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Change Your Words and Change Your World

How to stop using the language of powerlessness.

Former actress Robin Givens, interviewed for a recent Time magazine article about partner abuse by celebrity athletes, described her experience of being beaten by heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. Her choice of words reveals a verbal pattern that’s one of the telltale markers for the mindset of powerlessness. In the conceptual realm of psychosemantics, it’s known as displacement—switching from I pronouns to you pronouns.

Note the alternation between the two patterns in her quotes:

“People ask why I didn’t leave after I was hit the first time. . . . But you feel such inner turmoil and confusion. You want it to be only one time.”

“And for three days after that incident I did the right thing. I said, ‘Don’t call me. I never want to see you again.’ . . . . But then you start taking his phone calls. Then he asks to see you in person, and you say yes to that. Then you have a big giant man crying like a baby on your lap, and next thing you know, you’re consoling him.”

The pronoun switching, typically unconscious, has the effect of priming the listener’s forgiveness, by projecting the inclination for the same self-defeating behavior upon the listener. “You might have done the same thing,” the syntax implies; “it wasn’t my fault.” This is a fairly typical psychosemantic maneuver of abdication—surrendering the authority and responsibility to act in one’s own self-interest.

Listen to people who have power in and over their lives, and compare the language they use to the language of those who, for whatever reason, may feel disempowered. You’re likely to hear two subtly different narratives. One is the narrative of cause and effect. The other, figuratively, is the narrative of “effect and cause.”

Getting behind the words for a moment, we can recognize two distinctly different mindsets, or mental states. When someone is at the place of “cause,” psychologically speaking, he or she acts from an intention, seeks an outcome, and has a plan, however elementary it might be.

And when one is at the place of “effect,” one perceives and conceives of himself or herself as on the receiving end of the intentions and actions of others. Things are done to this person, not by them.

Let’s not over-generalize: Being “at effect” has its value at times. When someone is giving you a massage or some other pleasant sensory experience, “effect” is a great place to be. Being nurtured, comforted, and cared for can be a very satisfying experience.

The strategic choice, moment to moment, is whether to act from the place of cause or the place of effect. On average, you’re more powerful in your life when you act and react from the place of cause. Conversely, you may be a victim in your life to the extent that you refuse to take responsibility for your behavior and its consequences. Language behavior is just as real and revealing as any other kind of behavior. It telegraphs its state of origin.

So can you really change your attitudes about life just by changing the words you use to frame your thoughts? It might sound a bit simplistic, but consider that the structure of your language is the software of your brain—or, at least, one important kind of software.

Which comes first, a thought or the words that frame it? Many semanticists would claim that they arise simultaneously in the brain. When we habitually say something in a certain way, we’re predisposed to think about it in terms of the subtle implications of the words we’ve chosen. Language evokes thought, and thought evokes language.

You might begin by listening more carefully for the subtle cues of cause and effect—capacity and incapacity—in the conversations around you. “My girlfriend treats me like dirt"; “My parents never let me do what I want to"; "Yes, he has a bad temper, but I can’t leave him right now; he needs me"; "I was trying to lose weight, but I fell off the wagon"; "I can’t afford that right now.”

The language of powerlessness seems to pervade much of the popular culture and its discourse, even its music. And not just today: Remember, one of Frank Sinatra’s best-known songs was “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You.”

But today, too many political activists preach a victim narrative to their target audiences. “Society,” they tell their listeners, is somehow holding them back, keeping them down, preventing them from participating in the good life. But maybe it’s really the speakers, and their disempowering narrative, holding them back.

There’s a lot more to the psychology of cause and effect, but a good starting point for most of us would be to clean up our language. The famous motivational psychologist Norman Vincent Peale often said, “Change your thoughts, and you change your world.” Maybe it’s time to update that advice: Change your words, and you change your world.

More from Karl Albrecht Ph.D.
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