"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." - George Orwell
Thanks to the popularity of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), most of us know that when we think positively, our words and lives begin to reflect those thoughts. Whether or not we believe we’re beautiful, powerful or full of energy, studies have shown that our confidence and alertness begin to increase simply by telling ourselves that we are.
The opposite is also true. When we speak negatively of ourselves and the world around us, those words impact our state of mind and wellbeing. This is the case for even off-hand comments; we often say that we’re tired, that we wish it were Friday, or that we’re bored, thinking that we are just making conversation. Yet our words–even when we say them reflexively, even when we don’t actually feel that way at the moment–bring those feelings to life inside of us.
Fortunately, with a little diligence we can recognize and root out disempowering words and thoughts, and experience the uptick in quality of life that comes with doing so.
But what about when everyday, neutral words create problems in how we feel and think? How do we remove what we don’t recognize as problematic?
In my work with singers and performers, this is a particular challenge. Seemingly innocuous adjectives like ‘high’, ‘low’, and ‘new’, as well as nouns depicting physiology like ‘head and chest voice’ and verbs like ‘support’ create physical and mental tensions all of the time.
Why does this happen?
In singing, as in other physical and creative pursuits, the trouble begins when we use language reflexively to name and initiate activities that exist before and outside the realm of language. Try explaining to someone how to stand up and you’ll see how difficult it is to describe and direct what the body knows how to do on its own… without language. Instead, we first have to allow and witness what our bodies do on their own, and then choose words to label and reflect our experience.
In singing, for example, there is no such thing as a ‘high’ note in the body. The vocal folds and related musculature shift slightly and vibrate more quickly or slowly as we move throughout our range.
Yet without first feeling and physically knowing what it’s like to sing without the help and hindrance of language, the words ‘high and low’ and ‘up and down’ influence the way we engage. They cause us to do exactly what we intellectually understand the words to mean: to lift, to lower, to reach, and often as a consequence, to strain and push.
When we instead begin to sing by first experiencing what it feels like to achieve various notes, we create a foundational physical understanding that is more powerful than any language we subsequently choose to name and label the process. We may then be fine calling certain notes ‘high’ and others ‘low’, using the terms as reflections of what we have already come to know and trust on a physical basis.
The same issues with language are as common–and profound–with my professional clients. The business world is rife with seemingly empowering language that in fact boxes people and ideas in, as well as ‘helpful’ terms that are often anything but.
As with singing, the solution isn’t to isolate and discard the ‘bad’ words, but rather, to look carefully at ourselves and the way we relate to all of the language we use. Seemingly clear and empowering terms like ‘strong, effective, and kind’… even ‘beautiful, powerful, and full of energy’ which I mentioned at the beginning of this article… while universally understood, are not the same for each of us.
Power, aggression, kindness, cunning, and persuasiveness…these words all hold different meanings based upon our individual life experiences. Look at the word beautiful: for some women I’ve worked with, the term is the highest and most empowering compliment they could receive. For others, the word signals that the speaker views them as unintelligent and unimportant.
We all see the world differently, as well as ourselves in it. And we use and listen to language accordingly, and often unconsciously. Empowerment begins by reclaiming trust in ourselves and our own unique experiences, outside of the realms of conventional wisdom and words. And then creating language that reflects that state of empowerment.
This skill is as important in our listening as it is in our speaking. We can’t control the words others use, but we can ‘translate’ what people are saying into what they actually mean–or what we suspect they are trying to say–beyond our own filters, sensitivities, and preconditions, so that we are able to engage with them powerfully and productively.
With my singers, this is a critical skill, as it is for anyone working with teachers, mentors, coaches, and colleagues. Listening with respect and taking what we need–while translating and if need be, discarding what doesn’t–is what allows us to learn and grow. And to stay connected and related in the process.