2018-01-01

Words Count

Although it’s easy to carry this sentiment too far, I believe that the way we use words has a big impact on how we think about what we’re saying.

A simple example of this, inspired by a cold winter day such as this one, would be what you say when you go outside. You might say, “It’s cold outside.” You might say instead, “It’s freezing outside.” Another thing you might say is, “It sure does feel like winter out here.” Now, I’m not going to try to predict what difference each one of these things makes when you say them. I only claim that each sentence, although similar in their essential meaning, will cause you to think differently about the weather. You think different things when you choose to use the word “freezing” instead of “cold.” You think something else when you say neither word and simply acknowledge that it feels like winter.

For me, “freezing” is more painful than “cold,” and if I simply said that it felt like winter, I’d be downplaying the cold I’m feeling and emphasizing that the physical sensation of cold is entirely to be expected because it’s winter. But that’s just me.

If we accept the above, then it stands to reason that the words you say to others will also inspire different thoughts in them. So, for example, I never use the phrase “make you feel better” with my daughter. I don’t want to make her feel anything. In fact, I can’t make her feel anything. Her feelings are all her own. Instead, I say “help you feel better.” That’s something I can do. I can help. I usually start helping by asking what she wants and letting her guide me through the process of recovery.

This was a deliberate parenting choice on my part, but when I started doing that, I soon realized that it didn’t make sense to say “make you feel better” to anyone. I stopped saying it to my wife, my friends, my family members. I started saying “help” instead. I have no idea whether they noticed, but what I noticed in myself is that I started to empathize a little better. Instead of offering people gestures that I assumed were kind, I started offering them anything they might need, letting them choose what might help them, and giving them that. I felt better about that, and I hope they did, too.

I was given some important advice a few months back: Stop saying, “I feel like...” You know, “I feel like people don’t pay attention when they drive.” Or maybe, “I feel like you don’t really like the hamburger you’re eating.” Or perhaps, “I feel like we’ve always done it this way.”

No, no, no. These are not feelings. These are thoughts. Feelings, I was advised, consist of just one word. I feel happy, or sad, or confused, or slighted, or angry, or jealous, or lonely, or misunderstood, or elated, or accomplished, or etc. See? Those are feelings. Just one word. If you need more than one word to say what you’re saying, then you’re probably not talking about a feeling anymore. You’re talking about a thought.

To be sure, thoughts are important. But they are distinct from feelings. We have circumstances that trigger thoughts, which trigger feelings, and then come actions inspired by all three. But circumstances, thoughts, feelings, and actions (or behaviors) are all separate things.

And finally, the words we choose to denote our feelings, the words we use to describe our thoughts, can all have a big impact on our actions/behaviors. We can’t always change our circumstances, but we can often change our thoughts and our feelings simply by describing them differently.

This technique - altering your thinking by changing the words you use - can be honed with practice and used to improve your life. But it takes time and it takes consistent practice. It’s worth it, though.