Why Words Matter
I was talking with a friend who is trying to grow into a new stage of her life. She was trapped in a flutter zone between continuing to do what she has been doing because it works, she does it well and everyone expects her to do it. The momentum is there. She is like some meteor in space, traveling on in the same direction at the same velocity until she encounters a gravitational pull that veers her into a new orbit or establishes a new direction.
We chatted about what is involved in giving yourself permission to pursue your dreams. There is a certain set of obligations and pressure one expects from oneself in order to have integrity. There are obligations that others attempt to project onto you so that you will do the things they want. We often spend time fantasizing; what we would /could do “if”. What if I won the lottery and suddenly had tons of cash so that I could do anything….. what would I do? The “What would I do if I could do anything?” is a question I often asked clients in therapy.
It always intrigued me that people would seldom do some radical thing that would amputate them from their established lives. I have heard a few people say they would run away to Australia and be a cowboy, but as we discussed how to go about it, they would back away from that idea and admit that they did not really want to do it. It is very common to have escapist fantasies. If one gives oneself permission to define them as possibilities and not as fantasies, it changes the complexion of the entire concept. This is why words matter. Words matter because we use them to interpret and frame our worldview. In last week’s blog I wrote about different kinds of “shoulds” which seem to impact our self-definition and our options. The words we use to frame those shoulds are absolutely critical. I often ask my clients to dream forward. I ask them to dream short term, intermediate and long term dreams. I think all three are important both to individuals and to those in relationships. I think it is good for relationship partners to dream together. The reason I try to break the assignment into three time clusters is to interrupt the all-or-nothing thinking that so many of us are prone to do.
All-or-nothing thinking is absolutistic, it is black or white. I am good or bad. This option is wonderful or terrible. If I do this, I can never go back. When we frame our world in absolute terms we significantly limit our options and foreclose possibilities. Words matter because we can use them to re-frame our world view and re-create possible outcomes and paths forward. If we set a goal that is short term we can experiment with it without radically changing our lives. You don’t have to move to Panama to retire. You can spend a month there to find out if you would like it, BEFORE you sell your house, cash out your bank account and move to a foreign land with a new culture. Additionally, you don’t have to sell your home to buy a Winnebago in order to travel the country. Rent one for several weeks to see if you really like it. Many men have retired, thinking they were through with work. They sold their companies and bought a home on the golf course only to discover that four to six months later that they were going stir crazy. Then they have the challenge of finding a way forward. That challenge was always there, but the point is to conceptualize and reframe challenges in more workable stages and use positive verbiage. If you frame some momentous new idea negatively, you are pretty likely to fail. If you use positive words to create a frame that will hold it and reflect it positively to others, you increase your chances of success. It does matter what you reflect to others and how you reflect it. The feedback and reactions you get from them become blended into your worldview, and are especially impactful on the “shoulds” that I discussed last week.
I made a couple of suggestions to my friend: One, reframe her conversation more positively. How can she see the glass as half full of exciting positive possibilities and not see it as half empty and full of negative “should-istic” energy? Being able to do this will reduce or eliminate that old bugaboo – guilt. Why should one feel guilty if one wants to be a decorator or home-maker? Why can’t you just say to the world and to yourself that this is what you want? People have difficulty with this because they are stuck in the “have to shoulds” rather than functioning in the “choose to shoulds.” Remember choose to shoulds come out of a sense of self-ownership and integrity. The permission one gives to say yes or no belongs to one’s self and not to others. You can dream as boldly and wildly as you like, and still tell yourself yes or no in a positive open embracing way, rather than feel limited or trapped by the expectations and demands of others. By using the power of framing words, you can develop your own world vision and not have to settle for the one that was handed to you by others.
The second thing I encouraged my friend to do was to make a limited decision, not an all-or-nothing decision. I suggested she move forward by strategic leaps, not by jumping off a cliff. Try to get away from black-or-white, all-or-nothing concepts. Of course, you will have feelings about making changes such as fear, pain, loss, hope and dreams of happily ever aftering. All these are part of the ride through life. We cannot control all the outcomes in our lives, we cannot guarantee that we will reach each destination we aim for, but we CAN enjoy the journey. We can focus on the exhilaration and joy that comes from choosing a task and attempting it, win or lose. We can decide that spicy foods are flavorful and exciting and not hot and painful. I remember when I was a child my father attempted to use hot sauce as a punishment for me and he would make me put it on my tongue when he was displeased with me. I taught myself that I liked hot sauce, the hotter the better, and I put it on my food regularly. I desensitized myself to the interpretation he had assigned and I assigned my very own interpretation. The reality was the same, I had to put hot sauce on my tongue when my dad was unhappy with me. But, the definition of the experience was entirely up to me. Words matter. Dream forward, plan incremental stages, and live the journey as you write the script and use the words of your mind to frame the picture, rather than let someone else do it for you. Good luck and good traveling.