“STICKS and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.”
Does anyone still actually think this is true? In my experience words can cause a hurt deeper than any mere stick or stone (clubs and boulders not withstanding)!
Words have the power to transform for good and ill and there are many examples around us of both. In inspirational speeches words are used to inspire and motivate by painting word pictures to create a shared vision. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream is a fantastic example of this and another of my favourites is Kenneth Brannagh’s Henry V’s Band of Brothers speech. In both of these, vivid images are created by the speaker’s words and their language is laced with meaning and purpose. The direction they set is clear and compelling.
When words are used to deliver a constant stream of criticism, as in bullying or abuse, they can connect us to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness and we may lose our purpose and motivation, no sticks or stones required.
The impact of negative feedback can be a particular challenge as a creative freelance, as part of our working life includes being regularly told no. Learning how to use more helpful descriptions of those no’s is really important. If we start using words like ‘failed’, ‘rejected’, ‘on the scrap heap’ and ‘all washed up’, you can see how this can seep through even the strongest self-esteem and impact our attitude to ourselves. If you were criticised a lot as a child, the impact can be greater because it starts to reinforce statements you were brought up hearing.
Learning to use more measured questions and statements like, ‘What can I do differently next time?’ and ‘I’m not sure that opportunity was right for me,’ can help to keep the situation more flexible and less personal.
Most of us don’t think much about how we use language day to day. We underestimate the power of the words we use. For example, at a recent workshop, someone asked about how to deal with the ‘vacuum’ that is created after you send off an application or piece of work, and are waiting for it to come back.
When you use a label like ‘vacuum’ to describe a situation, it literally sucks the life out of it. A vacuum is a space of negative pressure suggesting a lack of air and movement. Using this description makes it solid and inflexible, which in itself becomes a problem. Instead, if they called it, ‘free time’, or ‘time for looking at other opportunities’, it immediately becomes unstuck and the time becomes useful again. A small change like that in the words we use can completely transform our experience of the same situation.
Similarly, when things don’t go to plan, consider the difference in how it feels when you say, “Oh no, what a disaster” to “Oh no, I need to find a way to fix this.”
Think about the situations in your life where you shut down your options or enthusiasm for taking action by your choice of words. Compare them to situations where you find it easy to bounce back. What words do you use to describe problems? I would guess that they are constructive ones. When you become aware of the difference you can start to choose what words work for you. You’re not powerless here. It just takes a combination of attention and practice.
It’s worth remembering that at some level we often hear what is said at a literal level. When my son was very young, and I was telling him off, I said, “You’re driving me up the wall!” He instantly imagined himself actually driving me up the wall, and burst out laughing. When I realised what he was laughing at, I had to join in.
This is a funny example, but if you habitually and inadvertently use overly dramatic words such as ‘disaster’, ‘catastrophe’, or ‘devastating’, when you are describing things that are minor inconveniences, part of you, at some level, will be accepting these words at face value. So, a fairly uneventful day can feel really draining and you can end up exhausted by your own description of events.
The language we use helps create the world we live in. So, the next time you find yourself describing a situation using exaggerated negative language, consider if the images that description conjures up for you is a useful version. If not, find some other way to describe it that makes it more supportive and helpful, which will keep you resourceful in that situation in the future.
Our words effect the people around us, and ourselves, so start paying more attention to how you speak, and if you think you could make life more enjoyable for yourself and others by some minor tweaks in your language, then have a play and see what the impact is.
So, mind what you say!