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"Sticks and Stone May Break My Bones, But Words Will Never Hurt Me." Not.

Every waking moment we talk to ourselves about the things we experience.  Our self-talk, the thoughts we communicate to ourselves, in turn control the way we feel and act.  John Lembo

This morning before we got out of bed John was mentally reciting “good words.” What are these words I’m calling good? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, gratitude, mercy, connection, belonging, tenderness, wonder, awe sorts of words.

John says thinking of these words helps keep him centered. He starts the day well by saying these words to himself.  Sometimes the words even trigger memories of times he experienced these states of being.

My mother had her own “good word” practice.  She was constantly looking for them in books and even on signs. 

For example, in Tennessee where my mother lived, people walk in the malls for exercise. After she retired, my mother mall walked and looked at the signs in the shop windows.

Would say good words she had spotted out loud to me: new, imagine, happy, care-free, comfort, up, heart, beyond, beautiful, appreciation, relax, jump-in, go. It was quite a kick to see how fast she could find these words. 

Sometimes she’d pause and let a word sink in. Occasionally she’d tell a story about a time she experienced one of the words, a time when she remembered feeling carefree, relaxed.

John often tells the story of driving around with his mother.  She refused to go down roads if they had a sign reading, “dead end.” Bad words.

Once I had a client who used “bad words.” Let’s call this guy, Frank.  Frank used a lot of “I have to” talk. “I have to visit a sick relative.”  I have to go to work to pay my mortgage.”  “I have to go to my niece’s wedding in Boise.” His language had turned his life into drudgery.

Using those sorts of “bad words” can sap our energy and even our motivation because it sounds like somebody out there is making us do things, like we have no autonomy or independence. Language can create emotional states, impact productivity, and even affect health and personal power of choice that’s what physician Matthew Budd wrote about in his book,  You Are What You Say.


Budd spent his life treating people at Harvard’s wellness program. He believes that language is central to awareness and generating life. He writes that language affects mood and emotion which are whole-body phenomena that alter the body’s physiology, chemistry, and ability to act.


Back to Frank. He decided to experiment with changing his words. He was desperate. What happened?


Frank no longer says he has to do anything. Frank says he’s choosing to visit his sick cousin because he might be able to cheer her up, he’s choosing to work because he wants to pay his mortgage, he wants to go to Boise for his niece’s wedding because he wants to support his brother.


Frank believes that he is much happier, more productive, healthier, and attractive to others.  He believes changing his language changed his life.


It's an interesting experiment to notice words. It’s interesting to notice what words we notice. It’s interesting to see how words affect us. It’s interesting to see how switching up words can make a difference.


Budd writes about his encounters with two Chilean intellectuals at a seminar – Humberto Maturano and Fernando Flores. “Their stance on the power of language to generate reality initially stupefied and enraged me.”  And he told them so.

Then Budd recounts this story. Fernando said, “Let me show you. Let me show everyone here at the seminar.” He then asked the 100 or so people to repeat in unison with a “deep, loud, whole-body voice” the following:


“Life seems hopeless, bleak even.  I have nowhere to turn. No one to turn to.  What is more ominous still is that this will never change.” They paused and continued.


“Nothing will help. There is no one to turn to. It feels like the Almighty has forgotten me. Times are hard. They will not get better.  They will probably get even worse, though this is beyond imagination.”


As the words reverberated through the hall, Budd felt a heaviness in his chest that “weighed about a ton.”  All of his problems appeared to him – his inability to help his patients, his unhappiness about his divorce, and his general loneliness.

As Fernando questioned the seminar participants about what actions they were likely to take in their “heavy” mood, antidepressants seemed to be the best choice over creativity and engagement with life.


Fernando finished with, “Do you see that your words have changed your body, your mood, your physiology, and your possibilities for action?”


This is the power of noticing and especially of using “bad words” rather than “good words.” It takes some awareness and experimenting to see how words from others and especially our own words to ourselves affect us.


Years ago, I worked with a small group of people for a lengthy time. We established organizational values, wrote personal and organizational mission statements, learned conflict resolutions techniques, set organizational and personal goals, designed evaluations, even worked on understanding personality styles and dug into figuring out their unique gifts, interests, and passion.  When I asked them afterwards what they used the most – what had made the most difference for them, guess what they said? It surprised me.

“That whole thing about the words we use” was one of the highest on everyone’s list. Certain language seemed to make them happier and more productive – better able to be patient and kind to themselves and each other.


The words that John was using are words I sometimes call positive cousin-words or sibling words. They seem to come from the same life-giving reservoir. They can help us stay focused on positive states of being in a world that’s pulling us toward "dead ends."


Lately, I haven’t thought that much about language, not until this morning when John told me what he was doing to center himself, the mentally reciting of “good words.” That practice sounded like a great idea for living the good life. Then John reminded me that I do use good words regularly when we end our weekly compassion circle.

"Let there be peace and joy and love and compassion..." and we reflect briefly on all the actions we have already experienced during the week which embody those words. Afterwards I add "and we are already living it in the compassion capitol of the world, Cashmere, Washington." That makes us all laugh; John says he feels his chest warm and his spirits lift.


Maybe it’s time for me, and possibly you, to revisit the power of both good and bad words. If Budd is right, sticks and stones are Jello compared to words.

Perhaps it’s time to notice what words we are using and their affect on us as well as others. Switch them up when it seems useful.


How might we journey together to The Good Life by understanding the power of words?





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