How do the words we say (and think) affect our ability to accomplish the things we care about?
Our words create our world
During a recent session journaling, I had a bit of an epiphany about certain common phrases we (I) use about time and goals, and the impact those words have on our mindset, and thus our ability to accomplish the things we really care about.
Why Do Our Words Matter?
As a lifelong book lover, a writer, and a lawyer, I believe the words we use matter. As I’ve learned more about the way our minds work, I’ve become even more convinced of the importance of the words we use. Why? Because what we say reflects our thinking, but it also affects what we think.
Our words reflect our thoughts. To those who listen carefully, they reveal the mindset behind what we’re saying.
But the things we say also affect our thoughts. We frame our thoughts through the words we say. What we think about creates the emotions that we are feeling. This means that we can change our feelings by changing our thoughts… and we can change our thoughts by the words we choose to use.
Like everything else, it’s a matter of both awareness and intentionality. (We talked about this in our Mindset Matters series; see episode 108 – Mindset Matters: Productive Attitudes and episode 112 – Mindset Matters: Productive Beliefs).)
We want to be mindful of the things we say without being aware of the meaning or impact (on ourselves or on other people). One article called “The Scary Power of Negative Words” on Goop.com asks a thought-provoking question:
“How many times a day do we throw our words away? We say things like, ‘I hate my hair,’ ‘I’m so stupid,’ ‘I’m such a klutz.’ We never think that these words bring negative energy into our vibration and affect us on a physical level, but they do.”
The other part of choosing words that matter is intentionality. We use words without thinking, and they have an impact. However, we can turn that around and choose–on purpose–words that will motivate us, uplift us, and keep us moving in the right direction.
The Power of Words
That same article reminds us that “Words have power. Their meaning crystallizes perceptions that shape our beliefs, drive our behavior, and ultimately, create our world. Their power arises from our emotional responses when we read, speak, or hear them.”
What’s important to realize is the impact of things we repeatedly say to ourselves, consciously or “automatically.” Those things we habitually say dig in and create deep and persistent neural pathways in our brain, and, true or not, they become our reality.
“Some of us are in the habit of using the same negative words over and over again out of habit. The problem is that the more we hear, read, or speak a word or phrase, the more power it has over us. This is because the brain uses repetition to learn, searching for patterns and consistency as a way to make sense of the world around us.”
The author continues,
“This is of particular concern when we consider a phenomenon called the Illusion of Truth Effect. It basically proves that any statement we read, see, or speak regularly is seen as more valid than one we’re exposed to only occasionally. Amazingly, it makes no difference whether the information is true or false. The only thing that matters is how often we’re exposed to it.”
Think about this for a minute: the point of this “illusion of truth” concept is that those things we say to ourselves repeatedly become more real to us than those positive things others might say to us.
Remember that consistency will trump truth. If you hear it often enough, and certainly if you say it often enough, it has more of an effect on you than the truth. So even something untrue you say over and over becomes truth to you.
The Things We Say
Some of the things we say related to time and productivity might need to be rethought. Consider how many of the following you find yourself saying.
1. “I don’t have time for…”
This is what I started to write as I was journaling, and I realized it’s simply not true. I have time enough to do what matters. I choose to do other things.
How many times have you thought you didn’t have the time or energy to clean the house, but then the phone rings and somebody important to you is coming over, and suddenly you make the time and find the energy to do it?
2. “I’m too busy/I’m so busy…”
I would challenge you (and me) to say, “I am too busy compared to what?” An alternative I’ve tried to use is “that week was very full.”
You’re exactly as busy as you’ve chosen to be.
3. “I have to…”
There’s a huge difference between the mindset of “have to,” and “get to,” or even “choose to.” The attitude of “I have to” is a powerless attitude. It's letting someone else decide for you.
The first abdicates your power and the responsibility for your own life.
You don’t have to. You can choose not to. There may be consequences you don’t like, but it’s still a choice.
Think about that next time you find yourself thinking those words, and own your choice. Think on purpose about why you are doing something.
4. “I don’t know / I don’t know how…”
If your statement about a project or task stops at “I don't know” or “I don't know how,” it stops you in your tracks. It shackles your productivity. When we say that, we're really saying, “I can’t do it because I don’t know how.”
Alternative things to say would be, “I need to learn how,” or “How can I find out?”
5. “I want to…” (when asked to set a goal)
When talking about a goal, saying “I want to [whatever]” implies that whether or not you do it is outside your control.
