Written by Cathy Kelly, LCSW
Lead Therapist/Training Specialist, The Meadows
We live in a cultural that can both over and under estimate the power of someone’s words. Certainly we may tune in more fully to the words of someone we love, want to be like or even someone we fear and as humans we also have a well-developed ability to tune people out. The well-spoken can lead and mislead others with their use of the “right” words. We hire people to sell products, ideas, and positions through the use of language. So are words powerful? Absolutely! We can soar or crash in what we say and what we hear.
The Model of Developmental Immaturity used at The Meadows looks at the correctional between early life experiences and current life experiences. Your perceptions, behaviors and words all reflect your life experiences and what conclusions you come to about yourself and the world. These conclusions may create suffering or support the quality of your life.
The question is how do you begin to tap into the beauty and power of words spoken in truth and respect versus feeling devastated or being offensive by the misuse of words. What has been your history with words? Were you allowed to have a voice growing up? Did the adults in your life share their thoughts and feelings with containment and respect or did you grow up in a household with sarcasm, blame, criticism, or rage? How do you use your words today? Are you critical of yourself and or others, do you attempt to manipulate others or allow yourself to be manipulated, do you say the first thing that comes to mind without thought to whether you are respectful or not, do you send sideway jabs when you are angry or do you withhold your thoughts and feelings with a wall of silence? All of the above mentioned behaviors are examples of how we can get off course relationally with our self and others. Again, words are powerful. They can support our emotional well-being, or they can exacerbate symptoms of addiction, depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and relational issues.
So, one of the first steps is to begin to track what you tell yourself and others. Explore your thoughts and feelings are they supported by facts or assumptions? Have your beliefs been there so long you don’t even know what they are based on anymore? Do your words truly reflect your authentic self? It becomes a vicious cycle when you see yourself or others in a negative light and then based on those beliefs create more negativity. Before you know it, you can find yourself in a very deep dark hole afraid to trust anyone and to see only the worst in yourself or others.
You may be saying words cannot be that powerful but think about the impact of telling yourself over and over that you are defective or unlovable or that others are out to do you harm or don’t like you. Critical words will take a toll on your relationships and emotional well-being. Words reflect your inner world and when there have been experiences that leave you doubting yourself or the world they are demonstrated through your language. People do not just become harsh or withdraw without a reason. Yes, you can have a bad day but what we are talking about here is a pattern not an occasional grumpy mood or the need to have some alone time to rejuvenate.
The good news is you can turn the use of words into a healing experience by interrupting the negative self-talk, interrupting the spewing of your thoughts without containment and respect, using daily affirmations, and speaking your truth with respect and containment. The work that is involved in the process is both interrupting the habitual behaviors and digging in and examining your beliefs. This can be a tricky process if you have bought into the “lies” of who you are. For this part of the process, you are looking for the facts not the assumptions or perceptions you have had. This can be confusing especially if you have been told, or it has been demonstrated to you that you are less than or better than others, but the real flaw in this thinking is you are running with someone else’s distorted thinking. This is not typically done in malice but more frequently out of a person’s own trauma. An example of this is the parent who in their childhood learned that to be “perfect” was the most effective way to avoid abuse and get some positive recognition. The parent’s perfectionism is modeled to the child but what the child learns is I have to be perfect to be good enough. The underlining message for the child is who I am, is not OK.
You can imagine if a child runs with this belief, they may become a high achiever, the good student, good child and whatever else they believe will make them good enough, or they may go in the opposite direction and become the rebellious child. When the hero child becomes an adult they typically do not stop trying to earn their value. They become the good adult. They may present very accomplished, capable and smart but what is happening on the inside may be very different. You see no matter how well they perform it is never enough for them. What you might be wowed by they are often being very critical or judgmental about. If they were the rebel as a child, they might struggle as an adult with self-sabotaging behaviors, disliking people of authority or still have difficulty complying with “the rules.” The outcome of this distorted belief system (I’m good—the hero, or I’m bad—the rebel) is often becoming depressed, anxious, overwhelmed, burnt out, setting yourself up to “fail” and even addiction.
Remember, words can heal or wound, and if your experience has been to have the words that are wounding, chances are you are either continuing to wound yourself with negative self-talk or you have now taken on the role of the offender (being critical and judgmental ) of others. The action of looking underneath the behaviors and confronting the skewed perceptions of who you are allows for healing and a reclaiming of your inherent truth that you are valuable, that you have the right and need to speak your truth with respect and love of yourself and others, recognition that you are perfectly imperfect, that you have your own identity and that you can live a life in balance (moderation).
You may need professional support in the beginning to separate fact from fiction, and that is ok. It is not easy to begin to look at yourself and the world in a different light then what you have seen and believed in often for decades. The clues lie in what you tell yourself and others. Gather your data. Are you the ghost of Christmas past repeating critical words you heard as a child or praises that told you that you were better than others?
The road of recovery is paved in “truth, respect and love” — words often spoken in this article. It requires stepping out of the known and familiar and often tolerating some discomfort in finding your own truth and practicing respect and love of self and others.
If you still doubt the power of words, why not put it to the test. The next time you make a mistake, you are angry with someone or one of your kids does something they have been told not to do, try to approach the situation with kind words. If you find yourself struggling with attempting to speak your truth respectfully with love, you might ask yourself what would be your ideal outcome of the situation and are your words leading you toward or away from that outcome.
Remember, change is never easy getting the support you need whether that is reading self-help books, attending workshops, a support group, individual therapy or inpatient treatment and let your words begin to reflect your heart (authentic self) and your healing (recovery). As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.” Henry got the power of words and that they can lead you forward or pull you backyard. The choice is yours though we hope the path you choose is one that honors self.