Mind your language: harnessing the power of words to change your life

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.

How many times did you hear this as a child in an attempt to defend you or somebody else against playground name-calling? In reality we all know that negative words can be just as painful, if not more so, than a physical attack.

Humans are naturally primed to pay attention to anything negative or threatening – it aided our ancestors’ chances of survival if they assumed that a movement in the grass was a dangerous predator rather than a harmless bunny, instantly triggering the fight-or-flight response. Rational thinking was put to the wayside, only to be allowed back once safety was resumed.

An unfortunate side effect of this design is that we give much more weight to negative comments made towards us than we do positive ones. Try to remember some compliments you’ve received in the past, or even ones you’ve given yourself (if you ever have!). And now, try to remember some rude or unkind comments you’ve received, or thought about yourself. Did you find it easier to recall the positive or negative comments about yourself? And more importantly, which ones do you believe the most?

The language we use, both internally and with others, has a profound influence on how we view ourselves and our place in the world. We make sense of our surroundings by creating a narrative that our brains can use to make predictions for the future & adjust our behaviour accordingly.

How language can affect weight management & achieving your goals

A really common factor I have found with clients who come to me hoping to lose weight, is the way they talk about themselves. They say things like “I just can’t resist chocolate”, “I eat like a pig”, “I’m always starving”. Repeated often enough, these phrases become internalised as part of their identity, and the subconscious brain which is responsible for our habits & behaviours, accepts them without question. So the next time they’re around chocolate, the subconscious brain pipes up: “you can’t resist that”, and compels them to eat it. They take this as further evidence that they really can’t resist chocolate, and so the behavioural link is strengthened for next time.

I recently had a conversation with someone who told me they used to be referred to as “the hoover” by friends & family, as they were encouraged to finish off any leftovers at dinner. It was meant in a light-hearted manner, but having repeated this behaviour over several years, it automatically continued well into their adult life, even when nobody was referring to them as “the hoover” anymore, and they recognised that they weren’t happy with their eating habits. They had told themselves the story that it was their role to finish off whatever food was left, and would override their own body’s signals when it was full. The realisation that they could change their inner narrative allowed them to become more mindful about their eating habits, and make it easier to turn down food just because it was there. They didn’t have to be “the hoover” anymore.

Replacing unhelpful, negative phrases & images like “I eat like a pig” with more neutral ones such as “I could eat now”, or positive ones like “I am choosing to take care of my body by eating the right food”, helps to allow more helpful behaviours to surface.

The word “trying” implies that there might be other factors that could stop you achieving your goal. Saying “I was trying to eat well but then my friend brought cake round so I ate half of it” makes it easy for that excuse to slip in – after all, it’s not your fault she turned up with delicious cake is it? Removing the word “trying” prevents the excuse and the behaviour that follows is much more helpful towards achieving your goal: “I am eating well, so when my friend brought cake over I only had a small slice”, or even “I wasn’t tempted by it”. Likewise, when clients come to me to quit smoking, I make it clear that they are leaving the session as a non-smoker, not somebody who is trying to quit smoking.

Watch your language, there are children present

Many parents struggle with their children’s eating habits, and mealtimes become a battle, but I believe we can all learn a lot from children with regards to healthy eating behaviours. We are not born as overeaters. Young children are more in tune with their bodies than many adults and will stop eating when they are full. Problems usually arise when parents try to control food intake, perhaps by encouraging children to continue eating past the point of being full, or using sugary food as bribery. How many times were you told as a child yourself: “just two more mouthfuls” or “you can’t have dessert unless you finish your dinner” or even “there are children starving in some parts of the world”, implying you shouldn’t waste a mouthful? What this does is teach a child that they can’t trust their own bodies; they learn to override their satiety signals, and overeat. And that’s a slippery slope leading to the unhealthy eating behaviours that many adults still live with today.