We say this because we don’t want to commit (whether out of uncertainty about whether we really want to do it, or fear of letting ourself down if we don't finish).
If it’s worth setting as a goal, it’s worth committing to. I challenge all of us, before saying this, to pause, think — do I really care about accomplishing this? If so, change your words: “I will…” Make that commitment to yourself, and then honor that commitment.
6. “I can’t.”
This has always been something I’ve struggled with. A person I was talking to recently said she's constantly interrupted by students dropping in. She said her male colleagues just tell the students no, but, she said, “I just can’t do that.” The truth is she can, but she doesn't want to disappoint the students. As a result, she gives up time she'd scheduled to work on projects important to her.
We often do something similar, saying, “I wish I could make time to work on X, but there are so many demands on my time, I just can't.”
We can, but we choose not to because it’s hard.
The writer of “7 Steps to Positive Self-Talk” says, “A common negative talk involves telling yourself, “I can’t.” When you say to yourself, “I can’t,” or “it is too difficult,” you are creating a resistance. Having such a mental block will prevent you from achieving a task you could otherwise succeed at.”
Just the act of saying I can’t is building resistance within ourselves. We're making it even harder for ourselves. Any time we're trying something new, there's already resistance there. We're adding to it by allowing ourselves to think (and voice) the “I can't.” The things we say reflect our thinking, and that thought comes to us, and then we say it out loud, and then it reinforces that resistance. We can find other ways to deal with that resistance besides giving voice to it.
7. “I should be able to X…” (because other people do/can.)
This seems to be something a lot of women struggle with–the feeling that we should be doing something more or different because we see other people doing more (or different, which we interpret as better than the way we're doing it). Some examples I've heard:
- “My mother worked and still kept up the house without help, so I should be able to … shouldn’t hire help.”
- “The other women I know are able to stay organized, so I should be able to.”
The consequences of the comparison trap — judging ourselves and our worth by what we think other people are doing — are paralyzed productivity. Comparison is an unproductive path to go down.
What other people can or can’t do is irrelevant. They don’t have your life. They don’t have your talents, abilities, experience, or personality.
Set aside this idea of what you should be able to do, and deal with the reality of what you are doing, what you want to do, and if you aren’t doing what you want to, then why?
Setting your goals based on what other people do (or what you think they do) is a singularly unproductive approach to creating your life.
Give yourself permission to do what makes sense for you in your life today.
What do the things we say mean?
Most of these are extremely passive phrases, implying that things just happened to us beyond our control. We are relinquishing control over our lives when we say these things.
The truth is if we’re too busy, we have done that to ourselves, by choosing to take on more than we want to, or by choosing to let others choose for us, or by choosing to not say no. (Look at episode 8, “Saying No Gracefully” and episode 68, “The Lies We Tell Ourselves.”) Every one of these phrases is passive, and expresses (and perpetuates) the mindset that, “life just happens to me and I have no control over it,” but that’s not true. We have control over our lives.
We can choose
Please understand, I’m not trying to stifle feelings or say we should pretend, nor am I suggesting we be phony in the words we use. I just want to bring our attention to things we all say without really thinking about it, without being aware of the impact. We can say what we want to; we just want to be aware and intentional.
This is part of making a life that matters, rather than waiting for it to happen to us, or just taking whatever comes. It’s part of living intentionally, creating on purpose, living life the way we choose, instead of passively accepting (or enduring) what comes at us.
It is important to remember the life we live is the result of our choices, whether they’re made intentionally or not. Even not choosing is a choice. Passivity is a choice, and inactivity is a choice.
The words we say over time create the world we live in — they frame and affect our perception of our life, ourself, our abilities.
If things aren’t going the way you want them to, and you’ve developed the habit of framing things negatively, the good news is that even if we’ve created those trenches, (from habitually, repeatedly, saying things that have a negative impact), we can change those habits.
A fascinating article called “How Words Affect Our Brains” talks about how we can change our brain’s pathways, or our ways of thinking:
“Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe how the brain continues to reinvent itself. Older, unused pathways fall away, and new ones, with repetition and focus, emerge. What we think about actually rewires our brains — for better or worse. We now know that our choice of words has a direct and immediate effect on our emotional response, and makes our brains inclined to respond in specific ways. This is true whether we are reacting to spoken words delivered by someone else, or to the inner self-talk that we hear ourselves ‘saying’ inside our heads.”
I encourage you to pay attention in the next few days to the things you’re saying (either out loud or just in your own head). Consider whether those things are helping you accomplish what you care about and make a life that matters.
Resources and Links:
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
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