Choose your Words Carefully

Written by Daniel Dymond on Wednesday, 29 October 2014.

"A different language can create a different version of the world"


Language is beautiful, helpful, confusing and problematic. It is also none of these. Each adjective I just used is a judgement. It is our judgements that we place on objects, people, and situations that can create rigidity and chaos in our lives and performance.
Language helps us relate to objects, people, and our environment in different ways. When we judge nature as daunting, we create safeguards from it. When we judge it as beautiful, we take pictures and buy paintings of it. Our language fundamentally changes how we behave in different situations. Below are four language traps I would like to share with you today. Many athletes I work with have found it useful to change these traps to help overcome emotional barriers affecting their performance.
1. This is a big match/competition: big - there are no big moments, only moments. Might sound a bit Jedi and (not but as you will see below) what happens when we buy into the idea that an event is big or important? What happens to that competition, work presentation, point, or shot? We change our behaviours. We perform differently from what took us to that moment in the first place. If you have an event coming up (exam, presentation, competition) write down at least 5 descriptions of the event. Once you have done that, take a look back at those descriptors and assess whether they are judgements or objective, non-judgmental descriptors. See if you can actually describe the upcoming event using descriptors, not judgments.
2. I want to but: this one is my personal favourite. "I want to take the penalty kick but I am nervous". The word "but" is a pain in the... It automatically negates the first part of the sentence. What if you said "I want to take the penalty and I am nervous - after all, you can be both. It is the previous language trap that can lead us to think that anxiety is bad (how is 'bad' a property of anxiety?). Have a think about events coming up. Reflect on the use of the 'but' word and replace it with 'and' - see what happens.
3. Losing the origin of words: I have found breaking down language to its origin helpful with clients I work with. For example, "acceptance" broken down means "take or receive willingly"; it does not mean giving up. "Compete" means to strive together; it does not mean fighting or struggling. Responsibility is drawn from two words "response and "ability. If you are responsible for something, it means that you are the person who has the ability to respond when something happens - it doesn't mean that you're to blame if something goes awry. The mantra I like to use here is "It's not your fault but it is your responsibility".
4. I am an emotion: "I am tired" or I am anxious". I was in Italy with my family last month; I noticed that the Italian language (and many other languages too) uses the verb "have" when talking about emotional states. I have tiredness or I have anxiousness would be literal translations when Italians describe their emotional states. In English, we use, "I am" - this actually makes the emotion become part of our identity. Using the verb "have" is more helpful as it already implies that you are holding an emotion rather than being it. I would go one step further and use the verb "experience". It implies a more temporary state and is also entirely more accurate. Emotions are temporary in nature. Yes they may come back, and do not last forever. Try to use the verb experience when you notice an emotion arise within you. Notice what happens to the way you relate to the emotion.
Language has been described by some psychologists as a disease because it can create issues as described above. However it is also incredibly helpful in deconstructing, simplifying, and making sense of our emotional experiences. It is just a question of becoming aware of the traps typically stemming from judgments, and gently changing your language into more mindful and accurate statements.
Daniel Dymond
MAPS MAppPsych, BA(hons), BSc (hons)

About the Author

Daniel Dymond