Skill #5: Watch Your Language
I recently ran across a saying: Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can shatter souls. We know language matters—it shapes thoughts and beliefs. We are all familiar with the impact of verbal abuse on children, partners, students, friends, employees.
Words matter. Choose carefully.
I’ve been in the field of mental health my entire career. I help people reshape their words on a daily basis so I try to be careful with my own language and I’ve struggled to make this blog entry personal. Coincidentally, I’ve been doing research for a talk I’m giving on the therapeutic benefits of writing—like keeping a journal. True to my scientific training, looking at the research made me have a great big “DUH” moment as the two topics synchronistically aligned this morning.
If you think it, you will begin to believe it.
I spend a lot of time helping people “catch” themselves making extreme negative statements—especially about their own self. “I hate myself when I ___.” “I ‘m not good at anything.” “I’m just stupid.” Or ugly, or fat, or weak, or a failure, or worthless…really, just fill in the blank with something awful. Personally, I cringe every time as if I am listening to an abusive bully. It physically hurts to watch someone be so mean to themselves. But they don’t realize they are doing it and it becomes a sticky web that traps their life energy.
The irony is that these are kind, compassionate, thoughtful people—with other people in their lives. But not with themselves. Practicing Self Compassion is key. The connection to this morning’s research is that one of the most powerful types of therapeutic expressive writing is using self-affirmations. It follows the rule of if you think it, you will begin to believe it. If you write it down, it builds the real experience of the message and reinforces memory pathways.
The effects of bullying are well documented. So why do we do it to ourselves? Maybe, like the big bully who picks on the smart, nerdy kid, we feel threatened in some way.
Fear resides in the darkness under the surface of our negative messages to ourselves.
How does this relate to fear? Well, it requires digging a little deeper under those messages. Oftentimes, fear resides in the darkness under the surface of our negative messages to ourselves. Why do you tell yourself that you’re not good at anything? Most often, it is because we are afraid of failing – or even not being immediately successful. It’s really a fantasy that anytime we try something new, that we will be an expert. If you don’t believe that, you need to review my attempts at windsurfing here! Why are we so afraid of failing? Or even not being good the first time?
How we get stuck in fear.
“I’m not really loveable.” Really? Or am I just afraid? Consider how this works: If I say that to myself, I will likely be convinced over time. As I believe that message, my behavior will align accordingly. I will make less eye contact (“someone might see how awful I am”); I will then begin to disengage (“no one wants to get to know me”); next, I will feel lonelier (“it’s not worth going anywhere”); and hopelessness will grow (“there’s no reason to try”). A classic self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s no room for anything different to happen in this equation.
Words matter. Dig deep. Find the fear underneath. Challenge your thoughts. Be at least as compassionate with yourself as you are with others. Go ahead. Try it now. Watch your language. Life is Messy enough—give yourself a chance to encounter the Marvelous.
Rhea Ann Merck, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist, persistent woman, mother of 2 amazing young women, writer, teacher, life-long learner, curious & creative human, lover of life, passionate about making life better every day…
Photo Credit: The spider web photo was taken by my dear friend, English professor, Dr. Rhonda Grego, at Congaree National Park (of which she and her husband are avid admirers and supporters), outside of Columbia, SC.