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.
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.
Reflecting back, I can see 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.
From my current perspective, I recognize that the time I spent caring for my parents was one of the greatest gifts of my life. But back then, I first 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.
Labeling dramatically affects the thoughts that feed into our emotions. Because feelings are transitory and change over time, we can make a conscious effort not to label our experiences. We can recognize that whatever is happening now and how we feel in this moment are not permanent conditions. If we 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.
Over time, though, the events of our lives can take on new meaning. Our feelings months or years later are often not the same as they were initially. Sometimes, if we’re brave, we can even see the part we played in creating the situation. By learning to use language that is neutral, we can prevent our thoughts from sending negative messages churning through the body. We’re also doing away with the need to reframe our experiences later.
So, does this mean we don’t get to feel? No, it means that, even when we’re experiencing strong feelings, we take care with the words that we speak. Think of a time when your feelings were terribly hurt. What was the story you told yourself and expressed to others? More recently you may have received information about the situation that changed your mind, or you may have matured into a different view. Are there different words you can choose to tell your story now?