By Sinay Butler, Counselor, Dragonfly Wellness
Have you ever spouted out words that you later regretted? Have you thought about the power and consequences of your words?
Words are how we communicate our thoughts and feelings and establish connections with other humans. We develop ideas and philosophies as we share our thoughts with others. Feelings, ideas, and thoughts take on life and meaning as we put words to them. But it is our great responsibility to use our words wisely since they have the power to encourage or cause harm. Choosing how we frame our words can greatly improve relationships and help children become confident adults.
Your words impact others and yourself.
Often, we don’t realize the power of our words. We use words casually and without regard to the impact they have on the listener, as well as on our own thinking. The writer of the Book of Proverbs says that the tongue has the power of life and death. There is a common saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It isn’t true. Words do hurt.
Distinguish between appropriate behavior and a person’s worth.
Words can destroy a relationship or a person’s self-worth, especially that of children. One of the basic rules about communicating with children is to distinguish between how we feel about the behavior in contrast to how we feel about the child. When a child misbehaves, we want to correct the behavior without communicating negative statements about the child. For example, say, “I want you to use kind words in this house,” rather than “You are a mean person.” We want to be careful not to say the child is bad but instead describe the behavior that was wrong and the kind of behavior you want. Statements like, “You are bad,” doesn’t leave room for a person to change.
Labeling people can shift our feelings about them.
Paying attention to how we say something is important when we communicate with adults too. People think, say, and do seemingly “crazy” and “stupid” things, but that doesn’t mean the person is crazy or stupid. It is important to make this distinction because it will influence how the other person feels about us and can also change how we feel about that person. When we start to call someone crazy or stupid because we don’t agree with them, we will have a shift in our feelings about that person. Thinking and saying crazy and stupid things doesn’t define a person. If we’re honest, most of us have said or done something that could be labeled crazy or stupid.
Stop labeling people.
Recently, it has become popular to label others with mental health disorders. You would think that nearly everyone’s ex-partner or estranged parent is a narcissist, when, in fact, having narcissistic personality disorder is very rare (only about .05-5% of the nonclinical US population). When we call someone a narcissist, it changes how we think and feel about them. The word itself can hold the relief of an explanation or the power of judgment. But, when we casually label someone we are frustrated with as having a mental health problem, such as “narcissist personality disorder” or “bipolar,” we are doing a disservice to people who actually struggle with mental health issues.
Pay attention to your words.
One of the foundational tools used in cognitive behavioral therapy is to pay attention to the words we use. When we say “you always leave your towel on the floor” or “you never listen to me” we create an absolute of black and white thinking that is rarely true. The words are charged with innuendo and accusation, which creates defensiveness and breaks down communication and relationship. When angry, try waiting until the emotion passes before discussing the behavior you would like to have changed. Think about exactly how it affects you. And then use “I” statements and include how it makes you feel. For example, “I feel like you’re not listening to me and that makes me feel unappreciated,” or, “When you leave your towel on the floor, I pick it up because I feel more comfortable in a clean house. Would you mind tossing it in the hamper next time?” (or “I would appreciate it if you tossed it in the hamper next time.”)
Language influences our thinking.
In the classic (and arguably prophetic) book, 1984, Orwell states, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Big Brother used slogans that changed the meaning of words to control the populace until they mindlessly chanted, “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” Words hold power and can bring the listener to understanding, to compassion, to anger, or to take action. Thinking about the words we will use before speaking, and setting our intention to use words that are kind and reflect the kind of relationship we want to have with the listener, has the potential to greatly improve that relationship.
If you would like help in changing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors or if you would like to learn better tools for communication, counselors and life coaches at Dragonfly Wellness and Education Center are trained to help in these areas. Call 509-724-0221 for more information.