There is a time and place for positive affirmations. Pep talks are great to have from others and especially from ourselves, especially when from an authentic place.
But a trap I have been caught in (and I think a lot of other people get here, too) went a little like this:
-Jen feels terrified.
-Jen says positive affirmation about how courageous and fearless she is.
-Jen still feels scared, but has also flooded her brain with feel-good chemicals, and is afraid to share the fear because OH NO WON’T THAT FURTHER PERPETUATE THE FEAR AND INCREASE THE CHANCES OF IT MANIFESTING?! –> has thus created cognitive dissonance.
-Jen continues forth and does the thing she’s scared of while never actually addressing the underlying fear.
So. I have ignored myself.
I’d feel fat and, due to not wanting to further perpetuate my fatness, I’d instead say “I feel so beautiful!”
This fucked me up.
Especially in relationships.
I’d get so hung up on the RIGHT and BEST way to speak. Rather than, y’know, being honest.
Now… There comes a balance point of course. If I’m in a place where I honestly feel like jumping off a bridge (which happens, daily), I’m not going to be like… “HEY JEN YOU SHOULD DIE BECAUSE YOU SUCK.”
I’m also not going to respond to a friend’s “how are you?” with a positive life-affirming “I’m great! Blessed to be alive! I have so much to be grateful for.” When I’m feeling the exact opposite of that.
Because how the fuck can people show up for us if we’re not honest?
How the fuck can we show up for ourselves if we’re not honest?
I’m sure I’ll continue to evolve in this regard (and in all areas of life, which is a pretty cool thought)… But let me tell you where I am now.
When I’m feeling suicidal (which yes, does still happen, even after years of dedicated work) or depressed or overall disheartened about the human condition… And a friend asks how I’m feeling, I address how I’m actually feeling.
Not in a victimized way. (But even if I get a little whiny, that’s still okay.) I do so in an honest and aware way.
“I want to lie and tell you I’m fine, but I’m not. I know logically that everything is okay and that very little has changed since yesterday when I was on top of the world. But here are what the voices in my head are saying today. And here is what I keep visualizing doing. And here is what I’m feeling.”
Or, if I’m unable to offer that many details, I have a code word. “Alarms.” I’ll say a safe-word sentence of “The alarms are going off.”
By alarms, of course, I mean the alarms in my head that suddenly get tripped (which then often trip other nearby brain alarms, like dogs howling to the wailing of a firetruck’s siren) when my brain gets hijacked by old patterns of suicidal ideations and the like.
I’ve recently added a new trick to my honest expression: stating needs.
“Here is what I’m feeling and experiencing. And here is what I really need right now.”
I used to be so afraid to express what I wanted or needed in a situation… As if that’d be me being bossy and needy. (Which is, like, clearly the worst thing EVER IN THE WORLD) (…)
I thought it’d piss people off.
It’s been the total opposite.
By me explaining to people what I need, it helps them know how to show up for me.
I’ve learned that people like to know what to do; they like to know how to be helpful. Especially if someone is going through a depressive episode, the bystanders and friends and family members often feel hopeless and helpless and useless. What a beautiful gift to give them: clarity and direction.
This has made my relationships SO MUCH MO’ BETTA’. There’s clarity where it was once convoluted.
And it’s the same with my relationship with myself.
Are there times when I choose positive affirmations + pep-talk? Yes. But first and foremost, I acknowledge how I’m feeling.
And I do this same thing with friends.
I used to jump into analytical + fix-it mode. I’d suddenly become a motivational speaker and flood them with positive affirmations. I’d exhaust myself doing this. It’d help momentarily… But it wouldn’t stick.
Because that’s oftentimes not what people need. (Thankfully I have friendships where they tell me what they need if I’m missing the mark.) Oftentimes, I’ve found, we need to be heard. And embraced. We need to be comforted. Not coddled, but supported. Loved unconditionally.
And so… That’s what I’m working on with myself.
And here’s what’s rad.
I’m still scared.
Oftentimes, I’m fucking terrified. Sometimes of rational things. Other times of stuff with very low probability of happening or even applicability to my life. BUT STILL. FEAR.
If I say to myself (or speaking to Little Jen, which is an approach that helps flood me with immediate compassion): HEY. YOU ARE FEARLESS.
Little Jen is like: No, Jen-Jen, I’m scared.
Big Jen: No, you’re FEARLESS. Courageous! You can do anything!
Little Jen: But I’m not fearless. I am sc–
Big Jen: –Every day in every way you get better and stronger! You are fierce! You are talented! You are gifted!
(Little Jen is like: “No. I’m scared. But clearly you’re not listening. So I guess I’ll go ahead and do the thing you want me to do, because I just want to please you. And I guess I shouldn’t feel the way I do.”)
If I instead say…
Big Jen: I recognize that you’re scared. It’s okay to be scared. It’s a natural reaction! Let’s talk about what you’re afraid of. No fear is too little or big. Zero judgment. I’m all ears.
And then I’ll listen or feel or watch for the responses. And I’ll be totally accepting and non-judgmental.
Big Jen: I understand. Thank you for sharing that with me. Life can be really scary sometimes. The good news is, we’ve handled situations like this before. And the better news is, no matter what happens? We’re going to be okay. This I know.
And so… Rather than applying positive affirmations as a band-aid, I’m learning to instead utilize honesty and the art of active listening to naturally transmute the fear. Or, if the fear remains, at least the amount of natural bravery increases.
Because that’s what support does. It refills our bravery reserve.
There is no one right way to handle fear, of course. Everyone is different. We all have subtleties that work best for us. And, on the way to discovering those, we may push ourselves too hard or coddle ourselves too much.
AND THAT IS OKAY.
Because it’s how we learn.