just keep repeating the positive sentences. I guess our brains are much more likely to accept a negative sentence. I tried it personally and works miracles! So, instead of saying “I am happy” when I’m not (it’s very difficult to convince yourself you’re happy when you’re totally down), I use the sentence “I don’t want to be unhappy” or “I decide not to be unhappy”. Suddenly, a strong feeling of spite startes overflowing me, giving me the power to start thinking the best for myself. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to share our experiences.

  • Scott McLoud
    March 10, 2017 - 10:27 am Reply

    Ooh, I’m stealing that one for our next hike

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 10, 2017 - 10:46 am Reply

      Glad to hear it, Scott. Have fun … or don’t. It’s all good. 😉

  • Shell Fino
    March 11, 2019 - 5:10 am Reply

    I so agree!! Once the ” forbidden” label is taken away, ( for me, meaning the context of particular health goals I have set for myself, and the paths I use to get there), its like all the fluff that bound me to rigidity is given permission in just the acknowlegement of how it freaking sucks somedays to work at them.The billboards and walls, with graffitti of denial dialogue that have been erected in my head over the past 45 years, trumpeting the litany of CANT..and NOOOO!!! are beginning to become less loud. This just dawned on me 30 minutes ago, after reading your suggestion and letting it roll around up there in my brain. Quite a shift !!! Thank you so much for this new slant and perspective that helped me come to this viewpoint.
    Somedays it DOES suck..but I remembered it was me who put my plans in place because they were congruent with the person I am inside. I dont know how the Buzzkill Critic insinuated herself onto the path or why she carries a bag of Cape Cod Wavy potato chips..lol…but no matter! She can stay if she wants. Chips and all. theres freedom in permission of presence of my weaknesses. Now they lose their luster!
    Thanks. Hope this made sense.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 11, 2019 - 1:59 pm Reply

      Welcome to the Dark Side, Shell. Kidding! I mean welcome to the bright new world of being allowed to experience the full range of human emotions. Thanks for leaving your comment.

      • She'll F.
        March 11, 2019 - 4:49 pm Reply

        Hahahaa..
        Ohh thank you Tina! You have no idea how much I deeply needed that laugh. I’m such a legend in my own mind today!! And even that’s ok!!!😳😁

  • Maria Gris
    April 5, 2019 - 1:37 pm Reply

    Thank you for this. I am nearing the end of my teaching career (25 years down, 5 more until retirement) and I am having a hard time coming to terms that I have not accomplished things that I wanted to, like getting into curriculum or getting support from administration to serve on to state-level committees. I am so sick of people trying to cheer me up with comments like, “you just have to be patient” (25 years isn’t patient enough?) or “your time will come” (there’s only 5 years left). It actually makes me more depressed when they pepper me with their insipid affirmations. Facing my disappointment means making some comments that others see as negative, but I have to face this reality before I can move on.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 5, 2019 - 4:54 pm Reply

      Thank you for sharing a little bit about your situation and the applicability of acknowledging so-called “negativity.” Some things in life ARE BUMMERS and no one gets hurt if we acknowledge a cloudy day. If we only see sunshine all the time, we’re liable to get caught without an umbrella in a downpour.

      I wish you peace in your life and career going forward. Thanks again for taking the time to leave a comment.

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