How Language Shapes Our Thoughts

“It’s good for two days,” I was told by my coworker. She was referring to the soups, which we thaw and heat. The company dictates that the soups should only be served for two days and then tossed. As an environmentalist, of course this is tricky for me, but when she mentioned this to me I was taken aback and momentarily didn’t know exactly why her words were so pointed. Then I realized, “No, the soups are good for longer than that. The company just doesn’t want us serving it after two days.”

This epiphany related to something Cognitive Behavioral Modification founder Donald Meichenbaum calls Self-Verbalizations. He did a lot of work with helping people understand that emotion and thought are connected, and that by how we verbalize our thoughts and emotions we dictate our reality. Another way of looking at the same concept is chanting mantras. Like the Little Engine That Could, we may repeat, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” to help us make such a phrase reality.

If we chant “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” we are likely to make that our reality instead.

As a writer and counselor, I have for a long time been interested in the use of language. I find language fascinating. “Love” is my favorite word because it’s one word that means many, many things, some lighthearted, some heavy, some life-altering and some everyday definitions. We cannot use the word “love” without inferences, elaborations, and emotional connections with those with whom we use the word.

Language cannot exist on its own. It has to be in the context of time, culture, and moment-to-moment experience. Because of that, saying something like “It’s good for two days” means something completely different from the words strung together.

The truth is that the soup is good for longer than two days. I don’t exactly know how long the soup is good for; that will depend on how hot or cold it’s kept, the conditions under which it’s kept, and other factors, but I do know that it isn’t bad after two days. The phrase “It’s good for two days” really means “We’re required to throw it out after two days.”

Can you see the difference?

As someone fascinated by people’s use of words- mostly in the way that we don’t say what we mean but, rather, that we say what we wish we meant, I like picking up on inconsistencies and false realities such as this.

You probably know at least one person who uses strong language to convey something minor. “I had to wait FOREVER!”

When we allow ourselves to TALK in extremes, we begin to live in extremes. This concept is perpetuated by fast internet connections, immediate downloads, instant messaging, and so on- modes of living that are rapid, intense, and seemingly flawless. Celebrities are airbrushed so that they have no imperfections. People can have surgery to alter their appearances and become the people they want to be. Facebook pictures are people’s vacations and best times, (not their daily routine of going to work and watching TV)- so when you look at someone’s photos you feel like they lead the perfect life while you’re miserable. Life can be edited.

Therefore, we are not accepting what Is. These are all forms of communication, just like language, and language is one powerful tool.

Over the last 100 years our daily vocabularies have shrunk. We use fewer words than our forefathers because we don’t really need to. We have emoticons now, and Facetime. We don’t need to find the most appropriate word to describe our experiences. Also, Life is faster now, so why sit and contemplate our words when need to get to the Next Big Thing?

Grab yourself an Oxford Dictionary and you’ll see the volume of our words, but we keep it fairly simple.

As a poet, I work hard at choosing the right words to convey my meanings concisely. A good poet edits out words like “really” and “very”, or little words like “to” because unless the words holds weight in the context of the poem, it’s a waste of space.

But when we talk in extremes and especially when we internalize the meaning, by which I mean my coworker taking on the Truth of the soups by regurgitating the rules in a phrase that intoned absolutism that she had not defined for herself, but rather reconstructed in a manner that aided her responsibilities, we define our reality.

“I’ll never find someone who will love me” can be restated “I’m having difficulty learning what I want to give to others in a long term relationship” or “My past experiences have made it difficult for me to have faith in true love.” There is a difference and a choice in how we use words.

Practice speaking.

We all talk. Oh, lord, do we talk! We talk more than any other generation, and yet studies show we actually say less! We are talking machines that are talking without actually communicating.

Breathing is an involuntary action; we breathe without thinking about it, but when we mindfully breathe, like during meditation, we can reduce stress, focus, clear energy channels, and change our physical make-up. Well, practice speaking and we can do the same. Consider your words not only how they’ll be interpreted by others, but also by your own mental feedback loop. The Little Engine That Could only got his name after his mantra brought him success.

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