One of my initial experiences in truly understanding the power of language came during my first birthday of the soul when, in the space of four days, both of my parents received diagnoses of terminal illness. Shortly thereafter, I happened to bump into a friend, who asked what was happening in my life. She was completely unaware of my situation, so I gave her a brief synopsis and then said flatly, “My life is hell.”
That statement jarred even me. I thought about those words for days. With those words, I had violated everything I believed in. I know how words and language shape attitudes and behavior. The way we speak directs our actions. If I spoke angrily, I would think angrily and act angrily. Since language frames our experience, I knew that I had to rethink how I was going to tell this part of my life story. I began to see that those angry words were expressing my fears—fear of the unknown and fear of the ultimate loss. Within days of that bitter moment, I made the conscious decision never to speak those words again.
Reflecting back, I recognize that those words, my life is hell, created a very limited view of what was possible. It also meant that I was focusing entirely on myself and loss. I was identifying myself as a victim. When I vowed to never say those words again and to focus instead on my parents’ current experience, everything began to change. As soon as I decided to respond from compassion, rather than react, I began to think and speak differently.
Labeling reflects the thoughts that shape our emotions. Because feelings are transitory and change over time, I started making a conscious effort not to label my experiences. I began to recognize that whatever is happening now and how I am feeling in this moment are not permanent conditions. If I label an event as a mistake, a failure, a bad thing, or a disaster, the thought of it will always evoke the same emotional response inside me.
Over time, though, the events of my life can take on new meaning. My feelings months or years later are often not the same as they were initially. By learning to use language that is neutral, I was preventing my thoughts from sending negative messages churning through the cells of my body. I was also doing away with the need to reframe the experiences later.
So, does this mean I don’t get to feel? No, it means that, even when I’m experiencing strong feelings, I take care with the words that I speak. Think of a time when your feelings were terribly hurt. What was the story you told yourself and expressed to others? Later you may have received information about the situation that changed your mind, or you may have matured into a different view. Sometimes, if we’re brave, we can even see the part we played in creating the situation.
Fear has its own language. It speaks in terms of self-doubt and limits. It repeats old stories and beliefs. Fear actually diminishes our capacity to use all aspects of our mind to find possibilities and solutions to any challenge. When I look back at that time of caring for my parents at the end of their lives, I see now that it was one of the greatest gifts of my life. But first I needed to feel all of the emotions around the experience and grieve the situation. Although I could recognize that it was a precious passage at the time, much of the wisdom and clarity I gained, the gift of understanding, didn’t surface within me until I’d had some time to heal.
Changing my language has impacted my life in many ways, but it didn’t happen overnight. It took a great deal of practice and still does. When I speak, I often find that I need to correct myself mid-sentence. It’s not uncommon to hear me say, “I don’t want to use that word anymore.” If things are challenging, I’m very aware that they will change over time. By not assigning labels, I’m changing my mindset and expanding the field of what it possible. I can be more constructive in my thinking to find a way through whatever it is.
In short, I like myself better. My thoughts are composed of words, and I get to choose the words. When I speak, I get to decide which words will resonate in my body and be heard in the outer world. It’s a way of being more compassionate toward myself and others, another bonus from living in discovery.