I’ve decided that the old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is dead wrong. Words have power. They affect us to our core. Consider the power of “I’m sorry,” and “I love you,” or “You’re a screw-up.” Think about the power of a parent who says to the child, “I believe in you.” Also, consider the impact on the child who never hears those words from a caring adult.
As children, our world is greatly influenced by the words of parents, siblings, friends and teachers. Their words become the fabric of our self-definition. If momma said you were stupid and clumsy, why would you believe anything different? If teacher said you were lazy or irresponsible, why wouldn’t you take his word for it?
As adults, we have the opportunity to rediscover and reclaim who we are. As shocking as it is, maybe mom and dad were inaccurate about how they characterized us. An important part of reclaiming our true selves is to become aware of the words we use to describe ourselves to ourselves. Although we cannot always choose the words that others say to us, we can choose the words we use. Ask yourself, are you choosing your words, or are you in default mode?
Start by noticing if you are compassionate with yourself, or if instead you have a habit of using old labels that no longer serve you. Do you describe yourself as “fragile”, “weak”, or “not very good at x?” Why? Perhaps there are more positive ways to understand yourself. Maybe “fragility” (for example,) is a label that is less descriptive, and less accurate than a word like “empathic” to describe your behavior. By reframing your self-description, you suddenly create access to your unique character and can put it to work as an asset rather than claim it as a liability. Another example: perhaps “weak” is a self-berating label that poorly describes the fact that you are considerate of other’s needs - and that you don’t always need to have your own way. In fact, rather than seeing yourself as a lousy negotiator, you may find you are a natural facilitator and collaborator!
My experience is that shaming, blaming or labeling oneself (and others) is not helpful, nor is it motivational. Beating myself up and/or blaming others doesn’t translate into a more beneficial outcome. Instead of inspiring action, it keeps me stuck in a prison of self-loathing and low self-esteem. On the other hand, when I replace judgment with compassion and curiosity (acting a bit like a scientist) I can more easily leverage my natural abilities. This approach helps me to accept and appreciate myself, and then to decide if there is anything that I want to change. For example, I might think, “Gee, I really overreacted. What caused me to act or to feel that way? What does that tell me? Is there an action I can take, or a thought I can reframe to improve the situation? What will feel better? How do I get there?”
In short, if you feel stuck and want to lead a more joyful life, start by being kind with the words you say to yourself. Can you identify and discard the vestiges of childhood labels? Try talking to yourself as if you were speaking to a good friend. Show compassion. Look for what is good.
“Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.”