I have always believed that words carry energy and that our cells pick up on that energy. So, in writing and conversing, I pay attention and try to select my words with intention. I choose to replace words like deadline with time limit or hate with really dislike. When upset, I try to remember to pause and taste my words before spewing them out. I encourage my family members and coaching clients to do the same.
When my son would say, “I feel so dead right now,” I would ask him to find another word to convey a similar sentiment, like exhausted. He got so accustomed to my gentle nudges that these days he tends to correct himself ahead of time. Word choice is something I will continue to prioritize and teach.
The Importance of Word Choice
I am currently working with a client who seems to get more anxious every time she uses the word anxious or anxiety. When I asked her how these words made her feel on a scale from one to ten, ten being the most negative, she quickly answered, “Twenty out of ten.” These words have such a negative connotation that she feels weighed down and depleted just using them.
When I asked her how she would feel about replacing them with other less emotionally charged words or phrases, she was curious. Within minutes, we had crafted a list of some very favorable alternatives. The energy shifted and she seemed excited to experiment with her “new vocabulary.”
My client also finished our coaching call eager to write a new story around “Productivity.” What really resonated with her was when I asked her to examine her existing story entitled The Need to Be Productive and to write a new one entitled The Desire to Feel Fulfilled. Once again, she appreciated the new word choice and felt eager to rewrite her story based on what she had learned in our session around language and the paradox of productivity.
The Gift of Language
Although the energy that words carry is important to me, and it is something I prioritize, what is even more important is how we use words to describe our experiences and how they ultimately affect our well-being.
Language is a gift, one that is so often taken for granted. I will never forget when I was an adolescent volunteering at Mount Sinai Hospital and found myself in the room with a man with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). His condition was deteriorating, and he was gradually losing the use of his body. At this point, he was no longer able to speak, but he was able to move his eyes and direct them to specific areas on a customized chart to communicate with me. I was completely devastated to learn the truth of his condition—that he had the words within but could not get them out. I could not begin to imagine that feeling of inner torment he must have been experiencing.
I recognize that it has been my privilege to learn and study the English language. I truly enjoy writing and speaking and I am choosing to do so more mindfully each day, supporting my deep desire for more conscious communication.
A Good Enough Vocabulary
Sadly, for many reasons, there are people who simply cannot communicate due to their physiology. But unfortunately, there are also many others who face a different problem with their words. Their issue is less a physical one and more a mental and/or emotional one. These people have a very limited emotional vocabulary.
Imagine having the mechanics, the ability to speak and converse, but being unable to access words to express yourself due to a very finite language capacity. Imagine feeling helpless and desperate but having inadequate words to properly convey those feelings other than, let’s say, mad or sad. How trapped and imprisoning that must feel, considering the nature of emotions and how they are so often layered and intertwined.
We need a good enough vocabulary to be able to communicate our thoughts and feelings, given that they do drive and fuel our behaviors and shape our experiences. To communicate, grow, and heal we must be able to articulate our wants, needs, concerns—convey our pain-points and areas of discomfort. Although articulating our joy is also beneficial and beautiful, it is our inability to articulate our emotional pain that can cause great suffering and have a much greater cost and overall impact on our well-being.
Language as a Portal
In her most recent book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown looks at this issue head on. In her introduction she quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This is a truth that I stand behind wholeheartedly—one that truly resonates with my lived experience.
In her introduction, Brené goes on to say:
“Language is our portal to meaning making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness. Having access to the right words can open up entire universes. When we don’t have the language to talk about what we’re experiencing, our ability to make sense of what’s happening and share it with others is severely limited. Without accurate language, we struggle to get the help we need, we don’t always regulate or manage our emotions and experiences in a way that allows us to move through them productively, and our self-awareness is diminished.”
The key phrase here is “accurate language.” Many of us are missing and/or misusing “emotion words” to describe our experiences. The emotion research reminds us not to repress or to numb but to be vulnerable and feel every emotion across the emotional spectrum. One of the tools we use to heal is to name our emotions. But what do we do if we do not have the language to accurately label them? Many of us need help to better understand the range of feelings and emotions.
For example, when feeling sad, many people will say they’re feeling depressed, but one is not necessarily synonymous with the other. Upon closer examination, loss and grief can also be a part of sadness. So too, can despair and hopelessness. Like there are many shades of one color, there are many shades or aspects and even layers of an emotion, with many different words to convey them all.
Atlas of the Heart Offers a Map
In her book, Brené offers a map, what she calls an Atlas of the Heart, to help us better understand and use emotion words as a tool for enhanced connection and greater healing. She explores 87 emotions and experiences “because some of these are not emotions—they’re thoughts that lead to emotion.”
This brilliant, well thought-out, and well-researched book offers endless practical take-aways of which I will share just a few. Before reading this book, I thought that resentment was part of the anger family. Now I can see how it is, in fact, part of envy. Before reading this book, I thought that regret was unhealthy, but now I understand that reflection can lead to healthy regrets. Now I also understand the difference between feeling disappointed and feeling regretful. And the list of new realizations goes on and on.
During this turbulent time of an ongoing global pandemic, when our emotions can sometimes feel like they are swirling and spiralling uncontrollably, reading and studying this book could be considered essential self-care. I consider it a must-read for every human being. In fact, once we finish The Daily Stoic, I hope to discuss this book next in our Book Club!