The Placebo Effect

I sometimes wish I could speak myself out of an unpleasant situation. I don’t mean a negotiation with someone else, I mean literally talk my mind out of noticing reality for what it is. So I often marvel at those that hold on to mantras and affirmations and repeat that to themselves in times of stress, and suddenly feel a sense of calm or composure that descends on them. Affirmations obviously work for many, otherwise there wouldn’t be such a prevalence of it. But there’s an underlying message that I think is more important.

Here’s the thing about placebos and affirmations that I find interesting. If it was merely the suggestion of recovery that helped us to recover, did we really need to recover from something in the first place? This refers to both physical or psychological imbalance. For example, if I experience palpitations from being unduly stressed about a situation, and I take a lump of sugar to calm down, would I have been able to calm down without that sugar lump? I think the answer is yes. Some would argue that this is not a very good example because sugar water has a reputation of calming panic-stricken subjects. Perhaps they’re right, but does that mean that without that sugar lump the panic-stricken one will not recover except through some form of external physical intervention?

What if the intervention was not physical in the form of sugar or any other medication, but instead, it was in the form of a reassuring handhold, or a hug, or words of comfort to remind them of what is important and what should be focused on instead? If that causes the palpitations to subside, would it still be necessary, or does it prove that beneath all those interventions we were innately capable of overcoming that stressful situation without losing control to begin with?

I have no doubt that this is a touchy subject for most. I’ve seen many lash out with spittle from seething anger when their need for emotional comfort was challenged, or their need for supplements or other medicinal sources was doubted. So the underlying issue of the placebo effect is simply this. If placebos work on us, it means that we’re inherently capable of overcoming whatever it is that we’re facing or struggling with, without any affirmations or placebos being needed, because the ability to overcome was already there to begin with. The placebo or affirmation only convinced us to apply it.

So then I ask myself why it is that we would willingly choose to be dependent when independence is in fact what we mostly desire? I think it’s because behind that need for dependence is a subtle scream that demands that the world recognise our struggle, or our persecution. Persecution isn’t fun if no one marvels at our ability to rise above it. I mean, why do we revel in telling tales of how bad we had it after we’ve overcome it? Why is it that telling the same tales before we’ve overcome it is burdensome to share and repulsive to listen to? When we lack conviction in our self-worth, we pursue distractions that will bolster our offering to the world. The less we see value in ourselves, the more we’ll cry out to the world for recognition or attention. But being pitiful does not suit this purpose, so we become increasingly elaborate and often unconsciously devious in our efforts to present the martyrs in us in a way that appears as heroes instead.

We’re generally victims by default. Of this I am convinced. Being more than this requires effort and conviction. Effort and conviction is lacking in most because we’re too busy waiting to be recognised and appreciated before we do what needs to be done. Yes, those are horrible generalisations, but the horrible state of the world generally bears it out as truths. In this lies the underlying nagging realisation of why placebos and affirmations (which are pretty much one and the same) are redundant. It sounds like a complex issue, but only because we make it so. The more we believe in ourselves, the less likely we will be to need assistance or catalysts to prompt us to face the next hurdle with decisiveness and courage.

But, and yes, there is another but…we risk being exactly what we despise when we shore up that self-belief without substance. In other words, when we focus on affirmations rather than true capability, we lose sight of the capability and become dependent on the affirmation. If we focus on the capability, the emphasis of our efforts will be to hone those capabilities in order to be more effective.

If affirmations stop at the point of being a reminder, rather than a vague reassurance, it’s a helpful tool towards becoming more mindful about what you truly possess as skills and capabilities. Problem is, it mostly becomes a required coping mechanism because we’re simply distracted. Distracted from who we are, what we’re capable of, and appreciating everything we have. When you downplay either of those aspects of being you, you become weak, and therefore dependent on reassurance when in fact decisiveness is all that is needed.

We feel overwhelmed when our assumptions about reality exceed our assumptions of our self. Reduce the assumptions and focus on the substance, and suddenly the world appears much more conquerable than ever before.

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