In 2010, I found myself walking out of my therapy session emotionally exhausted from a very powerful session.
For one of the first times in my conscious memory I was able to speak life-transforming truth to myself in a way that I had never previously done. The psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk writes the following in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: “When a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting—the response most likely to occur. If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; If you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.”
My default setting had become stuck on feelings of inadequacy and abandonment after the five-year battle with breast cancer my mom endured ended in her death when I was 11 years old. To deal with those negative feelings as a kid I often coped by withdrawing from others, performing and achieving more, and becoming highly anxious.
The reality is that every one of us has created some negative pattern in our lives, usually at an early age in life, where we discovered that when we experienced painful feelings, usually around violations of love (identity) and trust (safety), we found a way of coping that helped us survive. Terry Hargrave from Fuller Theological Seminary refers to this as our “pain cycle.”
How do we stop repeating the negative patterns in our lives and focus more on living out the positive patterns?
How do we speak truth into our pain so that we can live in peace?
How do we take off the old self and put on the new self?
Herein lies the challenge. And the solution that I have found most helpful is self-talk. Or as I like to call it, speaking truth into your life.
Take off the old and put on the new.
The apostle Paul writing to the church in Ephesus encouraged them “with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self…and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
If you are like me, you may have realized that though that your “pain cycle” pattern was a form of resiliency in your childhood, it isn’t exactly helping you mature in your relationships, vocation, and individual growth. The reality is that though we have all become experts at our own pain cycle, we don’t always live in that pattern. We actually have very unique moments of living in what Hargrave calls our “peace cycle,” where our actions emanate from the deepest truths we know about ourselves.
Whether it’s the athlete on the free throw line speaking truth to overcome the fear of missing the shot, the business executive repeating a helpful mantra before they walk into a heated situation or a girlfriend repeating how worthy she is so that she can muster the courage to end an abusive relationship, we all practice a form of self-talk in our lives that helps us overcome the negative messaging we carry.
With new forms of mindfulness and meditation finding their way into the mainstream, it’s a good opportunity for us to take a closer look at what self-talk really is.
Practice positive messaging.
Self-talk is simply the practice of bringing one’s negative patterns to attention and then reframing them into a concrete positive pattern that embodies the truth of who they are. In order to do this there is a very simple formula that one could begin to practice that I learned from Hargrave. In his Restoration Therapy model, he lays out four simple steps to help people create change, and it is a great example of self-talk, which is the practice of speaking truth into your life.
Step 1: Say what you feel…
Example: “I feel inadequate.”
Step 2: Say what you normally do…
Example: “When I feel inadequate, what I normally do is withdraw from relationships.”
Step 3: Say your truth…
Example: “The truth is that I am more than adequate. I am God’s son/daughter.”
Step 4: Say what you are going to do differently…
Example: “Therefore, I am choosing to stay engaged with others and not withdraw from this conversation.”
I am reminded in Mark 1:9-11 that Jesus is someone who knew His truth. He knew that He was God’s son, that He was loved and that He pleased the father. It is these truths that that He held onto as He was cast out into the wilderness and tempted by Satan.
When you and I know our truths and practice them repeatedly through various forms of self-talk, we are better able to embody actions that point to the truths in our lives. One of my favorite forms of self-talk is embedded in the Scripture and prayer, where I simply tell myself in situations throughout the day, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Six years ago in that therapy session God spoke the truth to me that I was going to be okay, and I was able to tell myself that for the first time. That moment changed me forever, and with each time I practice renewing my mind, that inkling of truth creates a more vibrant life within me.