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Limiting beliefs, why affirmations don't work, and Rothko

28 Oct 2013

“I am a brilliant, wonderful person who deserves success and happiness.  I am a brilliant, wonderful person who deserves success and happiness.  I am a brilliant, wonderful person who deserves success and happiness...”

A career coaching client had shown this affirmation to me that she’s written out over several pages of a book that she kept to diarise her self development.  She’d read about affirmation in a coaching book and she was rightly proud of her discipline in writing down the same affirmation when she woke up each day over three months.  But when we discussed what had changed for her she was far from certain.  Not only had she failed to define what a brilliant person or success looked like, so in effect she couldn’t measure how her progress, or whether this ‘brilliant’ person was someone who feel comfortable being, she didn’t feel any differently about herself. 

The problem with affirmations, which many self-help and even some career and executive coaching books swear by, is that simply telling yourself over and over again that you’re a wonderful person who will become happen won’t change how you think or feel with nearly the same impact as changing your internal voice.  You internal voice it’s not like putty – it can’t be simply pulled one way through repeating a statement over and over again. Your internal voice is controlled by your beliefs and emotions, which control your behaviour. And your emotions are the result of all the experiences you’ve lived through and how your interpreted them. To prove that us humans will never act at odds and inconsistent with our beliefs and emotions (and why affirmations don’t really work) we only need look at how brainwashing works.

If we can be brainwashed into joining a cult, so too can we be programmed into unquestioning loyalty to a company, an institution, and ultimately, a way of life. Reassessing what you stand for through your values will put you at odds with many of your beliefs. Some of beliefs will have taken years to develop and may have rooted themselves so deep in a person’s psyche that the individual and others associate the limiting belief with their personality. We all know of older relatives whose foibles are set in stone and we can predict more or less to the letter how they’ll react to any given situation. 

I remember discussing with a relative the merits of modern art. ‘It’s all a load of pretension rubbish. A two year could paint some of the nonsense they get away with.’ I agreed that some modern art was pretentious and misguided but that in his day Turner was initially dismissed by the art establishment and the public. ‘His stuff was at least pictorial. Why would I want to see a painting of a wall of red with some black lines (referring to a Rothko he’d seen in the Tate Modern). I wouldn’t, it’s just idiots liking it because it makes them feel smart they can see something others can’t and they feel smug about it.’  I argued about subjectivity in art and the expression of emotions and feeling that make pictorial images in this context irrelevant, etcetera until I realised that what he actually saying was that he couldn’t abide anything that challenged his status quo. In his world view he had no room for a challenge to a core belief they stated, ‘change destroyed the traditional way of life I grew up with and this made me unhappy. Therefore be wary of change – all change.’ And modern art is a tangible, visible form of change and one in which artists challenge the accepted way of seeing the world. This person had no inclination whatsoever to ever changing his views and I might as well have been debating with a two year old. The world was how he saw it and be damned to all else that challenged this. This is what in coaching we call a limiting belief.

Marie Willis

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