The Power of Language

Remember when you were a kid and your parent stood over you and said something like, “You should be doing homework now instead of wasting time!” or “You know what you need to do? You need to talk to your teacher and get this fixed!” or “You really ought to pay more attention! You never listen!”. If those phrases sent a cold chill down your spine, apologies for the trigger but those chills reflect the power of words and how we still associate some words with guilt, shame, and powerlessness.

Think about the last time you tried to motivate yourself to do something, maybe a workout at the gym, cleaning your house, or finishing a project at work. If you are like most people, you probably said to yourself that you needed to, should or ought to do that task and then made some kind of judgment about yourself for not feeling more motivated to get the task done.

Choosing our Words

Sound familiar? The problem may not be your lack of motivation but instead the language you are using. Using words such as need to, ought to, have to, or should remind us of being lectured at and the feeling of being controlled by others. Along with that reminder comes the guilt, fear, or shame when we didn’t do as we were commanded, even though we are now adults in charge of our own lives. How do we stop associating those tasks we may not be excited to complete with a sense of loss of control and instead empower and motivate ourselves? We change the language!

Choosing words that reflect an internal locus of control, a sense that we are in control and have choices, changes the feelings we have about the task and gives us a sense of power over our lives. We no longer imagine a parent standing over us, wagging a finger in our face and giving us directives but instead view tasks as choices we can engage in or not without judgment. So what words do we use to get this magical empowerment? I am so glad you asked! Substitute these powerless words for ones that reflect how you feel or reflect your needs and how you want to direct your life.

Here are some examples:

  • “I need to go to the gym, I am so lazy!” changes to “I feel better after working out”
  • “I should finish up my work before I leave today” changes to “I will have a better start to tomorrow if I finish up this work today”
  • “I ought to quit spending so much money” changes to “I enjoy the feeling of being more financially secure and having money in my account, it means more to me than the thrill of buying things”

Before you think I am trying to turn you into an eternally upbeat person who only sees the bright side of life, we can still include those negative thoughts and statements and still keep the power!

  • “I HATE going to the gym to work out, but I do like the benefits I get”
  • “I want to save money, but I enjoy going to out to eat, maybe I can find other ways to save”
  • “I really don’t want to go to that meeting, but it won’t last forever and then I can go do something I enjoy!”

Changing Language is a Process

Language changes don’t come easily or immediately, what you have learned over the course of your life cannot be unlearned in a day so please be patient with yourself. Try first to just notice how often you use words or phrases that guilt or shame you into action, next try to catch yourself using the words and then try to replace them whenever you can.

The more you try to catch these words and replace them, the easier it will become, and before you know it, you will have built a new pathway in your brain that seeks to use empowering language!

Lastly, notice that with the shift in language also comes a shift from guilt or shame to extending grace and understanding to yourself. Continuing to berate or judge yourself for not completing tasks is just as harmful as trying to guilt yourself into action in the first place and is usually not an effective motivator.

Instead of offering judgment on yourself, try extending understanding and acknowledging your needs:

  • “I wanted to go to the gym today, but I wasn’t feeling great and decided to give my body a rest”
  • “I know I will have an early morning tomorrow at work but spending time with friends was more important today”
  • “I spent more money on vacation than I had planned but now that I am back I can work on building up my savings again”

Language has power and our words send a message to the brain about the control we have over our lives. Taking the time to be intentional in your speech creates awareness in our thoughts and shapes our view of our world and our place in it. Next time you think or say, “I need to take better care of myself”, try starting with the words you use.

About Kristi French

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