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We Are Our Words
The Advantages of Picking the Right Ones.
I remember waking up one morning with a slight headache and a burgeoning sore throat. These symptoms had started to irritate me in the wee hours, around three in the morning. When I finally crawled out of bed at quarter to six, my throat felt raw, and my head pounded. No question about it: I was headed straight for an awful day. Worse, I wanted everyone within earshot to know about it.
We all experience these sorts of mornings. We have no shortage of negative terms for them, too. “This sucks,” we often say. Then we look around us, and it’s as though that headache warps our inner vision: “She’s such a witch.” “He’s such a jerk.” “Entitled millennial a-hole.” “Self-absorbed boomer putz.” Eventually, we turn the cannon on ourselves with a common gripe, the one perhaps the most injurious to our own happiness: “I’m so stressed!”
These kinds of statements come from what social scientist Ruth Blatt calls a “deficit mentality.” While a deficit mentality goes hand in hand with persistent disappointment (or just a crushing headache), we can, with just a bit of attention, change how we interpret and experience the world. How do you interpret your situation from moment to moment? Do you put a positive or negative spin on each thing you experience?
Adverse thinking doesn’t make you a bad person. In fact, Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., the Kenan distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, has pinpointed what she calls the “three-to-one ratio,” the number of positive thoughts necessary to offset negative ones and “grow” our brains (through new neural connections) into powerful conduits of can-do behavior. A leading researcher in the positive psychology field, Fredrickson arrived at that magic number after years of careful, data-driven research. Below is an example of how that three-to-one ratio works in daily life.
Let’s start with three positive thoughts—notice how simple they are:
1. The birds outside my kitchen window are singing so beautifully.
2. I just ate a nice breakfast. Who knew how good honey on toast could be?
3. My shoes are extremely comfortable.
Here’s the one negative thought: my hair looks like crap this morning.
According to Frederickson, a complete absence of negativity constitutes an unrealistic goal. She would be the first to confirm that negative thoughts in and of themselves are not bad; she compares them to the ballast of a ship—a weight that holds the vessel in place while the wind and sails do their marvelous work of navigation and exploration. And it’s the natural default setting of humans to view life as a half-empty glass. It only makes you normal (though if you were over-the-top positive, you’d say the glass is always full because it either has water or air in it!).
But just because something is natural—for example, a tendency toward knee-jerk rage or violence—doesn’t mean we should leave it as is. In fact, almost everything we see around us is “unnatural”: our relationships, our homes, the books we read, the music we listen to. Aside from nature itself, everything we value most in life could be considered unnatural or the product of human effort.
Now I challenge you to do another unnatural thing: pause for a few seconds every time you catch yourself characterizing any aspect of your life in an unfavorable way. Impossible, you say? I beg to differ. Yes, it would be impossible to simply will yourself to change your outlook on life. I get that. “Just cheer up” ranks as one of the most annoying things anyone who’s feeling down can hear. But thankfully, we possess a much easier, more effective way to deal with negativity—and it begins with simply taking notice of how you feel in any pivotal moment.
This doesn’t demand that you immediately change your feelings. You won’t be able to do that. None of us can or should attempt to do so. But you can step back and observe your negative emotions with detachment as opposed to getting sucked into them. You can pause when you’re about to complain about the actions of a friend or coworker. And you can pause again before using the clichéd word “stressed” to describe yourself. (In every sense, put the stress somewhere else.) This simple shift to positive language can do wonders for awakening your spiritual self.
When you continually perceive the world and events as “bad” or “wrong,” you inflame your internal critic (I call him, MARV: my acronym for Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability.) When you use negative words to describe your mood and your surroundings MARV sprints into emergency mode and keeps you myopically focused on external threats. The energy misspent on these threats won’t leave you with any left over for the positive things you want to accomplish. This is because language isn’t just a means of communication. The words that come out of our mouths and form in our thoughts have the power to shape events. And they wield their greatest power not on other people but on us.
So when we succumb to the habit of declaring, “I’m so stressed” or “Everyone here is so conceited” or “She pisses me off,” we make these things a reality. Every time we grouse and complain, every time we choose to characterize what we experience as bad, boring, or stressful, we make the world around us bad, boring, and stressful. The solution to this language problem is simple: arrest the tendency to speak and think in negative terms. It’s incredibly easy to do; you only need to check yourself and examine how you process your experience of the world. You may find that your go-to conversations—whether with other people or yourself—are all too negative all too often. And once you notice your behavior, you can change it.
Words Gone Wrong
In 2020, a childhood friend of mine contacted me to ask whether I could help his son, Eugene, with a problem he was having at work. I was happy to do so. Eugene and I have been close since he was a kid. (Sometimes it’s useful to have someone who isn’t a parent help with some of the heavy lifting of parenting.) After doing exceptionally well in college, Eugene used his grades and connections to secure his dream job, a coveted position at a well-known financial institution in New York City.
He knew in advance that his schedule would demand long hours, late nights, and assignments that ate into his personal life. This happened more often than he could’ve imagined, though at first none of that mattered to Eugene. He worked tirelessly and soon became an office favorite whom his boss and colleagues looked to for leadership.
But after six months, things took a precipitous turn for the worse. People close to Eugene were surprised at the way he spoke about his job. “The place is insane,” he’d say. “I’ve got a total a-hole for a boss. It’s like everyone here wants to see me fail!” The brash optimist who made everyone around him feel good had vanished, along with the high-achieving young man who exuded competence and integrity.
What sidetracked Eugene, a success-driven person who had defined himself in terms of his accomplishments? It’s hard to say. But his boss’s critiques of his work held a clue—not that they were offensive or overly negative. They just didn’t jibe with the perfectionist image Eugene had created for himself.
