The Magic of Words

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Did you know that your choice of words can alter how you perceive your problems? We have a tendency to use words that make it harder to solve our problems, rather than easier. It is mostly because our subconscious misunderstands the words we are using. Have you ever been in an argument with someone, only to eventually discover that you were both arguing for the same thing, you were just using different words and misunderstood each other? These misunderstandings of the words we use are one of the most common causes of conflicts, especially if you include internal conflict. How can you misunderstand words you say to yourself? Quite easily in fact, and that is the topic of today’s blog. In conversations with ourselves and others we often use words in a very superficial manner, consciously applying only their surface meanings and not considering the deeper nuances or other meanings of the word. But our subconscious does consider these nuances, and so the wrong choice of words can make it very difficult for us to achieve our goals, while the right word choice can be like magic. The cause of these errors of vocabulary can mostly be divided into two broad categories: ambiguity and connotation.

If you were to open up a dictionary and take a quick perusal you would notice that there are some words that have a multitude of different definitions, and still others have overly simple definitions that leave them a broad range of meaning. In both of these cases this lack of a precise meaning can cause ambiguity, and therefore misunderstanding. The word ‘fail’ is a very powerful and commonly misused word that is a great example of how ambiguity can cause pain. ‘Fail’ has a very wide range of meaning from the catastrophic ‘my life was a waste’ type of failure, to the trivial ‘I failed to notice that cloud shaped like a bear’ type. Our brains have a tendency towards the dramatic (it’s more exciting), which can be very problematic when it comes to ambiguous words. This tendency means that our brain may increase the perceived severity of the ‘failure’ each time we think about it: if you mulled on it long enough failing to see that bear shaped cloud could eventually seem like it ruined your life. To prevent this over-dramatization of your self-talk it is important to avoid the use of ambiguous words: ‘I did not see that cloud’. Using alternative words that have far narrower scopes of meaning, such as ‘setback’, is an excellent way to do this; expanding your vocabulary will really help in making this easier, but more on that later.

Back to the reference books, this time a thesaurus! In grade school we are taught that synonyms mean exactly the same as the word we looked up, but this is rarely the case. There are very subtle differences in meanings between the words that at a deep level alter the meaning of what you are saying. In journalism there is a term “weasel word”: this is a where instead of using a neutral word to report an event, one with a positive or negative connotation is used; this influences the reader’s judgment of an event without the overt stating of an opinion. Take a look at the following three sentences:

1. Mark was preparing for a large number of new clients. [Neutral]
2. Mark was preparing for an overload of new clients. [Negative]
3. Mark was preparing for an abundance of new clients. [Positive]

On the surface they all mean the same as the first neutral sentence. However, the connotations we hold around the later two words mean that in 2 it sounds like Mark will have a hard time keeping up, while in 3 he is excited to have more work. Same event, different emotional response; this is the power of word choice.

The problem is that in our self talk we often use words with negative connotations to describe things we want, and those with positive connotations for those we do not want. We even carry connotations over to compound words. This is a powerful effect as we are effectively relabeling those things as good or bad every time we describe them incorrectly; and naturally our brain seeks to do that which is good, and avoid the bad. As an example the word ‘work’ has negative connotations for many people: for an entrepreneur this may make working on their dream business difficult; and it also lends this connotation to the word ‘workout’, making sticking to a workout routine difficult. Now of course for some people ‘work’ is a positive word, and for them the opposite would therefore be true. This is where word choice can be like magic, by consciously using only words with positive connotations to describe what you want to do you can remove a deep layer of resistance and suddenly you no longer need willpower to force you to work towards achieving your goals as you are drawn to it. The reverse is also true for things you wish to stop doing, but consciously using words with negative connotations you can create an internal resistance that will make it much easier to quit.

Now I would love to be able to provide you with a comprehensive list of words to use and to avoid, the problem is that we each have our own personal connotations for words. How we hear a word used, and our experiences around it, is how we originally learn languages and create our definitions, with our own subtly unique meaning. Adding even more complexity is the fact that the connotations you hold for a word can change depending on the context: in everyday speech the word ‘surge’ is often used in a positive way, e.g. ‘a surge of energy’; but in regards to electronics a ‘surge’ is a bad thing when it is a ‘power surge’ that ruins the equipment. This makes impossible to give a prescriptive list of words you should and should not use, as what is a positive word for me may be a negative for you. This means that you have to be the one to find new word choices for yourself.

But what do you do if all the words you know to describe something you want are ambiguous or hold negative connotations? In this case it is essential that you expand your vocabulary so that you can learn new words that have the level of precision and the connotation you wish to use. An expanded vocabulary quite literally expands the options you have to describe your situation, allowing you to describe and think about your life in new ways that will allow the magic to flourish. There are two effective ways to expand your vocabulary. The first is with a thesaurus and dictionary: this way is great if there is a specific word that is doing you harm; you simply read through the definitions of the synonyms of the word you want to replace until you find the meaning you want to use. The second is by reading; this is a great way to add large numbers of new words to your vocabulary as you see them used in their natural context, but is not as good for targeting specific words.

There are some special cases that are not helped by expanding your vocabulary, as they stand outside the two major categories. I have written before about one of the most common of these special cases: the harmful use of phrase ‘I am [problem]’. It is a special case because it changes our perception of ourselves rather than the problem. Our subconscious takes it to mean that that problem is a part of our identity, rather than just a problem that we have. Since your brain wants your reality to match your perception of yourself it will always be finding ways to make you ‘tired’ or whatever other problems you often say after ‘I am’. You can of course use this to your advantage by saying ‘I am [aspiration]’. In either can you have to do it in a way that is believable. To learn how to do this in detail you can read my blog about just this phrase.

Are there any particular words you use often that have been holding you back? Let me know in the comments below. Until next time, speak wisely.

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