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Change Your Language, Change Your Life

How subtle shifts in the words you use can make a world of difference.

Do you ever marvel at the miracle of language? I can’t help but do it all the time; because if you really stop and think about it, words are magic. Somehow, in the evolution of our species, we came to develop and refine the ability to put together syllables and make them mean something. Over time, the utterance of certain sounds allowed us to form relationships, create communities, and build and destroy civilizations. As mind-bending as it is to recognize, our entire reality has been shaped by words. It’s language, after all, that ultimately defines our relationships and gives meaning to the events of our lives. But because language is so integral to our experience, we rarely give it much consideration.

I’ve been fortunate to study under some heavyweight social constructionists, who’ve trained me to keep track of how words impact the human experience. They’ve helped me recognize that we use language to not only understand reality, but to create it. This awareness has been a game-changer for me, and it’s something I enthusiastically share with others whenever I get the chance. There’s really no overstating it: our words create our world. For most of us, this is rather obvious, especially when it comes to the words we use with others. We’ve been taught to watch what we say, because words have consequences. We practice crafting our messages carefully. We speak to others in particular ways to get our thoughts across accurately or cause a specific reaction. But rarely do we extend this awareness to include the words we use in the endless conversations we have with, and about, ourselves. Changing that can change everything.

We are all in relationship with ourselves, and the way we speak to and about ourselves goes a long way in influencing how we feel. Using only our words, we can construct a prison for ourselves or set ourselves free. We’re able to design limitations or create possibilities with the mere turn of a phrase. In his famous book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, author Don Miguel Ruiz asserts the importance of being impeccable with our words. “Say only what you mean,” he says. “Avoid using the word against yourself . . . Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” Taking on this agreement can have a profound impact on us; through subtle shifts in language, we create major shifts in our lives. Here are a few you can try on for size:

Replace I have to with I get to. The minor substitution of one small word can make a major difference in how we feel about things. When we feel we have to do something, we tend to experience it as kind of a drag; but when we get to do something, we see it as an opportunity. Making this simple replacement can completely transform the way you feel about whatever’s on your agenda.

Instead of I’m going through something difficult, how about I’m growing through something difficult? The trying times and tough circumstances we face in life aren’t much fun, but shifting our perspective to see that those struggles are helping us grow can make them feel that much more manageable. And all we need to create that perspective shift is a little shift in language.

Rather than should, must, or ought to, use prefer to, want to, or choose to. Whenever the words should, must, or ought to appear in our language, it’s usually a sign that we’re putting pressure on ourselves or holding ourselves to an arbitrary standard. Often, when we tell ourselves we should or must do something, we wind up feeling unpleasant emotions like guilt, anxiety, or even shame. But we can achieve the same ends, with far less collateral emotional damage, by simply using more self-empowering language.

Try the shift from I can’t do this or I’m not good at this to This is challenging, and I’ll get it, or I’m still learning, and I’ll keep at it. The late Wayne Dyer famously said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” This quote is a beautiful testament to the power of perspective, and alterations in language are a great way to generate new ways of looking at things. Rather than fighting for your limitations by asserting that you can’t do something or aren’t good at it, choose to fight for your potential instead. You can acknowledge the difficulty of something while also acknowledging yourself for keeping at it and affirming that you’ll get it eventually. This small adjustment can give you the energy boost you need to stick to the process and overcome your challenges.

Of course, these are only a few of the countless ways you can change your language to change the way you see yourself and, ultimately, change your life. With the intention to recognize the impact of your words, you’ll no doubt start to discover new opportunities to expand your perspective and see a greater landscape of possibilities for yourself. The magic of words is yours to play with; and your life depends on how you do it.

More from Denise Fournier Ph.D.
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More from Denise Fournier Ph.D.
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