Changing Words to Change My Thoughts

Can we change the way we perceive things by changing the language and images we use to think about them?

I’m teaching a class on rhetoric this year, and we recently discussed how rhetoricians use metaphors to create certain responses. For instance, comparing something to a “disease” or a “fight” creates a particular image in the audience’s minds.

I showed the students a TedTalk in which Lera Boroditsky discusses “How Language Shapes the Way We Think.” In it, she describes how peoples of different language backgrounds think differently based on the way they describe things. For instance, Russians have specific words to separate light blue from dark blue in the way we might separate blue from green. In English, these are not categorically different, and so, when viewing an image of a light blue color that darkens, English-speaking individuals have no change in brain processing. Russians, however, show a change in their brains when they recognize the color darkening to a new category.

This is just one example. Another example that I have heard is how some dictatorships remove or create words or images to “brainwash” the people. According to Yeonmi Park, North Koreans have no words for “love” or “freedom,” and images of Americans are always ugly and scary. In George Orwell’s 1984, “newspeak” is the adaptation of language to create slogans and propaganda (i.e. “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery”.)

This has made me think about how my own language might influence how I think about myself and my feelings. What image associations, phrases, or words do I use regularly that shape my emotions?

I can already think of an example from my last post where I discussed how the metaphors relating winter to death have made winter a negative thing in my mind. Another one is how I attach my anxiety to myself. I was talking the other day to a friend who also has anxiety, and we talked about how we learned in counseling to separate our anxiety from ourselves by giving them names. Yet I still have the habit of calling it “my anxiety,” therefore naming it mine. What if I really began naming anxiety and imagining it as outside of myself? Would I finally learn to give myself grace when I have bad thoughts? (Another friend showed me a funny but relatable video where a woman shows what this would actually look like.)

Another thing I say that perpetuates my guilt is that I “wasted my time.” This has become an almost daily thing. What I really mean is that I did not get a lot accomplished, but my husband is always reminding me that rest is an accomplishment in itself. He also encourages me to replace “sorry” with “thank you for your patience,” shifting my guilt to appreciation.

My parents used to tell me I was always making “mountains out of molehills.” I we call something a mountain, then that’s what it will become in our minds. The same is true if we call something a “disaster,” a “burden,” a “battle,” or a “failure.”

Other examples of how I can change the words/thoughts I use might be:

  • “I made a mistake’ to “I learned something.”
  • “I am__fill in the blank” to “I have experienced/feel/acted___fill in the blank.”
  • “Today’s a gloomy day” to “Today is cozy.”
  • “I was lazy today” to “I rested today.” – warning–this is not to justify laziness but to allow time for rest!
  • “I am depressed” to “I feel a bit down today.” – when it’s not clinical depression).
  • “My day is ruined” to “That was a setback, but I can jump back.”

There are many more of these, and many more image-associations that I may not even recognize. Words and thoughts are habitual, and I know it’s not easy to change them because I’ve tried! But I want to keep trying. As someone who often feels like an optimistic pessimist–or a pessimistic optimist–I have to train my positive muscles. I have to see the grey sky and think of it as beautiful. I have to get to the end of the day and be grateful for the big and small blessings. I have to name them, as Ann Voskamp encourages us to do in One Thousand Gifts.

What thoughts do you think or words do you say that create negative feelings? How can you change that today?

Let me know in the comments!

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