If you’re familiar with my work, you know that during childhood, my mother used the fear of abandonment to control me. She threatened to give me away, put me in an orphanage, or send me to live with my father, whom she repeatedly said: “didn’t love us or want anything to do with us.”
I lived in constant fear of doing the “right thing,” whatever the right thing was at any particular time. “The right thing” could and did change without warning, so I needed to remain constantly alert for changes in her tone of voice, behavior, and in our home environment.
My mom parented by blaming, shaming, intimidating, threatening, and physically punishing me. In my earliest years, I learned that I was somehow to blame for everything that displeased her. Second-guessing and doubting myself became my way of life. I felt like a burden, believing that I made her life harder simply because I existed. I stayed out of her way as much as possible. I felt lonely and alone.
Mother shared thoughts and feelings with me in frightening, highly emotionally charged, biased, and inappropriate ways. Gaslighting and the resulting cognitive dissonance distorted my perceptions and beliefs, but the cruelest thing of all was the name-calling. The gaslighting made me doubt my senses and distrust my mind, but the name-calling shredded my still-developing self-confidence and self-esteem,
THE POWER OF WORDS
Words matter. Written words and spoken words all matter. It matters what people say to you, and it matters what you say to yourself. For example, suppose you live with a narcissist or toxic person (or have one in your life). In that case, you already know that it negatively affects how you think about yourself, what you tell yourself, and how you treat yourself.
Her words and my already negative self-talk combined to confirm my beliefs; that I was unlovable, would never be good enough and didn’t matter.
This combination of negative self-talk and limiting beliefs kept me in a state of learned helplessness. Eventually, as an adult, I woke up to the fact that I was stuck. I’d been repeating the same hurtful relationship patterns throughout my adult life and wondering why I was unhappy. Finally, I realized that something had to change. So, among other things, I started examining, questioning and then changing my unsupportive inner dialogue into supportive, positive self-talk. My limiting beliefs began to fade away. As I started thinking differently about myself, my self-concept changed. My opinions about myself changed. I changed.
HOW’S YOUR SELF-TALK?
Have you ever really observed how you talk to yourself? Some of us are not very nice to ourselves, and others are just plain abusive. What kinds of things do you say to yourself? Is your self-talk positive and loving? Or maybe you beat yourself up and tell yourself hurtful things?
Have you ever tried talking to yourself as you would speak with a friend? How would that feel? Try being understanding, considerate, and kind to yourself. You would do that for your friend, right? You would encourage her, or him or them, wouldn’t you? You can start doing the same for yourself right now. Acknowledging your feelings about yourself when you make a mistake or struggle and choosing to comfort and care for yourself is called “self-compassion.” Self-compassion promotes positive, healthy self-care practices and a healthy mindset, which help to heal codependency.
It’s not surprising to know that what we tell ourselves is linked to how we feel about ourselves. Changing your self-talk from an unsupportive inner dialogue to an uplifting and proactive one brings about positive change. But if you beat yourself up for perceived failures or shortcomings, how does that help you? Does it motivate you to change? Does it keep you feeling bad and keep you stuck? How is it different from how your narcissistic mother treated you?
Do you tell yourself, “I’m just _______,” or “I’ve just always been this way,” or “that’s just how I’ve always been”? I have a couple of things to say about these types of comments: first, stop using the word “just.” When you add “just,” it implies that what you’re saying has low significance. It sounds apologetic and meek. Don’t believe me? Take the word “just” out of your self-talk. Say it with and without the word “just.” Do you see how it feels different? Are you more confident? Empowered? Serious? You tell me.
And what we say to ourselves isn’t only a description of what we believe about ourselves; it is a command. Your self-talk TELLS your mind what to think about you! When you tell yourself, “this is just who I am,” “I’ve always been _______,” or “I’ve always done ______,” it implies that there’s no room for change. These statements tell your brain, “this is it. This is final. There is no more.” Why would you want to do that? Chances are, you don’t know you’re doing it, and this is where self-awareness comes in. Start becoming aware of how you speak to yourself and the words that you use. Notice and take note for future reference.
