The language we use is incredibly powerful. It shapes how we see ourselves and the world. In neuroscience we often talk about the “dominant half” of the brain when we are talking about the half of the brain the controls language skills. We call this side our dominant hemisphere because language has so much impact on how we perceive and interpret the world.
Think about a simple example. What if I told you the chair I was sitting on was “plush, cozy, and luxurious”. Can you picture the chair in your mind? What if instead I told you my chair was “soft, squishy, and unsupportive”. Does your mental image of this chair change? Plush, cozy, luxurious probably made you think happy thoughts about a great chair, but soft, squishy, and unsupportive made you picture the lumpy chair in your basement. In reality, all those words are ways to describe a soft chair. But the language we use changes our perception.
Because language has such a large impact on how we perceive the world, by changing the language we use we can change our perception, our outlook, and our mindset.
Let’s take another example. Say I am walking down a path and there is a large wall suddenly in my way. If I describe the wall as an obstacle, a barrier, or a problem I’m likely to take one look at that wall, turn around, and go back the other way. But what if I use different language to describe that wall. What if I called the wall a hurdle to success, a chance to overcome the challenge, or a new opportunity. I might be more likely to find a way to go over or around the wall.
I wrote last week about how our brains focus where we point them. If I focus on the negative then that is the way my brain is going to go. I will continue to notice negative things in my life and be drawn toward them like the rapids in a river. But if I direct my brain towards where I want to go, to the clear spot beyond the rapids, I stay focused on the positive and I move in the direction of growth. By changing the language we use we can switch our brain from focusing on the negatives and the problems to focusing on where we want to go.
Here are 4 phrases to keep an eye out for in your language. If you find yourself using these phrases your brain is probably pointed in the direction of the negative, directed at what you want to avoid rather than where you want to go.
“Should” or “must” statements - If you find yourself suddenly developing a case of the “should” pay attention. This is your brain pointing at the negative. Pointing out what you should do is the same thing as focusing on the rapids that you’re trying to avoid. The shoulds are a negative thinking pattern for your brain. Instead, focus on where you want to go, what you want to do, how you want to be successful.
“Yes, but…” - When we say “yes but”, what were really saying is “no because”. Yes I want to go to the gym but I don’t have any time today is really me saying no I don’t want to go to the gym because it’s too hard and takes too much time. Don’t let your brain trick you into these excuses!
Always and never - Our brains are really good at falling into the trap of thinking in extremes. I never do anything right. I’m always going to be poor. This feeling is never going to go away. In reality, these extremes are rarely true. If we think hard enough we can come up with evidence that challenges the extreme. Maybe I made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never do anything right, and here are some examples of what I did right today. Keep an eye out for these extreme words that can suggest our brain is pointing towards the negative.
The what-ifs - What if this doesn’t work out. What if I’m not successful? What if that person gets mad at me? We are pointing our brain towards the negative when we fall into the what-ifs. We can’t predict the future. And worrying about things that are out of our control is a sure fire way to feel stressed in daily life.
Watch for these mental traps. The next time you hear yourself using one of these words or phrases, even if it’s just in your own head, catch it. Recognize these phrases for what they are. Your brain pointing towards the negative and toward what you want to avoid. Instead challenge yourself to focus on the positive, on the end goal, or where you want to go. Just like learning any new skill, the more that we interrupt these thinking patterns, and the more we point our brain toward success rather than towards obstacles, the easier it becomes until it is second nature for our brain to focus on success.