Language has the ability to inspire, empower, heal, and elevate. It also has the power to degrade, subjugate, wound, and evoke despair. Words are symbols of meaning and those meanings, fueled by the intentions behind them, shape our experience of the world around and within us. Thus our choice of language, both internal and external, very directly shapes our the trajectory of our lives.
The good news is that power of language resides in our own hands. The bad news is that power of language resides in our own hands.
We aren’t always able to choose our circumstances or the obstacles we face or the events which affect us. We do have choice about how we react, respond, and speak to it all. We can empower or disarm ourselves more effectively than anyone or anything else through the language we use in reference to, and with, ourselves. We can utilize all those meanings as tools in our favor or weapons against us. The choice is up to us.
Self-deprecation can be well intended but if we are always depicting ourselves as lesser, weaker, undesirable, and unworthy then that is how we and anyone else who is listening will grow to perceive us. The converse is also true, to a point. If we speak of ourselves in positive, empowering, and confident language then that becomes the instilled perception. Provided it isn’t overdone, in which case the message becomes one of overcompensation and the perceptions swing back over to the other end of the spectrum.
One of the main troubles is so much of our language is inherited and habitual. We are immensely influenced by the language we are surrounded with growing up. Phrases, terms, patterns and textures of communication all get imprinted on us in our early years as we watch and learn to interact with the world and people around us. It’s a standard part of integrating into society but these phrases and terms can become ingrained and habitual before we are fully able to understand the scope and scale of their potential impact.
Breaking free of any habit can be extremely difficult, the more deeply rooted the more change seems painful and near impossible. Which is part of why the struggles over awareness of language can get so contentious. Habits of language quickly become habits of thought. Trying to pull at them can make it feel like we are unraveling a person’s sense of themselves.
It is crucial we make sure the ways in which we are thinking and speaking about ourselves supports and empowers us as opposed to tearing us down. Here are a few common habits to recognize and tackle.
Use positive phrasing rather than negative
This doesn’t mean pretending everything is wonderful, optimism isn’t a cure-all, but so much of our reflexive commentary tends to depict us as predisposed to failure without us realizing it. How often do we hope that we don’t get something wrong or tell ourselves not to screw something up? It might seem like we are trying to give ourselves a pep-talk but the tone of the language not only fixates on failure but also implies failure is the likely outcome.
Shifting our thoughts to more positive footing isn’t about expecting perfection it’s just a matter of making sure we give ourselves a legitimate chance for success. Instead of hoping we don’t get something wrong hope we get it right. Rather than tell ourselves not to screw up tell ourselves to try and make it work. Strive for language which not only speaks to positive results but includes them as a genuine possibility.
Tie affirmations to ourselves and make them active
The idea of self-affirmations has been around for a while and though they can seem a bit contrived they have been proven to help shift overall mood and confidence to notable degrees. We just have to make sure we are attributing those affirmations to ourselves and not making them contingent upon others. For an affirmation to work it needs to truly be aimed inward in a way that is both believable and empowering. Telling ourselves that people like us, believe in us, and respect us can also sound and feel like an internal pep-talk but the qualifiers are all external. We can certainly influence the attitudes and perceptions of those around us but we can’t control them.
We need to put the qualifying power in our own hands and make them active so they become something we can pursue and affect. Rather than tell ourselves people like us, aim to put our most likable foot forward. Rather than tell ourselves people believe in us, strive to do our best to be someone people can believe in. Rather than tell ourselves people respect us, endeavor to do something people can respect us for. The more specific and measurable the target the more powerful the potential motivation.
Eliminate “I can’t”
Being positive isn’t about pretending we can do everything, or putting toxic pressure on ourselves to that effect, it’s about getting rid of the reflexive excuse “I can’t” and it’s frequent follow-up “it’s too hard”. “I can’t” carries a tone of condemnation and implications of powerlessness, and though adding “it’s too hard” might seem like mitigation following “I can’t” it acts more as further self-criticism than an assessment of the challenge. Failing at a task does not make us a failure but “I can’t” implies exactly that. There will always be things which are beyond our capacities and capabilities. Things too high on a shelf to reach, too heavy to pick up, deadlines too short to allow us to complete the task. But we can acknowledge a challenge is beyond us without tearing ourselves down.
Substitute “I can’t” with “I am not able”. It may seem like a minor change but when you start a statement with a positive presence of self like “I am” what follows then becomes secondary, the “not able” has less power instead of more. Plus if we use the phrase “I am not able” we are more likely to finish with a more specific assessment of the challenge instead of leaving it as a faceless defeating monster. The “I am not able” approach implies the possibility of solutions whereas “I can’t” implies the opposite.
This is a particularly dangerous one. It dresses itself in the garb of desirable moral imperative but the tone is only one of criticism, a rebuke on behalf of generalized assumptions as opposed to actual situation specific assessment. In the name of trying to make ourselves better we spend excessive amounts of time “should”ing all over our own heads comparing ourselves to externally sourced and arbitrary expectations rather than our own goals, plans, and desires. By certain points in our lives we “should” have certain kinds of relationships, certain kinds of jobs, certain amounts of money in our bank account, the list goes on and on all made up of what other people seem to think we “should” want.
Forgo the idea entirely. Instead of saying “I should…” say “I want to…”. And if that statement doesn’t ring true then don’t say it. If you want certain things then pursue them, if you don’t want them then do not. If the things you want aren’t compatible with the environment around you look for ways to compromise or do your best to change your surroundings. And if you can’t change your surroundings, change your surroundings. Our best chance to succeed lies in pursuing things we genuinely desire as that desire will give us fuel to push forward we will never get from adopting goals and ideas which are not our own, no matter how good they might look on paper.
Eliminate “I have to”
Living a functioning and supported life will always come with obligations and responsibilities, outcomes will always require an effort or expenditure. While “I have to” does speak to that it also strips from us all sense of power or control. Some motivational speakers and authors advocate swapping “I have to” for “I choose to” and that is definitely on a better track but it can also be a bit martyred and deliberately naïve to the obligations of life. We choose our targets and goals and thus we also choose the requirements which come with them but the choice doesn’t erase the obligatory nature of those requirements.
Swap “I have to” with “I need to” or “I must” which acknowledge the obligation but honor the choice which brought them to us. Speaking in tones which place power and control back into our own hands also implies the option of ongoing choice which is then further empowering. We aren’t able to choose how many logged hours a certain promotion might require but we can decide whether or not we wish to pursue that particular opportunity. Words like “need” and “must” speak more to our own requirements instead of the requirements of others putting the reigns in our own hands and imply a “because”, a reason we are striving as opposed to some peremptory or arbitrary outside command.
It may seem picky or even silly to be so specifically selective about words and phrases but words have immense power and we need to be doubly conscious of the words we choose to use about and with ourselves. Water can slowly erode the rock or, drip by drip, it can add materials to build a mighty column. Positive and empowering language can limitless build, negative language can corrode and erase. We have the power to choose but we have to train ourselves to use it.