Two little words that can seem so insignificant, yet hold such power.
As you may know, the phrase/ battle cry WORDS HAVE POWER is something I’m likely to have written on my grave, because I am PASSIONATE about the power of words and using them well. In what follows, I’m going to explain one very good reason for my obsession with them.
Words really are containers of power and how you speak them over your life can build you up or tear you down.
Now, before I go any further, let me just say that I am FAR from perfect. I’m not writing this from some lofty pedestal. I am in the trenches with every other human, and I’m daily working on being better with my words, because I’ve first hand experienced the difference it makes when we change how we speak- not least to ourselves, which is the focus of this article.
In the past, I was BRUTAL to and about myself, and it’s something I still struggle with at times. I was my own worst critic, and honestly, if it hadn’t been for my faith, I would not only have been judge and jury, I would have been executioner too.
I was beyond tough on myself under the guise of driving myself towards excellence, though in reality I was verbally self-harming with my harsh words. After all, our own voice is the one we hear most in this world. When it has nothing good to say about us, that is a lot of negatively to live under day upon day.
So when I speak about the power of words, it is from experience initially of my own journey towards self-compassion, a journey from self-hatred (except for my body, which was perfect and I loved, even at my lowest ebb- I am that unicorn) to actually liking myself and seeing my worth and purpose.
I have also been relentlessly teaching this for almost a decade now and I have seen lives transformed as people grasp this truth and apply it in their own lives.
So what’s the big deal about ‘I am…’?
The problem with using the words ‘I am…’ is that they speak not just about something we do, but who we ARE. They are words that speak about IDENTITY. And that makes them far more weighty than words related to what we do…
…Which is all well and good if we’re speaking about our strengths and attributes, but when those words are followed by words which don’t honour the flawed fabulousness of how we were created and the fact that as humans we always have potential to grow and change, then Houston, we have a problem.
Consider this example:
I am stupid
I did something stupid
Even without knowing the details, can you feel the difference in weight between those two statements?
The first hits much deeper because it speaks of who that person is, the second speaks of something they did.
The first invites shame, the second may induce guilt, but is not such a hotline to shame.
When we feel shame, it can be incredibly disempowering because we are the problem, I am the problem, and how can I be the solution to something in which I am the problem?!
This is a great way to de-motivate yourself and wind up feeling stuck.
The second option, whilst still using the word stupid (not one of my favourite words, but I hear it often so I’ll use it as an example), may incite a feeling of guilt, that you knew better and didn’t act on that in that moment, but because it does not hit your very identity, it allows more room for you to be part of the solution or to come up with solutions.
You’re not shirking responsibility
And in case any mental gremlin is trying to whine that if you don’t beat yourself up in ‘I am…’ terms, you’ll never get better, let me just tell you that it’s lying.
By not conflating your entire identity into mistakes/wrong actions, instead owning them for what they are, you take responsibility for your actions. BUT, rather than feeling like YOU are the problem (and therefore stuck because how can a problem be a solution), you take ownership and come up with your own way forward. This is the opposite of shirking responsibility, it is the accepting of responsibility and is empowerment in action.
Think of it this way: If I did something wrong, I can learn and do better, but if I AM something wrong, where do I go with that?
I see this so often when I’m working with clients- so often I hear ‘I am…’ followed by ‘too old’, ‘too fat’, ‘stupid’, ‘slow’, un-coordinated’, ‘not good enough’… and these things are said without realising the damage they inflict.
This is not that person’s fault, I mean, who has actually been taught to think about their words this way? It’s not common, so I often find that it’s a brand new way to approach themselves for clients when I suggest it. So there’s no shame here!
Is it really that big a deal?
You may not feel that a singular phrase, said once, has much power to hurt us… and if it were one phrase used once, perhaps you’d be right.
However. We tend to get into habits, and not all of them serve us well. So being aware of, and intentional about, the words we use in this identity-creating phrase is an exercise with significant power to change our lives. After all:
‘What we do comes out of who we believe we are’ (R. Bell).
Another consideration is that we do not exist in a vacuum. Our words about ourselves are heard by others (and influence, to a degree, the way those people respond to us), and our words can also have effects on others, whether that is to challenge or normalise their own behaviour/habits.
Unless we are absorbed enough to miss that we can have influence over others, this can also serve as a motivator to watch our own mouths for the benefit of others as well as ourselves!
Now you’ve been introduced to this idea, what implications does it hold for you?
- Think about the words you commonly use after ‘I am…’
- Pay special attention to the ones you have a Habit of saying
- Write them down
- How do they feel in your body? Don’t judge yourself for how they feel, feelings are allowed, just recognise them
- Scrub out any that don’t serve you well or that your friends/loved ones would say are untrue or incomplete
- Test out the ones you would like to say
- I dare you to start being careful about which words you allow to follow the identity-creating words ‘I am..’ It will transform you if you let it.
- Sign up using the sign up bar at the top of the page for encouragement and reinforcement as you take your own steps to greater self-compassion (I promise not to bombard you with emails!)
Bonus: A note on Self-deprecating Humour
I know it can be fun to goof off and laugh at ourselves and that’s great. However, just be careful that when you do that, you’re not actually using it as a way to sneakily hurt yourself. There’s a difference between not taking yourself too seriously, and making fun of yourself under that guise. If you feel smaller after doing it, it’s probably time to stop that ‘joke’.
Don’t forget to sign up (above) and please share this with someone you know who needs to read it. Have a great day, you fabulous creature, you!