Words have the power to enable or disable, empower and disempower. So with great power comes great responsibility.
As someone whose life’s trajectory (see an earlier article) has been focused on development and growth, I have seen over and over again the impact words can have. For some of my students, friends and family a few words have been immensely powerful. Yet for others, I’ve seen how a few words, often carelessly delivered but at a critical time, have destroyed a person’s life, derailed great potential or kept someone trapped in an unsatisfying relationship or career. Let’s unpack this.
I was doing some counselling work with a young woman in her twenties whose personal life was a mess. She was married but having an affair, and considering starting a second affair. She was also dissatisfied at work. My intuition was telling me that this woman was highly creative. But whenever I raised it she absolutely denied any creative talents. In the end my intuition led me to take a risk and try a confrontational approach. I told her I was not continuing until she told me what creativity she abandoned around the age of 14. She was shocked, but it worked in causing her to pause and get past the internal dialogue that was blocking her. After some time she told be that as a child she had always wanted to act on the stage. Just before she turned 14 her mother sat her down and said to her that “it’s time to stop all this acting nonsense. There’s no money in acting and besides, all actresses are whores”. And there she had it. Those two sentences, from an authority figure and at the right time, were defining her life, and in a very negative way. She had abandoned acting and become an accountant, which she was hating. I explained that, as a creative person, that tendency was still there, but since she was not making conscious use of it, the creativity (love of drama) was still finding ways to express itself in her life, but just in destructive ways by turning her life into repeating episodes of “Days of Our Lives”. I made her promise to do something life join an amateur theatre group or such, so she could take control of her creativity. And she did. After some time her private life settled down, she was finding her career as an accountant satisfying AND she was actively involved in amateur theatre.
Over the years I have seen so many students of mine blocked in some way by the impact of limiting language, delivered by the right person at the wrong time. Perhaps less dramatic than the above example, but I’ve seen countless students manifesting the “you are stupid”, “you’ll never be successful”, “you can’t do maths and so will never have money” or the “there’s something wrong with you” playbooks in their own lives. These victims turn such imposed lines of thinking on themselves and repeat over and over “I’m bad with technology”, “I can’t write”, “I don’t understand numbers” or “I can’t program”. And you know what?
As long as they keep believing that, it is true.
Strong Words, Critical Timing
Words like can and can’t, good or bad, do or don’t, is or isn’t, am or not, always or never, are very powerful and dangerous because they are closed. Closed in this context means that they define a state that, because of the language, can only be true or not. They are definite, and note that the word definite is related to the word defining. And this is the key — these words are used, either by others or by ourselves, to define us. I’ve examined the damage labels can have on the neurodiverse in this article. “I can’t do math” is defining and limiting. But even worse is “You are bad at math” from an authority figure. Even stronger is “You will never understand math”.
A critical additional factor is timing. We all know that there are times when we are more vulnerable, more open to having a point of view imposed on us, or to reinforcing a self-opinion. And there are other times when we are feeling rebellious, or more powerful and confident, when we will challenge assertions by others or ourselves. So a strong, closed statement from an authority figure at a time of maximum vulnerability can be devastating, like the example I opened this article with.
Repetition also strengthens the effect of closed statements. So even if the timing is not at our most vulnerable, repeated statements over an extended time period will add up, reinforce each other, and have a similar impact. If you hear the same thing often enough you will start to believe it.
Job titles are also defining, and so are also “closed” as I use the term above. A lecturer lectures, so they don’t coach or mentor. An accountant counts, they don’t discuss, encourage, etc. A Doctor doctors, so anyone they see must be “sick” and need to be “cured”. My friend Jade has discussed aspects around this in an excellent article recently. Job titles also gain power because of the ‘authority’ they have, being tied to qualifications, positions, responsibility, image and salary — all things that it is easy to allow to define us.
The Role of Inner Talk
We all talk to ourselves. For some it is an occasional thing, for others it represents a constant background. For still others it is a deafening roar where the uncontrolled and usually unconscious chatter makes it hard to consciously focus in your own mind. Meditation practices usually focus on gaining control over this inner chatter, quietening it on demand.
With so much focus on quietening it, one could assume that inner talk is always a bad thing and should be eliminated.
For some of us inner talk is a meaningful communication between some part of ourselves and our conscious mind. It can be the way for our intuition, emerging from subconscious processes of filtering and analysis, to inform us. With so much work today being done on discovering what is the real role of the large amount of neuronal tissue in our hearts and guts, is the inner voice the way these heart and gut ‘thinking centres’ communicate with us?
For those of a spiritual or religious bent, the inner voice is the channel of communication for beings beyond us. Clairaudience (the hearing aspect of clairvoyance) is how they hear messages from the world of spirit. Those on the shamanic path can hear the voices of nature, spirit guides and their ancestors through the inner voice. And the religious hear the voice of God speaking to them this way.
Even if the latter goes too far for you, the more conventional ideas of the inner voice given above that fall within conventional psychology and emerging neuroscience offer valid roles for the inner voice. The key is control of it.
The Interplay With Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is a hot topic in neuroscience at the present time. You can read a good overview of the current thinking about neuroplasticity here. In a nutshell, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to remodel itself, growing new connections and even replacing neurons. It is operative during learning.
Neuroplasticity has become a hot topic as it has been realised that it is responsible for the amazing recoveries of function that many people have after major brain injury, with the brain rewiring itself around the injuries and sometimes repurposing a new area of the brain to provide the same function as a damaged area. It seems to be involved in other areas, including childhood development, where issues like dyslexia seem to become less severe with time and appropriate training, at least for some individuals.
However what can change to improve function can also change to impair function. The negative aspect of neuroplasticity, which is not talked about as much, is that the rewiring can reduce functionality or more deeply embed bad habits and methods of thinking. It seems to be involved in our response to trauma, especially repeated trauma.
The inner voice can play a role in directing neuroplastic developments. Repeated appropriate language can stimulate new connections that reinforce that meaning. It is how affirmations can work. But repeated negative affirmations will also produce change.
Harnessing the Power
The words we use can not only direct neuroplasticity, but also define and limit the mental models we use to deal with and process the world, serve as gatekeepers on our perceptions and influence our interpretations of events. We know that mental models are important to learning and development, but also to our day-to-day functioning. Some, such as first principles thinking and the growth mindset, have been shown to be very enabling. Yet others, such as poverty thinking, can negatively impact our thinking, causing us to reject opportunities or to ineffectively engage with them.
As gatekeepers of our perceptions, words can powerfully impact our lives. Our earlier discussion of job titles is relevant here. For example, in the title of Learning & Development Advisor, the key word, advisor, can be a limiter. Does it mean you only provide advice to others, and never take action yourself. Does this channel your thinking that way and cause you to not even see opportunities to take direct action yourself?
Likewise words can define and limit how we interpret events. Being surrounded by words about conflict makes it more likely that you will interpret events in an adversarial way.
All the above leads us to the need to be far more careful about the words we use to define and label. Rather than being nitpicking, it is about understanding the subtle psychology of words.
Words are also intimately linked to memories. We’ve all experienced hearing the words to a song that suddenly transport us to a memory and then bring up the associated emotions as if that memory was happening all over again.
Choose open and empowering words rather than limiting or closed ones. Be careful with words that can be linked to strong emotions. Stop being careless in the use of language.
After all, isn’t our use of language one of the very things that defines us as human?
And That’s a Wrap, For Now
If you take nothing else away from this article, please take this:
You can’t control what other people say, but you can control what you do with it
In this article we’ve seen just how powerful words can be. Let’s be mindful of this.