The power of language

Have you ever taken the time to notice how you speak about yourself or your difficulties? You probably say something along the lines of, I am a man/woman, I am a father/mother, I am an accountant, I am happy, I am depressed, etc. We have been taught to use the word “I” when speaking about ourselves. But what impact does this have on the way we understand our difficulties and how they affect us?

By talking in this way, we attribute statements to ourselves and see them as part of our identity. Saying “I am a mother”, “I am British” or “I am a daughter” sends a clear statement to ourselves and others about who we are. There is nothing wrong with that. However, consider what it means when we use “I” statements when talking about our traits, characteristics or difficulties. How does this sound?

“I am a worrier”, “I am depressed”, “I am anxious”, “I don’t trust others”, “I always fall for the wrong guy/girl”…

These are some powerful statements! And just like saying “I am a mother”, these imply a sense of permanency. It may become difficult to see how things could ever change for us, even if we wanted them to change.

So how can we alter the way we talk about ourselves? First, think about what the issue is and give it a name. If you tend to feel anxious, you may choose to call the issue “The anxiety”. If you keep making the wrong decisions about your relationships, then name this “The wrong decision”. You can even get creative like my nine-year-old client and call your bad mood “Sulky the Sloth” (the bad mood always took a long time to go away, hence the sloth!).

After you have named the issue, think about its traits and characteristics. What does it make you do? When is it most likely to be around? Are there times when it is gone? Suddenly we’ve separated the problem from us and it is not longer “just who we are”. We can now start to think about what to do about the issue.

Let’s say “The anxiety” always shows up with its big scary face when we are about to go into a meeting. It can make us feel breathless, sweaty and shaky. Yet, “the anxiety” never appears to be around when we are out with friends or out on our jog. What is different? Maybe it is because when we are in these settings something else come up… “The confidence”. “The confidence” makes us feel like we can say and do what we want to. It makes us feel relaxed and happy to be around others. However, it dislikes criticism of others and therefore is likely to hide during those tense work meetings. So, what can we do to bring it back? Maybe we need to speak on behalf of “confidence” and say when we disagree with the criticism, or say we take it on board but would appreciate being spoken to in a more professional manner.

Suddenly, we are no longer someone who is “just anxious”. Statements like this leave a little room for change. Moreover, we are often much more than we give ourselves credit for!

For more information on the narrative approach described here, visit the sources and reference section.

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