find the right mantra for yourself


I remember when I first consciously became aware of the use personal affirmations. I’d been under the influence of them for years before, of course, from the little “choose the right” ring I’d been given at age 8 through the many litanies of the Cub and Boy Scouts (“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my Country…”).

But it was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking that first made me realize that these words and others were a kind of magic spell we could cast over ourselves to alter reality. To be more accurate, we would use them to alter ourselves, or our perception of reality, but really that’s pretty much the same thing as far as it goes subjectively. He even said as much: “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Based in a Christian worldview, his short phrases got pasted all over my room – everything positive. “Never talk defeat. Use words like hope, belief, faith, victory.

I wish I could tell you that it worked wonderfully – that surrounding myself with a bubble of positivity absolutely made life better. Unfortunately, much as the “Choose the Right” ring didn’t actually make me virtuous, the words around me actually didn’t seem to change my world. In fact, since I was actually rather unhappy and felt like a loser, the affirmations seemed at best disingenuous and at worst mocking.

There’s actually a pretty convincing body of research explaining why that is, as well as a whole new way of looking at things:

…”Third Wave Psychologists” are focusing less on how to manipulate the content of our thoughts (a focus on cognitive psychotherapy) and more on how to change their context–to modify the way we see thoughts and feelings so they can’t control our behavior. Whereas cognitive therapists speak of “cognitive errors” and “distorted interpretation,” Hayes and his colleagues encourage mindfulness, the meditation-inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled by them… – Psychology Today

Words of Power

henry_v__once_more_unto_the_breach_by_claudiakat-d55ewdlWhat puzzled me, though, was that there is a kind of mantra that does work for me. It’s not the “positive thinking” kind, though. Rather, it’s the battle cry – the kinds of things I came into contact with in the Marines or in the stories about other warriors, both real and fictional. Starting with hearing my Drill instructors talk about how “Attrition is the mission” (that is, they were going to try and make as many of us fail as possible) and through “Improvise, adapt, and overcome!” (the most valuable four words I’ve ever heard) these kinds of words have always struck a chord:

  • “The only easy day was yesterday.” – Navy SEALs
  • “Accomplish the mission, whatever the cost.” – USMC School of Infantry
  • “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” – Capt. Lloyd Williams, USMC
  • “To the confusion of our enemies!” – J. Robert Oppenheimer
  • “I am ready for whatever comes!” – Sioux War Cry
  • “Forward momentum!” – Motto of the Dendarii Mercenaries

So why is these resonate with me rather than things like “Every day, in every way, I am getting better? I think it has to do with the simple idea of verbs vs. nouns. Even the Latin mottos that I’ve enjoyed have verbs as their focus:

  • Dum Vivimus, Vivamus! – “While we live, let us live!
  • Nil Illegitimi Carborundum! – “Never let the bastards get you down!”
  • Carpe Diem! – “Seize the fish!”

Then again, Latin was never my strong point. As I puzzled over why “the Secret” doesn’t feel genuine but “Once more into the breach, dear friends!” will get my blood pumping, I figured it out. An affirmation is trying to describe the way things are – whether it’s realistic or not. What if I’m not getting better and better? What if it’s not a good day, or I’m not feeling my best? These affirmations become lies, and hollow.

On the other hand, a battle cry is a statement of intention. It is an acknowledgement that things may be rough, but it is also a plan of action to change what is necessary – whether that’s the situation or (more likely) yourself. Rather than trying to pretend that things are a certain way, it is the decision to make them a certain way – or at least try to.

My own mantra comes out of my dance background, but it’s equally a verb-type mantra. I use it when things are getting out-of-control, when I feel harried and not up to the chaos of life. I say to myself:

Dance, don’t scramble.

…and things tend to go a bit better.

What about you? What mantras work for you, and what ones don’t? Am I off-base with the whole verb vs. noun idea?

I’m also a fan of the Brain Pickings mantra,
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4 thoughts on “find the right mantra for yourself”

  1. Have been trying to teach my kids how the “stories we tell ourselves” about our lives and circumstances help shape them as well as us.

    My older boy has been giving himself negative messages, but we are working on a positive mantra now.
    Thank you.

  2. I like your battle cries and the dance mantra.

    The thing about affirmations is you have to believe it at some level, so there first needs to be some kind of experiential process where you end up believing it strongly, like “Oh I really am a lovable person!” and then the affirmation later helps you remember that truth. If you try doing an affirmation of “I am lovable” without first having that deep experience, then you’re going to think it’s a lie and feel worse, as you’ve said.
    Nice post.

  3. My mantra has become “Flow, not flail,” which is very similar to your dance one (as I also come from a dance background), and had become my mantra when I first picked up hoop dance. Flow, everyone spoke of flow…and you know, when you learn to flow with chaos, it really does make things better in some ways. When I stopped flailing about, trying to fix, put out fires, whatever…and I just started to flow with the current, it didn’t make things easier, but it did make things just a bit less stressful as I spent my energy not fighting the current, but riding the waves and keeping myself from hitting large unmovable objects in my life. I was never good with affirmations. They seemed, fake? I just couldn’t believe them. But a mantra, something active, now that I can do.

    This is a fantastic blog (although I mainly listen to the podcast and come back to specific blog posts when I have an opportunity). I love what you are doing Gray…thank you for sharing with the rest of us.

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