Thinking about the ways we talk to ourselves, I realize that there’s a potential trap with positive self-talk and affirmations. When we try to use these techniques to make our pain go away, we actually perpetuate it. But when we speak to ourselves from our hearts, with unconditional acceptance of our pain, then we can invite healing into the wounded places within our psyches. 

The intention of self-talk and affirmations is to respond in a helpful, healing way to difficult emotional experiences such as fear or shame. Shame is an especially painful emotion; it’s a feeling of being flawed, broken, or not good enough. The world isn’t bad; it’s me who’s bad. We learn this stance as children in order to survive intolerable situations and trauma. (“If’ it’s my fault, there’s a possibility I can fix it.”)

Often, we use affirmations to make emotional pain go away, as if we are taking a sledgehammer to it. Attempting to destroy it, we debate with it, deny it, or try to prove it wrong. For example, responding to shaming messages by repeating a phrase such as “I am a good person” negates the messages our wounds are sending us. It’s as if we are responding to a child who’s been hurt by saying, “No, you’re not hurt, you’re fine. Stop crying.” By denying these shaming messages, we try to make them go away, but we’re actually shoving them deep down inside, below the level of awareness. We tell ourselves the pain and shame is gone, but it’s not. You can’t talk these things away.

In contrast, self-talk that arises from the heart has a different quality. This form of self-talk accepts our shame and wounds and brings them close to us, fully into our awareness, speaking to them from the kindest, most loving parts of ourselves. Like a parent comforting a child, we say to this pain, “I see that you’re hurting and I know that you’re scared. But you’re safe now, and I’m here for you. You did the best you could, and I love you, no matter what you do.” When we talk to ourselves this way, we aren’t demanding that the pain stop or go away. Instead, we offer it unconditional acceptance and love. This is a healing stance that integrates the psyche rather than breaking it into pieces.

On a silent meditation retreat a couple of years ago, my mind decided to sing the same song over and over to me for fifteen hours. It wasn’t even a whole song; it was the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s song, A Case of You (“I could drink a case of you…. and I would still be on my feet….”) I became so agitated by this that I couldn’t sit still, and in desperation decided to take a walk in the woods. As I set off for my walk, I was practically running down the road, and I suddenly realized that I was literally trying to run away from myself. And with this realization, my heart broke open and I understood that my mind wasn’t singing this song to annoy me, it was singing because it was terrified. So I said to my mind, “I see that you’re singing because you’re scared, and it’s okay that you’re scared. You just keep singing as long as you need to and I’ll be here for you.” At that point, the singing stopped. Completely. And I was filled with compassion for myself, and for all who feel afraid of the dark places within.

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