“Our language is the reflection of ourselves.” — Cesar Chavez
Language and words exist so that we can express ourselves, communicate with people, and attribute meaning to objects and situations. Our vocabulary expands as we grow and subconsciously take on new and different words from the cultural zeitgeist, the diverse people with whom we engage, the literature that we read, and the environments in which we socialize and work. We hear and speak language constantly, yet so often words are used automatically, without conscious awareness of the potential power they have, both on ourselves and others.
Our choice of words and the way we use them in spoken and written form is a reflection of who we are and of the quality of our relationship with the self. Each of us creates an internal narrative—stories framed as negative self-talk that play repeatedly in the mind and manifest in limiting beliefs and low self-esteem. The narrative we construct is not free from external influence as cultural constructs and longstanding societal belief systems permeate our vocabulary and view of the self. Language has the power to sabotage and destroy, but it can also heal and build. We can choose to remove the negativity in our self-talk. It is possible to create a conscious dialogue and to express appreciation, compassion, and encouragement in the words we attach to ourselves and our experiences.
What do you tell yourself? What words do you attach to your sense of self?
Let me guess, you rarely use language to empower yourself. When it comes to self-talk, we usually default to inner critic mode and lampoon ourselves with harsh judgment and negative words. We dissect and analyze our actions, behaviors, and choices in handling a given situation or person through the lens of self-criticism. Disappointment, frustration, loathing, and shame are just some of the sentiments likely to characterize the ensuing inner monologue. The words we say to ourselves are the only words that matter and persistent negative self-talk will have a toxic effect on your self-esteem and self-worth.
Our self-talk can either be judgment-based and a weapon of emotional destruction or compassionate, powerful, and motivating in its effect. Remember that where your words lead, your mind will go. So, instead of looking at and speaking to yourself with disdain and resentment, look at and speak to yourself with appreciation and understanding. Central to such a shift is the cultivation of greater self-compassion, which naturally moves us from a place of critical judgement to one of curiosity and gentle questioning. Self-compassion is the practice of taking a step back when we are in pain or uncertainty to ask ourselves with kindness, ‘What is this really about? Why do I feel this way? And how can I move forward?’ Without compassion, negative talk becomes nothing more than bullying.
The language we use to describe and ‘talk’ to ourselves can be a powerful tool, if it is backed with self-belief and self-love. Catch yourself when engaging in negative self-talk and consciously choose to replace it with something encouraging that is also more accurate and will raise the quality of your thoughts. Instead of “That wasn’t good enough” or “You fucking idiot,” correct yourself with something more truthful, such as “I’ve got this” or “I can do this”. A simple switch in emphasis from “I am” to “I feel” when attributing emotions to our experiences is another way we can use language in a more empowering way. “I am” is a super-charged word and the words that follow speak volumes—to yourself and others—about how you define and value yourself. However “I feel” creates distance that allows you to disassociate the emotion and/or thought from you as a being.
The words we choose when speaking of ourselves to others are no less impactive than those we say internally. They are the medium through which we make connections and set the tone for who we are. So often, negative elements of our internal self-talk permeate the conversational language we use with family, friends, and coworkers. There is an innate tendency to play down our experiences and achievements, to undermine our abilities and skills and discount ourselves. You may struggle to take a compliment and bat away the attention with an instinctively dismissive reply—“What, this dress? I’ve had it ages.” Self-deprecation has its place as a harmless habit, but it can also become an unhealthy behavior that promotes self-sabotage. By repeatedly diminishing yourself in this way, you communicate to others that you are not capable, worthy, and valuable, which in turn sets the tone for how they come to see and treat you.
Our words also have the potential to impact another person’s sense of self, whether we intend them to or not. We reveal a lot about ourselves when we speak about and to others. Every time we enter into conversation, we unwittingly reveal our self-image, our beliefs and values, and how we see the world. The complication comes from the fact that different people are going to take the same words to mean completely different things. So, what does not touch a nerve with you may do for someone else, dependent upon their past experiences, beliefs, and sense of self. What may be said flippantly and without malicious intent can be impactive in a negative way and sit with someone for a long time. On the latter, I speak from experience of being told by an ex-partner that I had “become boring” and, while said in the heat of the moment, the phrase resonated long after and would surface in negative self-talk. The point is that our words can actually serve to empower and uplift someone, it just requires awareness to choose them wisely.
Words can evoke joy, they can inspire and give you strength and they can hurt, move you to tears and undermine. Every word really does count in terms of how we feel about ourselves and how we engage with the external world. Think about the impact we can make if we become more intentional about using language that is compassionate, encouraging, and measured when we address ourselves and speak to others. As you realize the power of your words, elect to use them wisely and communicate with compassion instead of discouragement and negativity. Remember that “kind words can be easy and short to speak, but their echoes are truly endless” – Mother Teresa.