Hello, Beautiful Thinkers...
Words are so powerful that I feel intimidated even writing this article, ironically.
Words create our reality.
The words we choose to describe ourselves, the world around us and the people in it will determine how we feel about these things.
Words carry tremendous power - we can build someone up, simply by the words we use, we can make someone cry via our words, we can hurt, we can heal, we can support, we can destroy - simply by using the right words.
It is not innocent when we call ourselves stupid or useless, nor when we call our partners arseholes or naggers, even if in gist.
Likewise, labels are words and labels have the capacity to make someone feel empowered or helpless.
I often talk about my experience of finding out that the struggles I had as a teen had a name - depression - and how finding out this piece of information was incredibly healing. Suddenly, I felt less alone in it. I realise so many people felt the same way as me that it had a name! I wasn't a freak of nature. I belonged, in a sense.
But after a while, this label that had offered me such relief became my prison. I was a depressed person. It became part of my identity and I believed it to be a life sentence.
But what happens if, instead of saying 'I'm depressed' or 'I'm a depressive', we say 'I have depression' or even better 'right now, I'm going through a depressive episode'.
What happens when we stop identifying with a label and create some distance with our language?
In Irish Gaelic they don't say 'I am sad', they say 'sadness is on me'. Suddenly, it changes the whole relationship between us and the sadness. It's like a rainy cloud hanging on us, but we are not the cloud itself. If it is on us, it can also lift from us.
Fortunately, I didn't come across the word 'imposter' until a few years ago. I say 'fortunately' because I've felt like an imposter many times but because I didn't know this label I never identified with being an imposter. Instead, I noticed the feelings and labelled them as something else - a need to update my knowledge. as awe of others, as inspiration to improve myself. And even though I now know that the feelings I had has the name 'imposter syndrome', I still don't feel like a fraud or imposter because I've always used different words, more empowering and helpful words to describe my experience.
Equally interesting, when talking about the word imposter is the addition of 'syndrome' when, originally, it was called 'imposter phenomenon'. What happens to our perception of ourselves when we talk about having a syndrome versus being part of a phenomenon?
"I have a dream..." and with those words Martin Luther King Jr inspired a nation, giving hope, sending a message of unity and love.
"Drain the swamps..." also inspired many people but with these words hate and segregation was encouraged when uttered by Donald Trump.
"You're so sensitive." How many people have had their emotions and experience shut down by these unempathetic words? This is a gaslighting sentence often used by shaming people who know they've done wrong, or are too ignorant to look at their own behaviours and making their unkindness someone else's problem.
Gaslighting - another interesting word we throw around frequently nowadays. It stems from a movie where the husband drives the wife insane by denying her her reality to such an extend she starts to question her own mind.
It's an excellent word, and it's good to be aware of how this technique is used to control others but what's often overlooked is how often we gaslight ourselves - deny ourselves reality to punish, avoid or reject ourselves.
I once had a boyfriend who gaslighted me all the time but as I got distance from that relationship I had to admit how often I'd gaslighted myself to make the relationship work.
So, we can take words we use about others and hold it in our hands and gently, kindly wonder - does this word apply to me too? Am I judging others because I'm really judging myself?
I use suggested to a client that they told themselves better stories. Stories that supported being kind towards themselves instead of always finding flaws. The client made a face. They were not interested in lying to themselves to feel better. They'd just be gaslighting themselves if they were denying their reality to tell a more positive story.
But as The School of Life posted on Facebook: The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.
I was bullied as a child - fact.
I grew up in a safe neighbourhood with a loving mother - fact.
I had a critical father - fact.
I went on many wonderful holidays with my family - fact.
Depending on which fact I focus on, I can tell a story of despair or one of privilege.
I do stupid things and I sometimes hurt people in the process - fact. This does not make me feel good about myself and it hurts my self-esteem.
I sometimes do stupid things and in the process hurt people. That's never my intention. My intentions are always good but I make mistakes. Fact. This is the same situation but with a better narrative attached. A narrative that's kinder. I'm not lying in the second narrative, I'm just being more nuanced in my answer.
Speaking of judgement, our language is rife with common, everyday remarks that are meant to make us feel bad about ourselves or make others feel bad about themselves:
- attention seeking
- grow up
- put your big girl/boy pants on
- grow thicker skin
- throwing my toys out the pram
If someone is 'attention seeking' its because they're wanting attention. There's nothing bad about that. They're clearly feeling lonely, overlooked, sad, rejected or some other unpleasant feeling and they're craving love - that's what attention is - love. They're seeking connection. That's what 'attention seeking' means - connection and love seeking. Why have we demonised this word? Why do we berate children craving connection and love?
