Healing the Heart Through the Art of Compassion
Healing from the Inside Out
Nicole Leth is an artist whose medium is words—bold, life-affirming words she composes for highway billboards, airplane banners, and postcards she mails to individuals upon request.
Each piece, however large or small, is lovingly created in the belief it will reach those most in need of an encouraging reminder of self-worth. “You are real and important and whole.” “You are lovable.” “You are enough.”
Leth mails as many as 3,000 postcards a month to her subscribers on every continent except Antarctica. She devotes hours to hand writing each name and address, often by candlelight from her Kansas City, Missouri, home. She describes it as an act of sacred intention. She wants the recipients to know their card wasn’t mass-produced but came from her heart and from her own hand.
“These messages mean a lot to me,” she explained. “I want them to mean a lot to them.”
For the 28-year-old artist, the words are both deeply personal and universally true. They are the same affirmations she uses to push back at her own creeping fears, doubts, anxiety, and insecurity, human emotions that grip most of us at some point. With each affirmation she designs and shares, she is sending encouragement to others who may be wrestling with the same feelings.
Leth designs a new postcard each month, bearing a different look and message she chooses based on reviewing her daily journals and then engaging in deep contemplation, listening for guidance on which of her affirmations will resonate most widely with others. Some are long and poetic. Others are akin to a warm pat on the back, such as “You’re doing great.”
From Pain Came Purpose
She knows all too well that despair and the loneliness that comes with it can lead to dire outcomes. Her physician father killed himself when she was just 17. The power of affirmative words helped her process her grief and heal from years of heartbreak watching him struggle with alcoholism, prescription drug addiction, and clinical depression, rooted, she believes, in childhood trauma he was never able to heal.
“On the day my father died, I was crying and shaking and lying on the floor, and this moment of calm came over me. I got this idea from a voice in my head. You have to create something beautiful out of this pain. It’s your only chance of surviving. So I decided to make my heart something to help people.”
Leth’s father had instilled in her a love of writing, and as a teenager she practiced journaling. “I would sit there and write things that I needed to hear to feel stronger and to be able to survive some of those hard moments,” she recalled. Only years later did she learn that she was tapping into a long-understood practice of using affirmations to guide her thoughts to positive outcomes and attitudes. Affirmations, positive declarations of Truth, shifted Leth’s perspective from the deepest part of her consciousness. She no longer saw what was wrong or missing; instead she saw what was right and true, recognizing the wholeness within herself and everyone else.
She worked through her grief by painting statements of compassion on abandoned buildings.
She moved on to stickers, which she would leave in piles or affix in public places like park benches and bus stops, hoping people would find them at just the right moment in the midst of their daily routines. “I was just thinking of other people finding it and getting the message out that I couldn’t tell my dad,” she said.
Since her loss, Leth has built upon her affirmation practice to summon the words to uplift others. “Language is one of the most powerful ways to channel human connection, and human connection is the basis of human civilization. Words can mean different things to different people, but they can also help identify things that people are feeling deep inside,” she said.
Meeting a Growing Need
Two years ago, Leth, who trained in textile design and created a clothing line, took her affirmative art to a new level. Remembering road trips she took with her father where they shared deep conversations, she rented one 50-foot highway billboard in Kansas City, Missouri, financed from her savings. Passing motorists were greeted with a message not to buy something but to believe something about themselves. “You are human. You are lovable. You are strong. You are enough.”
Up to that point, Leth had taken it on faith her messages were received. But that changed when people flooded the internet in response to her billboard. Those responses led to requests from other communities and billboard companies requesting Leth’s designs on billboards around the United States, from major thoroughfares to spaces above mini malls, including 400 billboards for National Suicide Prevention Month in September 2019. Her messages appeared on barges along beaches and around New York City for a day.
Leth harnessed the power of advertising—usually used to sell products—to sell people on their self-worth.
The Pandemic and Beyond
Leth’s ongoing My Affirmation Project, funded solely by donations, is about helping but also about her self-healing. Each time she reaches out with affirmations such as “You’re doing your best,” she is also speaking to herself. “Throughout the last year I posted a lot on resilience, reminding people of their survival and to be gentle with themselves, to keep going and be patient,” Leth said of the time the coronavirus pandemic raged, leaving many people feeling isolated and fearful. She was coping with these feelings as well, having been laid off from her job as a yoga instructor at the same time she was grappling with side effects of treatment for a benign brain tumor, diagnosed just before the world went into lockdown.
Leth’s newest venture is to choose a city and love bomb it for a day with her affirmations. Her first stop was Miami, Florida, on Valentine’s Day 2021. She paid to have a banner flown over a crowded beach proclaiming, “You are whole and important and enough.” She also rented a flatbed truck to drive a billboard through the streets with rotating messages such as, “You are enough. You have always been enough.”
In response to her loss, Leth first was driven by a desire to save lives. She now understands that is beyond her power. But she can, she says, guide people to tap into their inner strength. “I can create spaces of compassion,” she said, “that can empower them and give them the tools to save their own lives. I want people to know that there are other people out there who feel the things they feel and who care. They are not alone.”
Preferring quiet service to self-promotion, Leth doesn’t know how many lives she has touched but she figures it is millions.
And the growing number of subscribers to her free cards and a Facebook page filled with messages of gratitude confirm that. “This project helped all of us get through 2020! Thank you,” one person wrote, grateful feedback echoed by others.
The work, she says, has helped her heal from her loss and grief, made her value herself more and feel stronger “from the inside out.”
Sending ripples of hope to others through her art adds to that joy, a gift for the father she could not save. She is recovering from the brain tumor and always thinking of new ways to send her words to a world hungry for compassion and healing.
“I feel uplifted and I feel resilient,” she said, “like I would be making my dad proud. This just feels like I finally got it right, and I’m doing what this life has asked me to do.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Visit opencounseling.com/suicide-hotlines for international resources.
Find Nicole Leth’s work at myaffirmationproject.com.