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Why on Earth Would You Use the Word “Can” in an Affirmation?

04 Jan

Dear BR,
I received your first cassette when I was undergoing chemo for breast cancer.  The chemo nurse gave it to me.  I loved it, especially the guided imagery part.  I also used your surgery tape and I breezed thru the operation.  Then I bought other CDs, but found them repetitive and the imagery very similar, no matter what the topic.  I myself have been using affirmations and teaching meditation for 30 years. 

My understanding about affirmations is that they should be positive, which yours certainly are, and in the present, which yours are.  Anyway here is my question.  Why do you use the word "can" in your affirmations?  The word "can" to me implies that I am ABLE to do something, but may or may not be doing it NOW. For example "I know that when I CAN forgive myself and others for errors of the past, I give my body peace and comfort."  That says to me that when and if I ever am able to, that, I WILL get the peace and comfort and that may be never.  I listen to your tapes while I exercise and I hear you say “can” and then when I repeat it, I change it up to I forgive myself and others for errors of the past...etc.  I am just afraid I am giving my subconscious mixed messages. Any reason for the "can" that I am not aware of? Thanks for reading. 

Cassandra B.

Dear Cassandra,
Thanks for writing.  To answer your first concern, I just want to say that, actually, with a couple of exceptions, the imagery on our near 50 titles is quite different, once you get past the opening induction.  I wonder if you got the 2 exceptions! The Fight Cancer and the Help with Chemotherapy CDs are similar; and also, our Relaxation & Wellness imagery is similar to one of the 4 meditations on the Relieve Stress audio program and on the Relaxed & Awake for Medical Procedures CD.  But that’s pretty much it.  The other programs are fairly unique, once you get past the beginning. (This is actually a pet peeve of mine, when practitioners basically do the same thing, over and over again, and just change a couple of lines in the middle and the title!  I’ve turned down quite a few otherwise excellent audios for our catalog for just this reason.)

As for the use of the word “can” in the affirmations, you raise a very interesting philosophical question, that not only applies to affirmations but to two different schools of guided imagery/hypnosis thought as well. 

My experience has been that if the affirmations or the imagery suggestion is too far from the listener’s reality, the person might reject it out of hand as ridiculously impossible or unlikely.  By inserting “can”, you interrupt that possibility, and make it believable and do-able.  For the same reason, I often start an affirmation with the phrase, “more and more” (as in, More and More, I can blah blah blah).  “Can” takes the demand out and leaves choice in, which I think goes down easier with most people.  “More and more” allows for incremental change – the most likely kind - and also gives people a sense of more choice, less unrealistic demand. Over the years, people have written in to say that these affirmations, phrased in this way, work well for them.  (A few have complained that they are a bit long-winded, and I think that is a legitimate complaint!  Over the years, we’ve shortened them.)

This is particularly true, I believe, for the issue of forgiveness, which is the example you happened to use here.  Too often, because of religious traditions and a certain flavor of “flight into light” new agey thinking (also known as “denial”!!), people are required to forgive before they are ready to do so.  So, not only do they have to contend with whatever aggrieved or aggrieves them, but they also have to react to a  demand to forgive.  I don’t think that’s fair or realistic, and it can lead to internal inauthenticity or psychological paralysis or both.  After all, sometimes forgiveness takes years.  Sometimes it’s not in the cards at all.  People have to respect their own readiness and choose for themselves what’s right for them. Paradoxically, that allows them to achieve forgiveness earlier than they might otherwise have managed.

Similarly, in traditional hypnosis, you are never supposed to imply the possibility of failure – you just say ‘You will do thus-and-so”, implying that of course you can and will.  The problem with this style, however, is that some hear it as too authoritarian and they get their backs up and resist the whole idea. 

On the other hand, in Ericksonian-style hypnosis, outcomes are suggested in a much more loosey-goosey way, as in “and perhaps you will do this or perhaps not, but if you do, and you might….”  The assumption here is that the listener’s unconscious will choose what’s right for him or her, and any resistance to being bossed around is eliminated, right off the bat.  From a personal standpoint, this style suits me better and, in my experience, works better for most people, especially in our American, anti-authoritarian, independent, manifest destiny, cowboy-style culture!  But you certainly raise a legitimate point!

Hope this clarifies somewhat where I’m coming from.
All best,

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award