Instead of being grateful for landing his dream job, Eugene became defensive. His fear of rejection kicked in. The more he complained to himself and other people, the more he had to grapple with his insecurities. In his self-styled whirlpool of negativity, Eugene felt stuck.
When I spoke with him, I avoided complex discussions about his self-esteem. But we did consider whether he could make a simple change in the way he verbalized his predicament. At first, the idea seemed counterintuitive, but Eugene agreed to try it. How, he wondered, could a simple substitution of words help manage so deep and complex a problem?
Words matter on a more profound level than many of us have considered. Words touch our mood centers; they affect our emotions and even our bodies. Yes, in essence, words are nothing more than primitive utterances: sounds created when two tiny pieces of muscle tissue in the voice box rub against each other to produce a tone. The tongue, palate, teeth, and lips modulate and shape that tone to form words. For both the speaker and the listener, the conversion of words into meaning takes place in the two areas of the brain vital to human communication, Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area.
The research on the effects of using positive language to change mood, behavior, and physical well-being is abundant—and abundantly clear: when we regularly use upbeat language to describe our lives, we stimulate frontal-lobe activity in Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. Those regions link directly to the motor cortex, which is responsible for getting us to act. A substantial increase in positive language activates functions in the parietal lobes responsible for movement, orientation, and recognition, creating more positive perceptions overall. Scientists also believe that positive words, thoughts, and emotions can alter the structure of the thalamus, thought to be partly responsible for the way we perceive reality.
In Words Can Change Your Brain, coauthors Dr. Andrew Newberg (a Thomas Jefferson University neuroscientist) and communications expert Mark Robert Waldman write: “A single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress. When we use positive words like ‘love,’ ‘peace,’ and ‘loving-kindness,’ we can modify our brain functions by increasing cognitive reasoning and strengthening areas in our frontal lobes.”
So I gave Eugene a simple word-replacement exercise: I asked him to remain aware of the terms he used to describe his job for a period of five days. I advised him that if his words were negative, he should quickly substitute positive ones.
Here’s the type of phrase I wanted Eugene to notice and change: “My boss is an a-hole.”
He could replace that with something less venomous: “My boss is an okay guy who just wants things done correctly.”
Or replace each of the following A phrases with the B phrases.
A. “This place is insane.”
B. “This company has very high standards.”
A. “Everyone here wants to see me fail.”
B. “People have no interest in seeing me fail; they actually want me to do my best work.”
A. “I’m super stressed.”
B. “I’m under pressure, but I know I can handle pressure.”
A. “Everyone thinks I’m a loser.”
B. “I’m not a loser. I’m in the process of figuring things out.”
It took Eugene less than three weeks to start turning things around. Granted, he found it challenging to carefully parse through his language and then substitute positive words and phrases. But in time he felt far less anxious. His problems at work no longer seemed as daunting as he once thought. (If you’re wondering what happened to Eugene, he chose to stay at his job. He’s happy he did, and so is his boss.)
I want to share one more idea to further my point. Following are some examples of things many of us say—sometimes several times a week—without grasping their toxicity. Do you recognize any of them?
“This weather sucks.”
“It’s crappy outside.”
“The wind is miserable.”
While it might not sound like a big deal to grouse about the weather, the fact that we can characterize an entire day of our lives so negatively should make you wonder. Can weather that isn’t sunny and seventy-five degrees be good? Yes, it can! Can overcast skies stir the soul? Absolutely! Aren’t wind and rain beautiful? Definitely! And so is seeing wind and rain and everything else in the world without the distorting filters of fear and negativity.
So if you’re a compulsive weather critic, try these word exchanges on for size.
“Wow—the overcast sky is such a wonderful shade of silver.”
“This strong wind is setting everything into motion!”
“This cold rain really makes me feel awake to the world.”
Perspective counts. Although forty-seven degrees sounds raw and chilly for many of us, a friend in Chicago once texted me on December 22 to tell me that it felt glorious. “It’s like spring out!” he exulted.
Make no mistake; our words activate our moods. They cut to the core perceptions of our experiences. If you succeed in framing something as basic as weather in a positive way, you will experience an unexpected, positive difference in your overall worldview, a worldview that will broaden and brighten your perspective on life as opposed to narrowing and darkening it.
SEO (Spiritual Eye Opener Exercise) Word-Exchange Program
For a moment, think negatively. That’s right: negative thinking is what we’ve tried to avoid. But for this SEO I want you to choose something or someone that really bugs you. It could be your boss. It could be your mother-in-law. It could be your own appearance. Or maybe you can’t stand the sound of your singing voice. But whatever you don’t like, set your smartphone timer and spend three minutes writing down three examples. If someone at work annoys you, you might write something like this:
1. Whenever I hear Sheila’s voice, it makes me tense.
2. When Sheila walks by, I know she’s thinking that I suck at what I do.
3. When I see Sheila pull into the parking lot in the morning, I know I’m going to have a bad day.
Then spend four minutes substituting positive phrases for your negative ones. Use language that creates an entirely different mental picture of whoever or whatever constitutes your “Sheila.” At first this might seem difficult, because yes—you really hate her! But for the purposes of benefiting from this important SEO, try it anyway.
Following are some examples of potential positive substitutions:
1. Yes, Sheila has a grating, squeaky voice. But she was born with it, and it’s likely been a source of embarrassment to her for years.
2. Sheila has a family of her own and many responsibilities at work. Come to think of it, she probably doesn’t think about me at all when she passes by.
3. I fixate on Sheila too much. My time on earth is too precious to allow my feelings about another person to dictate my moods.
Once you’ve written down your word substitutions, the odds are excellent that your negative feelings will begin to dissipate as well. Try it and see where it takes you.