It is difficult to unlearn all the built up habits of our own pasts, but it is possible, and in order to enable our children to have healthy relationships with food we must be mindful of the language we use with them. I don’t praise my children for finishing their dinner, or encourage them to eat more if they don’t. If they enjoyed their dinner that’s great, but I’m conscious that I don’t want them to see eating a set amount of food as a “good” or “bad” behaviour that warrants praise or punishment. I trust them if they tell me they are full, and I believe this will empower them to make healthy decisions as they get older and more independent. A conscious change in language can also be used with adults – it’s never too late. As in the example of “the hoover” above, when we change our thoughts and our perspective, our behaviours change too.

Likewise, the language we use when children express their emotions sets the foundations for how they will cope with those emotions later in life. I often hear parents tell their children “stop crying, you’re fine”, “big boys/girls don’t cry” or to “man up”, but all this does is teach them that their feelings are somehow wrong & not to trust them, which adds confusion and more emotion that they don’t know how to handle. Often it is born from a parent innocently wanting to protect their child and make them feel better quickly, or they may feel uncomfortable with expressing emotions themselves, or they might be feeling inconvenienced or embarrassed, especially if the outburst is in public. A child’s natural instinct may be to cry or to lash out, but when a trusted adult plays those feelings down and even directly tells them to stop feeling them, the message they absorb is “keep it all inside”. We know that this isn’t helpful for our mental health, hence the many campaigns to get people talking about their feelings.

A much more helpful approach is to acknowledge their emotions with words, so that they understand their feelings are valid, that it is safe to express them with you, and they can start to learn to recognise & describe them using language. For example “you had a fight with your brother and he made you feel angry/sad/frustrated when he took your toy”.

I used to be a volunteer counsellor for ChildLine and the most powerful tool we had in helping children make sense of their situation and their feelings was repeating back to them, in their own words, what they were going through and feeling. Just hearing it spoken from somebody else allowed them to process it, and start to look for solutions. Of course, this same approach is helpful for adults too, which is why we often feel better just for airing our thoughts to a kind, listening ear.

Creating self-fulfilling prophecies

I read an article recently that listed the top “naughtiest” children’s names in school along with the “best behaved”. I’m sure it was supposed to be light-hearted, but it can be damaging to have pre-conceptions of somebody based on something as arbitrary as their name.

Let’s say for example that a teacher believes that boys named Jack tend to be trouble-makers. The teacher is now primed to notice negative behaviours in all boys named Jack. This is a natural human design – we look for evidence to support the stories we tell ourselves. The teacher might not realise that they treat Jack slightly differently from the other “well-behaved” children, but their brain is predicting how he will behave in different situations, so maybe they assume that he can’t be trusted with being given certain tasks or responsibilities. Jack might feel he is being overlooked, so he starts craving attention from the teacher, and the only way he knows how to get that attention is by distracting the class because that worked last time. The teacher’s belief that “Jacks are naughty” is reinforced, and so the pattern continues. This is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – Jack is told repeatedly that he is “naughty” so this is the story he believes about himself, and he behaves in line with this label. He hasn’t been given the tools or the option of acting any other way.

In the same way that very young children don’t question whether Santa really exists, they don’t question the labels that become attached to them, and repeated exposure to the same label establishes their inner identity. It is up to adults to be mindful of the language that will either limit or empower a developing young mind.

Write your own story

Many people use affirmations such as “I am enough”, or “I am healthy” on a daily basis. It can feel strange to begin with, but they have proven to be effective at increasing confidence and bringing about long-term change. As with assigning labels to children, if we repeat a new label to our adult self often enough, then our subconscious accepts it and starts to alter our behaviours to fit in line.

The stories we tell ourselves each day form the foundation for our beliefs and our values, which in turn influence our behaviour, and shape the world around us. Once you realise how powerful your words are, you can choose to plant beneficial thoughts & beliefs in your mind, and rewrite the narrative to better suit you.

So, what will your story be?

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