I discovered the Power of Not, ironically, from what it is not. It is not a positive affirmation.
There is a popular concept in modern self-help, new thought, and some spiritual practices called positive affirmations. The idea of positive affirmations evolved as a mental and emotional defense mechanism to combat the often hyper-critical world around us. They stem from the question, “Why don’t I feel good about myself?”
Practitioners of positive affirmations might say the reason people have negative impressions of themselves is because the world around us is always putting us down or challenging us with unreasonable comparisons or expectations. After hearing examples of negative affirmations like, “you’re not good enough” or “you’re not pretty enough” over and over from the superficial world of our everyday lives, we start to believe the negative messages we’re receiving and, in believing them, we enforce the hold they have on our emotional and mental state. Further, we even allow these messages to have power over us and eventually prove them to be true by our own (now transformed) negative state of mind.
To defend against this energy of feeling “less than” and “not good enough,” positive affirmations are designed to recondition our self-image into one of confidence. Instead of allowing the negative message of “I’m worthless” to become a life perspective, a person using positive affirmations can create phrases like, “I am worthy,” or “I am a good person.” These phrases are often repeated as a meditation, posted on mirrors and in work spaces, written out as an exercise, or a combination of these methods. The intention is for the positive messages to become stronger than the negative messages received so that a person’s mental and emotional state rejects whatever is “bad” and untrue for that which is “good” and based in truth.
For me, the stumbling block in all of that always boiled down to “truth” and what I believed to be true (whether that belief was accurate or not.) As I mentioned earlier, a person’s perspective can be transformed from either a positive way of thinking to a negative one, or visa-versa. My experience has been once my perspective is transformed into a way of thinking and convinced of a “truth” (real or perceived), trying to convince it of another truth is nearly impossible. My thoughts reject what my mind doesn’t believe (…which is just a nice way of saying that I’m stubborn.) As a result, positive affirmations didn’t ever stick with me because my transformed way of thought, which used to be ingrained in a negative self-image, found any positive message very hard to believe. I could walk around all day saying to myself, “I am a wonderful person,” or “People like me,” or “I am special,” or “I am abundant,” or “I am talented” – but there would be a voice inside of me saying, “No, you’re not!” That was the voice I believed. That was my truth, and I rejected anything else.
Even if it were true that such power exists in positive affirmations to make them actually manifest in my life or in the real world, it’s only going to work if I believe it, and there will always be the voice inside that says, “No, you’re not!” I needed to stop hearing that voice. I was tired of hearing that voice. I hated hearing that voice. “No, you’re not.” But no matter what kind of positive message I would recite – even the simplest or smallest acknowledgement of good in me – the voice was always there to steal that hope from me.
So, I stopped reciting. I stopped affirming. I stopped trying to drown out the negative messages of the world around me. I stopped giving the voice anything to which it could respond – and suddenly, that voice didn’t have anything to reject, and it stopped too.
I stopped feeding the voice and all I could hear was the constant sound of my own perceived worthlessness. It was the sound of the world, of reality, and eventually, surrender.
Some people refer to the sound of surrender as the sound of “hitting bottom,” but the good thing about hitting bottom is you can’t go any lower. When I first stopped trying to drown out the negative messages of the world, they seemed to intensify and get even more demeaning, but then there was the sound of hitting bottom. It was a sound that rang louder than anything I’d heard in my mind and heart before. It was a voice – one I had heard before – but somehow new and transformed. The worldly messages of “You’re worthless” and “You’re less than” were still there, but now, above all that noise and commotion, I started hearing those once-faded words returning with new meaning and new conviction. “No, you’re not!”
The voice spoke up because the negative messages around me finally went too far. They had hit bottom, and the voice once again had something to feed on. The negativism I placed on myself along with the denial of anything positive finally crossed the line in my self-esteem (low as it was), and at that point I was able to say, “Well hang on, I’m not THAT bad.’’ Finally, something I believed.
For every “You’re a horrible person” message I either placed on myself or absorbed from the world around me, my inner voice now responded with a new truth that I could accept: “No, you’re not.” It was my new superpower: the Power of Not! I found that when I fell victim to believing the negativity that surrounds us all, I could now defend myself against this evil foe with The Power of Not. I could recognize what I am not. “I am not that horrible.” “I’m not the terrible person they say I am.” This defense resulted in fighting back against such negativity and growing my own confidence from the foundation of knowing what I am not. I had no idea what God had created me to be, but I had affirmed what God had not created me to be.
We are created by God in God’s image and we are children of God, but that’s a truth that’s hard for humans to believe even though we are perfect in the eyes of God. It sounds great, but it’s hard to accept because there’s always a part of us that sees ourselves as lacking. It’s easier for us to see and affirm what we are not. However, we when enable ourselves to flip that “not” around and say “I am not this horrible, ugly, worthless person,” we can start to believe that. That is the power in the “not.” That is the power of the negative affirmation.
An irony present in positive affirmations is that even they can be negative. We might say or affirm things like “I am alone,” or “I am broke, or sad, or worthless…” All of these are technically “positive” affirmations because of the “I am…” even though they are negative in content and meaning. The power of the negative affirmation is being able to say “I am NOT worthless, or alone, or sad…” Similarly, negative affirmations can obviously have negative meaning as in the example already used, “I am not worthy.” The reverse affirmation of that would be to declare, “Yes, I am!” – but again, that’s the catch.
We seem to be hard-wired to believe and understand first what we are not, before we can affirm what we are. So accepting the negative affirmation, “I am not worthless,” is much easier than trying to convince myself, “I am worthy.”
A personal account I’m often asked to share is my “coming out story.” It is also a story of when acceptance of what I am not, first began. Growing up in small town Indiana in the ‘80s, I didn’t have an understanding of what it meant to be gay, because from the definitions I had heard, it meant this horrible child-molester-kind-of-thing. Even though I didn’t understand who I was (or who I am), I was able to identify who I was NOT and who I am not. I was still in search of what it meant to be someone who is attracted to someone of the same sex or someone who could fall in love with someone of the same sex, but even though I didn’t have a grasp of who I was (and who I am), what I did understand was that I was NOT a child molester. I understood that I was NOT a bad person. I understood that I was NOT someone who wanted to do harm to someone or to myself. It was the power of not manifest in my life at a time when, if I had tried to affirm who I am rather than who I am not, I would have drowned in messages that were not just negative, but completely demeaning.
Over the years I’ve continued to wield my Power of Not in many aspects of my life, discovering how to aim it specifically at certain “targets” and “enemies” of my spirit and mind. It’s not that I don’t believe in the authenticity of my fellow super-powered individuals who enforce good in their lives through positive affirmations. It’s just that I recognize part of God’s creation in us is our diversity, and as a result, we don’t all function in the same way. It’s kind of like diet plans. Some people seem to respond well to low-fat and complex-carb diets. Other folks do great with hi-protein. In the realm of affirmations, I find I operate most efficiently using negative affirmations to achieve positive results. If this sounds like a spiritual diet-plan that might work for you, I invite you to try it with me.
Shawn Thomas is well-known “out” gay contemporary Christian artist. This was the first chapter from the book, “The Power of NOT: Positive Results from Negative Affirmations” (Aaron’s Rainbow Project, 2015). The book, and many of his music CDs are available on Amazon and at www.shawnthomasonline.com