Now, give yourself a break. You’re a human being, and no human being has ever been or will ever be perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist. Instead of comparing yourself to a non-existent standard, try focusing on your progress.
Results happen over time. Making positive life change is about progress, not perfection. Encourage yourself the way you’d encourage your friend or a small child. Tell yourself, “You’ve got this!” and eventually, you will get it! Be patient with yourself. It takes time to learn new things. Treating yourself with kindness, patience, and compassion does a lot towards reparenting yourself and healing your inner child too.
Thinking about and remembering what happened in our childhoods doesn’t promote healing. That’s where many of us get stuck. Recovery requires more than reading, educating ourselves, and revisiting old memories. It requires action: getting in touch with our feelings, prioritizing self-care, dumping limiting beliefs, learning to set boundaries and enforce them, learning new ways of communicating, increasing self-esteem and self-confidence, doing inner child and reparenting work, and emotionally detaching.
It means doing the work, and I believe it begins with changing our unconscious negative self-talk.
Until I began my healing journey in earnest, I continued to attract toxic people and exercise my codependency. I fixed and helped others without their invitation to do so. I felt resentful when they ignored my advice or were unappreciative of my help. It makes no sense, right? It didn’t feel great, either.
Reading, researching, and working through assorted therapies eventually led me into Narcissism Awareness Grief. Once there, I finally came to terms with my childhood experiences and learned how, unhealed, they affected my adult relationships. I worked through the stages and continued learning coping skills like setting boundaries, emotionally detaching, improving self-care, and practicing strategic communication. As I found my voice and spoke my truth, my confidence and self-esteem grew. I began feeling whole and worthy for the first time in my life.
Narcissism specialists say that we have two choices when dealing with narcissists and those on the narcissism spectrum: live on their terms or go “no contact.” I suggest we have a third option: walk through the chaos and confusion armed with new coping skills, protected by boundaries, speaking our truth, and enjoying life as our true selves.
I talk about codependency a lot in Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism. Codependency is at the very core of the changes we must make to heal from any kind of mistreatment or abuse.
Codependency is described as a set of maladaptive coping and survival skills. They are typically learned in childhood from feeling unsafe in the home environment or when with certain people. Living with real or perceived threats made it necessary for those who grew up like this to monitor our settings and control people and outcomes as best we could. It eventually felt natural to do this, and it became a way of life. Codependency can also be learned by imitating other codependents. It can be passed down through generations. This is known as “generational trauma.”
If we’re codependent, we grew up to be “people-pleasers.” We willingly play by the rules of others, losing our identity in the process. We rely on others for a sense of identity, approval, or affirmation. We support and “enable” others in their addictions, mental illness, immaturity, irresponsibility, or underachievement.
When we’re bogged down in codependency, it’s impossible to know our true, authentic selves. By using affirmations, we can become aware of our codependent thoughts and behavior and replace them with healthy, functional ones. We can finally connect with our authentic selves.
HOW AFFIRMATIONS WORK
Connecting with our authentic selves requires doing the necessary work to uncover our true selves for the first time. We can do this with affirmations.
Affirmations remind us of who we are when we are our authentic selves. By following our intuition, writing, and speaking positive affirmations, we can begin honoring and eventually becoming our true selves. Affirmations help us to find ourselves and create the best lives possible.
A POSITIVE MINDSET
Affirmations are designed to promote an optimistic mindset; they have been shown to reduce the tendency to dwell on negative experiences (Wiesenfeld et al., 2001.) Optimism is a powerful perception! When we replace negative thoughts with positive ones, we are creating a whole new narrative around “who we are” and what we can accomplish.
There are three fundamental ideas involved in self-affirmation theory. Correctly written affirmations work according to this theory:
- By using positive affirmations, we can change our self-identity. Affirmations reinforce a newly created self-narrative; we become flexible and capable of adapting to different conditions (Cohen & Sherman, 2014.) Now, instead of viewing ourselves in a fixed or rigid way (for example, as “lazy”), we are flexible in our thoughts. We can adopt a broader range of “identities” and roles and define things like “success” differently. We can view various aspects of ourselves as positive and adapt to different situations more easily (Aronson, 1969.)
