Change your thoughts, change your life.
By: Dr. Erica Wollerman
Language is a powerful force in our lives, more powerful than many of us give it credit for. I remember when I first recognized this, while I was living in France after college. Learning another language is an amazing and enriching experience particularly when you have the ability to be immersed in the culture where they speak the language. I lived in France for one year as an au pair, which means that I was a live-in nanny for a French family. This was one of the most powerful and transformative years of my life and I learned so many cultural and life-altering lessons that have guided the way I practice as a psychologist. While I lived there, I was able to uniquely observe the shaping nature language has on a culture. While I am sadly unable to remember the exact phrase that allowed this information to really sink in for me, I just remember thinking that many of our cultural differences are rooted in the structural differences in the way we construct language, and therefore our worlds. This realization was critical for me in my own ability to change my thoughts but also in my ability to understand just how important our words can be.
Another moment where the importance of language was underlined for me was during a yoga class when our teacher recited the quote I have listed at the bottom of my website while we were setting our intention for the class. I was so struck by that quote that I spent the rest of the class repeating the words in my head so that I could use them to emphasize some of my key points in therapy! (The opposite of the point of a yoga class but that's a different topic!)
Here's the quote again for those of you who love it as much as I do: "Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become character, it becomes your destiny." (It has been credited to many different people including Gandhi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lao Tzu, Frank Outlaw, Gautama Buddha, and the father of Margaret Thatcher).
My belief in the fundamental importance of language in creating our perception of the world is why I often tend to get very specific with my clients about some of the words that they use to describe situations and themselves. I believe that if we learn to change our words, we can change our perception and experience of the world. A simple example is as follows: instead of instantly describing events in dichotomous terms (“good/bad”), we can simply acknowledge that they are the way they are and then dig deeper to acknowledge and accept our emotional experience of the event. This will lead to lessened judgment of our experience and increased acceptance that life just is. It might feel “good” or “bad” but it really just is what it is. Once we can reduce our judgment, we are on our way to accept the life we have and then we are more able to make changes from a place of acceptance and peace.
Here are the first words that I work on with my clients during therapy:
Here are some other ideas about how to shape your language and perception in a more productive way. All of these are geared towards building up a more grateful and positive mentality to help move your thoughts away from negativity and towards a more resilient mindset.
In closing, I would like to also note that when I talk about gearing our mentalities in a more “positive” direction, I do not mean that we are not permitted to experience the more uncomfortable (“bad”) emotions. I believe that we need to pay attention to our thoughts so that they are not overly skewed in one direction (negative or unrealistically positive). I believe when we pay too much attention to unpleasant events, people, situations, and outcomes, we cultivate further negativity in our lives and struggle more to recognize more positive situations or events. As such, I recommend that we first honor our emotions by experiencing them and describing them accurately. Then we can let them go, particularly the unpleasant emotions, rather than ruminating about them as this only creates stronger patterns in our minds and makes it more likely to experience those feelings more frequently. I look at changing our thoughts as training for our brain. While you take steps towards these changes, please be patient and kind with yourself as it takes time to re-adjust your thoughts, words, and experience of the world.
Thank you for reading!
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"Watch your thoughts,
They become words.
Watch your words,
They become actions.
Watch your actions,
They become habits.
Watch your habits,
They become character;
It becomes your destiny."