My son swears we abandoned him at a store when he was three.
At first, the details of the story were fuzzy. Maybe we just left him stranded in the video game aisle for an hour. Maybe we forgot him completely and finally remembered him when we got to the parking lot. Maybe we got all the way home and then had to come back for him.
(Before you call child services, let me assure you: no matter how many times I’ve wanted to leave my children crying in the toy aisle, I’ve never actually done so.)
Yet, over the years, as he has repeated the story, he has settled into a version that feels right and real and true for him. He honestly believes we left him at the store. Nothing we say or do can convince him otherwise.
Because when we repeat words and stories enough, they gather power. The stories we repeatedly tell ourselves become our selves. Which is why the key to self-loathing and self-confidence is one and the same: repetition. Boring, I know. But devastatingly powerful…
The Words We’re All Repeating
Last year, I participated in a continuing education for mental health providers—we learned a particular therapeutic approach by becoming the clients for a weekend. Over the course of several days, we identified the words we were constantly repeating about ourselves in the recesses of our minds and hearts. And then the leader wrote on the white board the words that had taken up residence at the core of us:
When the list was complete, the facilitator did something startling. She pulled a screen down over the white board and projected images from her laptop onto it. The images were pictures of other white boards from the same seminar conducted in different countries around the world.
In each photo, the words were almost identical.
It’s a universal thing, this repetition we do. Without realizing it, we repeat the same shameful words until they become synonymous with our sense of self, until they are worked into our emotional DNA, until we embody them. Repetition has power. It can destroy us, one repetition at a time.
But when we become aware of it and learn to make choices about it, repetition can resurrect us.
The Power of New Words
Last winter, a little resurrection happened around the world. Young girls and boys and grown women and men fell in love with a short song in which three old words—Conceal, don’t feel—were replaced by three new words—Let it go.
My daughter sang the song repeatedly. She threw off mock gloves and mock crowns at exactly the right moments in the song. But as she sang, you got the feeling she was throwing off a lot more than imaginary accessories. You got the feeling that, even at her young age, she was throwing off the burden created by those three words—Conceal, don’t feel. You got the feeling she was exchanging
hiddenness for openness,
self-rejection for self-acceptance,
and cold perfectionism for vibrant, grace-full messiness.
Occasionally, a song comes along and it echoes the cry of our heart. But we don’t have to wait for the next mega hit, because there is already a word in our hearts waiting for us.
Finding a New Word
The words we repeatedly ascribe to ourselves become our selves. I suppose that sounds trite and simplistic. Like cold-clinical behaviorism, or “New Age” positive thinking. It probably sounds a little like Stuart Smalley, staring into his mirror and muttering, “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.”
But it’s none of the above.
It’s magical and mysterious, and it’s real and solid and life changing. It’s the way of the contemplatives and the mystics and the Desert Fathers. It’s the way of almost every peaceful soul who’s walked the earth. And it’s simple: it begins by choosing the word or words you want at the center of you, so they can descend from your head into your heart. But here’s the mysterious part:
That word is already at the center of you.
There is always a good word waiting for us when we get still. When we let the other voices and words and phrases die down. When we begin to listen for a still quiet whisper, we always discover it’s there. And the radical, astonishing thing is this:
It’s always whispering a word that seems too good to be true.
It’s a word so freeing and wonderful, it scares us, because we know if we come to believe it about ourselves, it will change everything. And how do we come to believe it about ourselves? We listen for it. And when we’ve heard it clearly—and shuddered at the potential power of it—we begin to repeat it.
In every moment.
On every breath.
Through any fear.
Against any other words.
We repeat it. Until its echo descends from the space between our ears to the center of our heart. We repeat it, and then, mysteriously, we begin to become the word that already and always existed at the center of us.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.