Few things articulate our experiences, our emotions and our thoughts better than words. Whether they are spoken, written, or heard, words form a foundation of how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. We talk with words; think with words; describe with words; plan with words; and reminisce with words. Language is so ingrained in our lives that we rarely give words a second thought. But we do not always take heed of the words we choose.  

We express ourselves using a wide variety of words, but often, we tend to default towards using negative language to articulate our experiences. Our conversations and thoughts are filled with negative statements, containing the likes of “can’t”, “won’t”, “don’t” etc. If someone were to ask us “How are you?” it can be very easy to provide responses like, “Can’t complain”, “I’ve had worse.”, or “Not bad.”.Taking the idea of negative language to our self-talk, we may default to thinking about the things we cannot or should not do and what we still need to do, instead of thinking about what we have already achieved! All these words and thoughts may arise without the intention to be negative, however your brain still picks up and reacts to these words. In isolation they may not have much influence, but prolonged negative speech can result in underlying stress, anxiety, and a decrease in our mood. Furthermore, negative speech can impact our ways of thinking and influence how we perceive life.  

But why do we tend to gravitate towards the negative? Why is it easier to express ourselves using negative language? Simply put, negative utterances and messages are perceived as being a lot stronger than positive ones. A drop of negative language makes a bigger splash than a drop of positive language. This can be seen in the fact that negative messages elicit more attention, gets stored better in memory, brings about stronger emotions and have a bigger impact on behaviour. With negative messaging our brains perceive a possible danger that needs to be dealt with, thus we tend to focus more on the “threats” in our day to day lives. Focusing on the negative does serve a purpose to protect ourselves, but if our language is overly fixated on what is wrong or lacking, we tend to miss what is great and working. 

Luckily, our choice of language is something changeable. Many situations in life that are outside of our control are not inherently good or bad but depends on the perspective we take. Let us look at an example: Struggling with a task, an employee might make one of the following remarks…: 

“I can’t do it. It’s impossible. I don’t have the skills to complete this.” 

Or 

“I’m sure if I tackle this from a different perspective, I will be able to complete this and if I am having trouble I can always ask for help.” 

The same situation can provide different perspectives if we change the words we use to describe it. This does not mean we need to ignore negative emotions or experiences, but to rather acknowledge and process them using a different approach. 

Making a choice to promote positive language can have various benefits. Positive language can help you to perform various tasks better and to enjoy them more. It can promote positive emotions, improve mood, and reduce stress levels. Furthermore, it can assist in building up resilience and gaining a more optimistic attitude toward life. 

Positive language can be an invaluable tool that helps to change the narratives we write about our life, past, present, and future. Restructuring our narratives leads to a change in self-perception which in turn influences how we interact with others.  

These shifts do not happen overnight, but by actively working on our language we can start to create positive change. Here are some guidelines to assist you in this process:

1. Take note of and try to change the following:

  • Be careful when using negative statements as well as words with negative prefixes. Are there other words that could be more applicable?
  • Change blame into gratitude (e.g., “Sorry that I talk so much!” to “Thank you for listening to me.”)
  • Move the focus from what you shouldn’t do and can’t do, to what you can do and already did! (e.g., “Even though I still have some work to do, I have already finished so much!”)
  • Change “can” into “will” to reaffirm your goals. (e.g., “I can go to gym.” to “I will go to gym.”)
  • Change shaming into praising (e.g., “I’ll feel so guilty if I don’t visit my parents.” to “I will feel so supported and connected if I visit my parents!”)

2. Be mindful of your words:

When you talk to others or even to yourself, take note of the words you use. Do they reflect what you are truly feeling? Is there any unnecessary use of negative language? Can the words be rephrased in a constructive way?

3. Be intentional with your thinking:

How could I think differently that is in line with what I would want from my current situation? Would such a change in thinking lead to more constructive emotions and a better outcome?

4. Create a daily affirmations list:

Make a list of negative phrases, words, and beliefs you tend to repeat. For each point, replace it with an uplifting, growth orientated message that speaks to what you would want to focus on. Affirm these new words, statements and messages by repeating them daily.

If we actively work to change and augment our language we will broaden our horizons and restructure our perspectives. What was once monotone and colourless in speech could change into a vibrant, diverse expression of experiences. 

The limits of my language means the limits of my world ― Ludwig Wittgenstein 

Author: Stefan Heystek