Why the words you use every day really matter…
“This is a CATASTROPHE/DISASTER/NIGHTMARE!”
“That makes me so DEPRESSED/ANXIOUS/SAD…”
“I can’t COPE!”
“This is IMPOSSIBLE/I CAN’T do this…”
“I’m so ILL/SICK/KNACKERED/TIRED…”
“This is RIDICULOUS/OUTRAGEOUS!”
“I don’t BELIEVE it…”
“I SHOULD be able to do this…”
Let’s play a game. Over the course of the next few days or weeks, listen out for the above phrases, or variations, and see how many of the your friends, family and colleagues actively use versions of them in their daily lives. I bet that it’ll be more than you imagined, a lot more.
Everyday use of words and phrases like this are so common, but incredibly unhelpful when it comes to managing mental health. They make every day occurrences, things that are just normal events or minor problems, seem far worse than they actually are.
And, like water seeping into the ground, this slowly infests our mindset and attitudes with negative thoughts, thinking styles, emotions and views of our lives. You will, if you hear it often enough, believe that it really is a disaster, a real living nightmare or a serious illness.
But let’s be honest, when you heard your colleague, parent or friend say something is a “disaster” or a “catastrophe”, it’s usually not. Losing your home to an earthquake, catching ebola or personal bankruptcy would be a big disaster or a nightmare… a bad day at work, catching a cold, forgetting a birthday or spilling a drink is not. They are just part of everyday life…something that everyone experiences around the world, regardless of who they are.
The above phrases and words are examples of a catastrophising or black and white thinking style, which promote a very critical, all-or-nothing view of ourselves and the world. There are 30 or more further thinking styles in this vein – often learnt at an early age from parents, family, colleagues and friends – but adopting most, inevitably, lead to a downturn in our mental health because they make us feel powerless and negatively alter our view of our lives.
But, rather than being powerless in this regard, even though someone may feel like this, we have a very real control over the language we use and, thus, a large proportion of what makes up our mental health. Consider the fact that we have roughly 40,000 thoughts a day, and the language we choose to use is a direct expression of these thoughts. The important word here is ‘choose’. We have the choice, when it comes to the language we use, to catastrophise and exaggerate events and occurrences in our life beyond their real impact, just as we have the choice to not do this. It’s all about how you process the events around you.
But, when you change your mindset and language to to be more positive, those 40,000 thoughts begin to change too. Thoughts and beliefs affect our language, and our language affects our thoughts and beliefs. Don’t believe me? Look up Pennebaker and King (1999) or Wolf, Sedway, Bulik and Kordy (2007) – all cited in my The Thrive Programme book. These and many other studies concluded that the language, words and phrases we choose to use and our personality traits and attitudes to life are closely linked.
A very negative person might have 10,000 unhelpful, catastrophising thoughts a day, but when you change your daily use of language (both spoken and the things we silently say to ourselves) to leave no room for the sorts of words and phrases used at the top of this article, those thoughts will start to disappear as well.
So when the language we use is a real, more positive reflection of our everyday life – not a catastrophised or black and white version of it – we can very easily make a big step towards a more thriving attitude to life.
Christmas or any big occasion is a great time to start practicing this because it’s a time of heightened emotion when we’ve all heard a raft of the above phrases used in relation to an unlikeable relative coming to stay, burning the turkey, forgetting to get a gift for someone or finding out that the kid’s toys don’t have batteries included. So take those phrases at the top of this article and turn them around: I CAN deal with this, this is NOT a nightmare, this is just a SMALL problem, I can OVERCOME this etc.
You’ll be shocked at how much anxiety, stress and broodiness you and others are causing themselves to experience just by allowing negative phrasing and thoughts. But, you’ll also be surprised at how much more enjoyable Christmas, and life in general, can be if you adopt more positive language around your experiences – it really is up to you…