Affirmation, The Useful and Otherwise

A couple weeks ago I was out to lunch with a friend and we were talking about, well, not hating ourselves. We’ve both been working on managing our depression and getting our shit together. It’s been great. During the conversation, she used a phrase that actually bothered me, though it took me quite some time to puzzle out why.

It was the self affirmation, “I am enough.”

I’m pretty sure it’s bullshit. Before you click away, let me assure you I do see where the good intentions are coming from, but I think it falls short and has the potential for creating more problems than it solves, and I have some well thought out reasons for why. I’m also not planning on tearing this thing apart without offering alternatives.

I am a fan of self affirmative speech. I know it can be incredibly powerful in helping decrease negative thoughts and increasing confidence in one’s self. I’m all about self love. Not the kind that hugs you in a blanket like your momma did once so you feel good about yourself, but the kind of love that acknowledges all parts of you— the strong and the weak. (Since I’ve started to look into it, I deeply dislike the “self esteem movement.” it’s full of bunk and that’s another show.)

First, let’s look at the usage of the word “enough” in other uses. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, Enough is defined as “occurring in such quantity, quality, or scope as to fully meet demands, needs, or expectations”. Common usage of the word is found in phrases like, “good enough,” (or the converse -“not good enough”) “we have enough”, “I’ve had enough of this.” The usage of the word signifies that action meant to pursue progress, gain results, or otherwise attain something, should cease. Either because further progress is not desired, or simply not cared for. You are satisfied with what you have.

When it comes to the flavor of your pasta sauce or the amount of money in your bank account, “enough” is usually fine. (meaning, there are times when enough isn’t fine. but I digress…)

For humans, “enough” can be problematic. (more in a minute.)

Yes, I absolutely understand that the affirmation “I am enough.” is meant to counter the nasty, disparaging things we say to ourselves, but, even here, this affirmation falls short. You see, this affirmation is a form of praise. Praise is a very powerful reward for our motivational and learning circuits. It’s one of the top tools for shaping behavior that we have– especially in children. And the words and their focus matter.

There is a huge difference between praising effort or outcome. Praising and the resulting focus on outcome results in a fixed mindset, where one believes that what they have is all they will ever have, and anything more is not achievable. This results in an increased belief of failure, aversion to challenge, low confidence, and a persistent belief that one is a failure as one internalizes one’s lack of success and gains and perceived inferiority to others. Mistakes become unbearable because mistakes “destroy” a perceived outcome. (in this mindset.) One can become focused on the outcomes that others have achieved, and become attached to them, and the agonizing wonder of “why don’t I have that?”

Focus on effort, or process leads to a growth mindset. One sees the connection between action, and result. This teaches them how to get to where they want to be. They believe that what they currently have is not all they will be. They can grow, change, and accomplish what they want through effective effort and positive growth. Even mistakes are not the end of the world, because a mindset of learning through action has been cultivated. Mistakes instead teach one what not to do to get what is desired. (The Harvard Business Review has a pretty neat interview on growth vs. fixed mindset and how that affects success.)

So back to the affirmation. Saying that “I am enough” is focusing on an outcome. This is problematic because people aren’t outcomes. People will never stop changing, simply because we live in a chaotic, ever-changing world. There will always be new challenges to overcome, and new problems to solve. New and old people to interact with (and sometimes the old faces and familiar things can become suddenly strange when we learn new things about them or ourselves.)

And there is also the problem that maybe, by your own standards, you might actually not be enough. It’s a sobering thought— but also a hopeful one. Because if you realize just where you fall short, you’re actually seeing where you can be a better you. And through that, you can also see the path to that better you. You see not what’s wrong, but what needs refining, refinishing, improving, or growth. It’s taking that mental twist, something viewed negative becomes a positive. An infinite amount of human potential.

It’s about not sacrificing who you could become for who you are now. It’s about looking at yourself honestly– not disparagingly, and acknowledging that yes, there are some areas of yourself that aren’t where they could be,(and that you can get them there), that there are some areas of yourself that are where they need to be at the moment, (adjustments may need to be made as circumstances change) and that some areas of yourself you won’t be able to improve upon (like lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps. Or biting your own teeth.)

I genuinely believe that humans are creatures of potential and growth. We learn, we change, we adapt. Anything that stunts that part of the psyche or body damages us. Perhaps it’s in ways that we don’t notice until they’re gone.

So I prefer the idea of, instead of affirming “enoughness”, instead we affirm our competence. We reinforce our confidence. The ability to grow beyond what we are now. When you truthfully recognize and speak those things, they form a much more powerful defense against self-deprecating thoughts. It’s a direct challenge, instead of a comforting ideal. C. S. Lewis quotes, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.” (And anyways, an ideal is an impossible to reach entity that judges you.)

And realize, sometimes, it’s okay to not be happy with who you are. It’s not self hate. It doesn’t have to be. It’s self recognition and awareness.

So, hold your hands out high, look yourself in the eyes through a mirror, and speak out loud the ways that you are competent today. In the ways that you’re growing. In the ways that you’re capable of acting. And, the truth of how you envision yourself to be, and how you plan to get there.

It’s not the ends that matter, it’s the things you do to get you there. Because that one “end” will only lead to something else, and you’ll need tools and skills and competence to get there.

You got this.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.

This blog is meant to help and provide information. It is not meant as a source to diagnose, nor should it be the sole source of treatment. If you find yourself in need of help, please seek out an industry professional. I am not a professional.

No affiliate links are used on this blog, nor am I associated with any brand. Any links are used for the information they contain and nothing else.

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