Recently, I was inspired by a number of readers, namely Antony W, hcfbutton, and Cymbria Wood, to explore the direct relationship between language and cognition.
In Brave New Mind, I concluded with a number of phrases that are general summations of my newly evolving value system. Note the tone. Each word was carefully and purposefully chosen to not only relate an idea, but to convey a greater subliminal message. In each mantra, I attempted to specifically use positive and definitive language. While there is still room for interpretation, so it can be generalized to the individual, it excludes negative connotations.
Too often in our world, we are faced with the word “no”. “No running”. “No talking”. There are two important faults with those statements. The word “no” attaches an absolute negative generalization to the following action. Is it never appropriate to run? Is talking completely forbidden? That kind of negativity has the potential to generate negative emotion, ranging from anxiety to anger.
In turn, it may prompt undesired behavior. Those kinds of statements fail to provide any instruction for the appropriate behavior. So, it becomes subject to any interpretation. For me, I become anxious to do pretty much anything. I freeze with indecision and fear.
Me: What if it’s the wrong thing? Will I face some sort of punishment because I didn’t fully understand the rule? What if I don’t do the right thing and I mess up?
Conversely, I had a clever student who had a knack for finding his way around rules. Through his creative interpretation, the rule “no talking” allowed for other forms of communication. He would whisper, gestures, and write signs.
In fact, he held up a sign from across the room toward me that read, “This isn’t talking.” (Later, I giggled in private.)
Though brilliant, the message wasn’t clear enough for him. Any form of communication wasn’t permitted in that situation. Though he knew that, his actions weren’t technically against the rule, and were not actually punishable.
When faced with negative emotions, some may be prompted to act out. Personally, if I’m feeling as if I’m being too restricted, I may challenge authority by doing the exact opposite of the rule. It’s my way of attempting to assert my own authority and regain control over myself and a situation. I invite the power struggle.
“Don’t take that tone with me.”
Me: (raising my voice) “I’ll take any tone I like!”
Needless to say, that last portion is not exactly healthy in terms of developing positive behaviors that defuse unnecessary confrontation and promote functional attitudes.
These scenarios are applicable to our own value systems. By setting up vague restrictions, we unintentionally invite distressing emotion that incites maladaptive behavior. Simply put, when we say “no” to ourselves, we can become upset, and that allows us to make poor decisions in how we act. And because they are so vague, we can’t get sense of what we should be doing instead. It makes it that much harder to find a positive behavior that works for us. Then, we become stuck in a cycle of dysfunction.
In the past when I used to crash diet, I would set up stifling rules right down to the letter. No fast food. No sweets. No lazy days, off days, or cheat days. If I strayed from the rules, I would punish myself by wearing myself to the bone with painful exercise. Eventually, it became so oppressive that I would reinterpret the rules to suit me. Finally, I would quit, because it just became too hard and inconsistent.
That cycle of dysfunction starts to prompt thoughts like, “I can’t” or “I’ll never”, which can make a person feel helpless and hopeless. It hinders any further action toward a goal, because we convince ourselves that we tried, we failed, and we can never make it work / happen.
By using positive language with ourselves, we can alter our own cognition to automatically generate positive thoughts, beliefs, and statements. Here a few “rules” I use to develop more positive language:
Attempt to avoid commands.
I can say without any doubt that there isn’t a single person who enjoys being constantly ordered to do things. It makes me angry. I see commands as demands for actions, like a person would do to a doll or puppet. If I don’t demand things from myself, I am certainly not going to allow others to do it.
Instead of using the word “no”, find the antonym to the following action and use a description as an alternative.
In my classroom, I developed a set of expectations (not rules) that excluded the word “no”. Instead of “No running”, I used the phrase, “We use walking feet in the classroom”. It spelled out the expectation exactly without being restrictive.
Use language that eliminates unnecessary apologies and uses statements of fact that relate.
Have you ever found yourself constantly apologizing for things that aren’t your fault? For instance, someone tells you of their own misfortune and you reply, “I’m so sorry.” Why are we being apologetic when it’s clearly not our fault?
The problem is the message that it conveys. In being apologetic, we are unintentionally sending the message that we will accept blame for things that aren’t our fault. It’s pretty much the same as saying, “Please, I want to be your doormat.”
Instead, a person could say, “That’s very unfortunate” or “What incredible pain you must be in”.
Use statements of intention rather than requests for permission (when applicable).
The problem is how we are conditioned as children. Our whole world revolves around consent. When we become adults, we have a certain difficulty with asserting our own personal authority.
I recently learned that I do not need permission to live my life. In fact, I don’t require anyone’s consent to say or do most things. I am an adult, and I have authority over myself and my actions. By using questions, I am willfully passing my own authority over to someone else.
For example, instead of asking, “May I use the restroom?”, it can be rephrased as, “I need to use the restroom” or “I’m going to use the restroom”. In that language, a person asserts their right to perform a bodily function.
Again, when applicable.
Rephrase accusatory statements, even if they can be substantiated
Most statements that begin with “you” and end in a negative phrase are typically accusatory. “You did…” and “You are…” Offer a suggestion instead. “You can…” is far more empowering and avoids passing blame. Most people will avoid blame at all costs.
Through practicing positive language, functional attitudes begin to form. Constructive progress becomes evident, and that promotes personal growth. As growth advances, we can begin to make additional improvements to our value systems to generalize to other aspects of our lives. That way, we can be better prepared to face future challenges, and feel empowered to succeed in our pursuits.
From mind to mouth, we can make a difference, one word at a time.