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Present progressive: creating effective affirmations

After I wrote about liminality recently, I have been thinking about change and how we create it in our lives. Affirmations are a magical tool that can be very powerful, but only when constructed well. Using the present progressive tense to craft affirmations puts them in a form that draws on the Element of Fire and makes them much more effective tools for transformation.


The simple instructions for creating an affirmation are usually to construct a statement in the present tense. The idea is that instead of affirming “I will be able to do 10 pushups,” which is a statement about the future, I should affirm “I can do 10 pushups,” as if the statement were already true in the present tense.

Unfortunately, these simple instructions are too simple. There can be merit to this kind of visualization and positive thinking, but it can also backfire. Studies have found that people with low self-esteem can actually feel worse after trying to use affirmations. I think that one of the root problems is the cognitive dissonance created by trying to affirm something that is currently obviously not true.

Suppose that I tried to use “I am the President of the United States” as an affirmation. This statement is flatly at odds with reality. This kind of affirmation is not in the same category as an athlete visualizing the perfect follow-through on her next action; it is simply outside the realm of what is minutely probable. The cognitive dissonance created between the attempt to affirm this statement and all the evidence of my senses and knowledge of reality is just terribly uncomfortable.

This kind of cognitive dissonance is especially difficult to cope with because the affirmation itself presents no obvious way to translate what I desire into reality. At its worst, investing energy in the affirmation means that I am driven to spend more and more energy policing my thoughts, feelings, impulses, and even perceptions of the world in order to try to “believe” this statement that is obviously not true. In the end, I wouldn’t have any energy left to run a campaign for president, even if that was an option in the real world!

One way to avoid creating this situation is to see affirmations as a tool of Fire. The kind of problematic affirmation I am discussing here is more akin to Earth. To return to a more reasonable example, an affirmation such as “I have perfect balance” is a statement about an enduring quality, with a timeless nature. It is most akin to the Element of Earth, with its fixed, stable qualities. The Element of Earth is not an Element that creates a lot of transformation, though! To transform these statements into a tool of Fire, we need more than the present tense: we need the present progressive.

The present progressive, as its name indicates, describes something that is ongoing: “I am doing,” “I am practicing,” “I am becoming,” and so on. Look for that “-ing” ending! The progressive, ongoing form directly indicates change and transformation. It makes the affirmation a tool of Fire, bringing it into the realm of action. This is the space where we can get out and do something, make a change that will affect the reality we are experiencing.

Using the present progressive immediately indicates a possible way to resolve cognitive dissonance when it arises. Instead of becoming a source of friction which just makes us feel worse, we can harness the energy of the affirmation and put it into direct action, so that it becomes the fire which allows us to bend and change, forging our own lives.

This approach requires re-thinking some of the more aspirational affirmations. Rather than saying “I have perfect balance,” for example, I have to think about what I can do to move towards the goal I have in mind. Instead, I say, “I am practicing my balancing poses,” or “I am strengthening my upper body.” These statements focus on the realm of the possible, on the actions and factors that are within my personal control. Trying to construct a statement in the present progressive encourages rethinking issues in terms of what is actually within our power to affect. 

Another good way to reframe issues in order to construct an affirmation is to put it in terms of choices. Instead of “I weigh X pounds,” a statement about a reality that is affected by many factors, some of which are not under my control, and several of which I can influence to only a limited degree, I could affirm “I am making wise choices about eating and physical activity.” By simultaneously affirming our goals _and_ our personal ability to work towards them, we are much less likely to abandon the affirmation out of simple frustration. I could even doubly emphasize the gradual nature of my progress by saying “I am making wiser choices.”

This idea of gradual change may not seem very fiery; don’t we usually want our affirmations to work like a magic wand (a tool of Fire, under most systems of correspondences), where we can just wave it and get results in an instant? Yes, but that’s not always realistic, even when we’re talking about powerful magic. To change a long-held, deeply-entrenched belief about oneself or to create certain kinds of physical change in the world can take tremendous amounts of energy. It can be tremendously more effective - not to mention much more gentle! - to apply that energy gradually, in the form of small actions that accumulate over time. Visualize it as tiny sparks that are gradually growing and warming, creating enough heat to make the fixed form of present reality soften and slowly shift into the new shape.

The point of creating present progressive affirmations is to engage with action. By creating a channel for the energy of transformation to flow, even just a tiny bit at a time, we harness the potential of affirmations and direct it into our lives to transform ourselves in concert with our desires.

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Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats. Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.


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