- Self-identity is not about being exceptional, perfect, or excellent (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). Instead, we need to be competent and adequate in areas that we value (Steele, 1988.)
- We maintain self-integrity by behaving in ways that genuinely deserve acknowledgment and praise. We say an affirmation because we want to integrate that particular personal value into our own identity.
Claude Steele, a social psychologist and emeritus professor at Stanford University, promoted self-affirmation theory in the late 1980s (Steele, C. M. 1988, Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. 2007).
Affirmation research focuses on how individuals adapt to information or experiences that threaten their self-image. Today, self-affirmation theory remains well-studied throughout social psychological research (Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L., McQueen, A., & Klein, W. M. (2006.)
Self-affirmation theory has led to research in neuroscience and investigating whether we can “see” how the brain changes using imaging technology while using positive affirmations. MRI evidence suggests that specific neural pathways increase when we speak affirmations (Cascio et al., 2016). The “ventromedial prefrontal cortex,” involved in positive self-evaluation and self-related information processing, becomes more active when we speak positively about our values (Falk et al., 2015; Cascio et al., 2016).
Dr. Emily Falk and her colleagues focused on how people process information about themselves. They discovered that by using positive affirmations, “otherwise-threatening information” is seen as more self-relevant and valuable (2015: 1979). Cohen and Sherman found that using self-affirmations can help with threats or stress and that they can be beneficial for improving academic performance, health, and well-being (Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. 2014).
And Dr. Peter Harris’ research found that when using affirmations, smokers responded less dismissively to cigarette packet warnings and conveyed the intention to change their behavior (Harris et al., 2007).
The evidence suggests that affirmations are beneficial in multiple ways!
- have been shown to decrease health-related stress (Sherman et al., 2009; Critcher & Dunning, 2015.)
- have been used effectively in “Positive Psychology Interventions,” or PPI, scientific tools and strategies used for increasing happiness, well-being, positive thinking, and emotions (Keyes, Fredrickson, & Park, 2012.)
- may help change the perception of otherwise “threatening” messages (Logel & Cohen, 2012.)
- can help us set our intention to change for the better (Harris et al., 2007) (Epton & Harris, 2008.)
- have been positively linked to academic achievement by lessening GPA decline in students who felt isolated in college (Layous et al., 2017.)
- have been demonstrated to lower stress (Koole et al., 1999; Weisenfeld et al., 2001.)
- provide health benefits by helping us respond in a less defensive or resistant manner when we perceive threats.
In a nutshell, using affirmations allows us to create an adaptive, broader self-concept, making us more resilient to life’s struggles. Whether it’s social pressure, health, or healing trauma, a broader self-concept is a valuable tool.
If you’re interested in getting started with affirmations, check out
Life-Altering Affirmations, Change Your Self-talk Change Yourself
in the Lemon Moms Series, and the Workbook/Journal
“I Am: A Guided Journey to Your Authentic Self.” in the new series: “Be You and Own It”
TOOLS FOR HEALING
Learn more about Dysfunctional Family Roles: Golden, Invisible, and Scapegoat
Get rid of expectations
Set some boundaries
Learn about codependency and maladaptive survival skills learned in childhood
Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz
Understand Narcissism Awareness Grief
Let go of what you can’t control by using positive-detachment
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I AM: A Guided Journey to Your Authentic Self, Workbook and Journal, by Diane Metcalf
Experience the power of self-affirmation: using positive statements to improve well-being and performance. Learn research-based steps to write the most effective affirmations to manifest love, positivity, peace, self-confidence, motivation, success, and other wonderful things.
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping and healing strategies. She happily shares those with those who want to learn and grow in their own recovery journies.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on narcissism, family dysfunction, and abuse. She draws from her personal childhood experiences, as well as her work in human service fields like domestic violence and partner abuse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Her transformational books about healing and moving forward include the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
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Learn about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.