Grow up, put your big pants on, grow thicker skin, stop being so childish, throwing toys out the pram - all of these are there to reduce a person's behaviour into something to be ridiculed, something to be dismissed or a taunt. What do we achieve by this, except to isolate people and make them feel shame and/or unaccepted? Wouldn't it be better if we asked what was going on? What need wasn't being met for them? Why do we think that growing thicker skin (which usually means to be less bothered or less offended) is a good thing, compared to being thin-skinned, sensitive, empathetic, respectful and considerate?
Countless articles talk about how women can be more assertive and talk like men. As if that's a good thing? Why are we not teaching men how to be more kind and caring in their emails? More indirect for the sake of establishing good rapport?
I was once told that getting into my Masters was because it was 'meant to be'. By using these three words, my well-meaning friend had complete reduced the past six month of hard work to get into this Masters and find the funding to be able to accept their offer. I didn't get in because it was meant to be. I got in because I worked bloody hard for it.
I'm a people-pleaser
I'm so negative
What's wrong with me, I can't stop ruminating
I over-think all the time
Common sentences people use that have a negative connotation. Words used to describe a deficit in them.
And yet, as I write about here, these are pre-installed software programmes that comes with the human hardware. These are survival mechanisms that far predates our current environment.
In this podcast episode Lisa Feldman Barrett talks about her emotional theory. We've long believed (and are still taught) that there are six basic human emotions - anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear and sadness. Except that's not true. We don't have any universal understanding of emotions. But what we do have is a shared language and our words shape our reality.
Much like the brain doesn't have the concept that a tight chest means we're anxious. But if we have a tight chest in many anxious situations, we start to create an automatic narrative and it becomes a self-fulling prophecy. Due to our words and word association. This means we can deconstruct this reality - also by using words.
If you have clammy hands, your breath is laboured, your heart is racing and you have butterflies in your stomach - you may label your symptoms as nervousness if you're about to give a speech. But, if you're about to jump out of an airplane and that's your favourite thing to do, you might also label these same feelings excitement. You body doesn't know the difference but the words you choose will determine how you feel about the situation.
I used to think that butterflies in my stomach when dating someone meant I was in love. Now, I associate those with being anxious because I don't trust the person. Neither are a universal truth but experience have taught me that the butterflies are there when the person I'm dating isn't making me feel safe.
I once received a text message from a friend telling me that I was spending too much time with my boyfriend. This happened the same week another friend told me to ignore her fully and go and enjoy my new relationship. One of these are still my friend.
The words we choose to communicate with others can create deeper and lasting connection or it can break a bond. Passive-aggressive, indirect, unkind or dismissive words are seldom going to bring you closer to someone. And yet, these are ways we often communicate with our partners when tensions run high.
It's often said that we hurt the ones we love most.
This is not a universal truth about love and being in a romantic relationship but a truth about projecting our unresolved issues onto others and choosing those we hope won't abandon us but it's a technique that usually ends in heartbreak for both parties.
Sticks and stone may break my bones but words... can hurt forever.
We can't ever unlearn or forget but we can suppress, numb and avoid and we can also learn to change our relationship with words.
When my inner critic calls me stupid, I now know it's telling me I'm tired.
When I question my partners love and commitment, I know I'm really worried about being rejected.
When someone calls me unkind words, I know it's because they're hurting and don't know where to put that hurt.
When I call other people unkind words, I know it's because I have work to do within myself.
I recently came across something called a 'thought-terminating cliché' and it's used to end a discussion, like saying 'it is what it is'.
What a dismissive thing to say, right? Whether we're dismissing ourselves and our feelings or someone else's.
A couple of weeks later I came across the concept 'emotional regulation strategies', which can include saying 'it is what it is' as a way to put things into perspective, acknowledge the situation for what it is and how it is and try to move on. In other words, the same sentence can be used to help ourselves.
Words are powerful!
Use them wisely.
But never presume that everyone put the same meaning into a word as you.
'Treat others like you'd like to be treated'.
No - treat others like they'd like to be treated.
Ask. Never presume. Use your words with kind consideration.
They have the power to break someone, and the power to put them together again.
So, why not choose respectful, kind, considerate words? Towards yourself as well as others.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, or didn't, or want to add something or have a question, feel free to comment below (but try and be kind about it - I'm a terribly sensitive soul).
Don't forget that this is just my opinion. You don't have to agree. These pieces of writing are just here to make you think and take from it what you like and find helpful and ignore the rest. At the end of the day, it's your life and, therefore, what you consume, what you believe, and what you think and feel is your choice.
Also, this article has been brought to you by a perfectly imperfect, flawsome dyslexic. I hope any potential spelling or grammar mistakes didn't take away from your enjoyment.
Meandering thoughts about life and the meaning of everything, from a know-it-not-all!