Using Affirmations to Fight Depression

Affirmations can be a powerful tool in overcoming depression.

An affirmation is a short statement that you use to guide your thoughts in a positive direction. You can recite the statement aloud, or write it down, or think it to yourself. You can use an affirmation once a day or several times a day. It’s a simple, flexible practice.

An affirmation should work to calm and focus your mind. It should clear away self-doubt and promote confidence. It should remind you of the personal qualities you want to cultivate and the personal goals you want to achieve. It should clear away despair and promote optimism about achieving those goals.

The first step is to compose your own personal affirmation. A good affirmation should be short, simple and direct. The right wording makes all the difference in how effective this practice will be. Fortunately, you don’t have to get it perfect from the start. Try something out, figure out what feels right and what doesn’t, tweak your affirmation as needed.

Affirmations and Positive Thinking

The practice of affirmations comes from the positive thinking movement that began in the late 19th century. The basic idea is: if you consciously orient your thoughts toward optimism, virtue, success and hope for the future, you’re more likely to do the things that will get you there.

The positive thinking philosophy has taken many different forms over the years, some making extravagant claims and some a bit silly, but the core principles are sound. Consciously guiding your thoughts in the right direction can help change your reality.

Positive thinking exercises can be especially useful for people struggling with depression. Depression makes us unduly pessimistic about ourselves, about the world around us, about our prospects for the future. Cognitive therapy for depression focuses partly on overcoming “automatic negative thoughts”, using reason and willpower to challenge all that kneejerk pessimism and promote a more realistic, optimistic mindset.

Positive thinking philosophy and cognitive therapy go hand in hand.

Émile Coué

The first great popularizer of affirmations was Émile Coué in his 1920 book Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion.


Coué was a French pharmacist who studied psychology and hypnosis. He advocated using the conscious mind (or “will”) to guide the unconscious mind (or “imagination”), which otherwise can be unruly and self-destructive.

Whereas we constantly give ourselves unconscious autosuggestions, all we have to do is to give ourselves conscious ones, and the process consists in this: first, to weigh carefully in one’s mind the things which are to be the object of the autosuggestion, and according as they require the answer “yes” or “no” to repeat several times without thinking of anything else: “This thing is coming”, or “this thing is going away”; “this thing will, or will not happen, etc., etc. …” [*] If the unconscious accepts this suggestion and transforms it into an autosuggestion, the thing or things are realized in every particular.

[*] Of course the thing must be in our power.

Coué proposed certain “laws” of will and imagination.

1. When the will and the imagination are antagonistic, it is always the imagination which wins, without any exception.

2. In the conflict between the will and the imagination, the force of the imagination is in direct ratio to the square of the will.

3. When the will and the imagination are in agreement, one does not add to the other, but one is multiplied by the other.

4. The imagination can be directed.

(The expressions “In direct ratio to the square of the will” and “Is multiplied by” are not rigorously exact. They are simply illustrations designed to make my meaning clearer.)

Like many works of positive thinking philosophy from this era, the prose is dated and the science fuzzy, but the practical advice is quite good.

Coué recommended one specific affirmation to be recited several times per day in order to direct the unconscious.

Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.

This phrase became phenomenally popular in the 1920s and beyond. There were Coué devotees and Coué skeptics, but everyone knew this phrase.

Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion is in the public domain and available at Project Gutenberg.

Customizing Your Affirmation

“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” has many qualities of a good affirmation. It’s short, simple and direct. It’s designed to promote confidence, focus, self-esteem and optimism about the future. But it also has some major drawbacks.

For one thing, it’s just so damned corny.

It’s hard to imagine anyone nowadays whispering “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” to themselves without laughing or gagging. If the wording doesn’t ring true for you, an affirmation will not work.

The other problem with Coué’s famous phrase is the “one size fits all” approach, the notion that everyone should use the same exact affirmation.

To get positive results, your affirmation needs to be customized to your own personality and needs. It needs to be in your own voice. It needs to strike a chord. It needs to evoke your own goals and values. What exactly does “better and better” mean for you?

Give it a try. Experiment a little with your wording. Have fun with the process. Does thinking the phrase to yourself make you feel a little less anxious and pessimistic, a little more confident and focused and hopeful? Then you’re on the right track.

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