You want more control? Try this Words Matter 20-day Challenge

#stressmanagement mentalhealth mindset serenity wellness

About 15 years ago, I remember getting so frustrated with my mom who had just had double-knee replacement surgery and quit smoking.  Life was looking up in so many wonderful ways for her.  Yet, all she focused on was the diagnosis of COPD that was discovered while hospitalized for the knee replacement.

During her recovery and rehab, she regularly used defeated, hopeless and poor-me language.  I tried everything to convince her that the words she spoke aloud and within her own head matter and impact her health and future recovery.

The mind is far more powerful to creating our future than we give it credit.  I knew this back then just from a gut level, but I know it deeply now because all that I've studied around how our mind works, the influence of our inner chatter and the myriad of ways we can choose to direct our minds to either support or harm ourselves.

Back then, when she’d say things like:

Just my luck, nothing ever goes well for me, why did I think this would be any different? or –

Everything I try has to be hard and falls apart eventually – or –

I’m saddled with this oxygen around my face now, all my plans are ruined!

I’d jump in, encourage her and beg her to please watch the words she speaks to herself and out loud to others.  There's a healthy level of voicing concerns out loud, but there's also a tipping point.  I'd witness her tell the same complaints to as many people as she possibly could.  It was on repeat and really cementing the thinking deep within her brain and soul and sadly, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When I asked her (and begged her, which doesn't work btw) to stop working against herself in this way, she’d look at me like I had three heads and shrug.  Or sometimes she’d get mad at me and tell me she didn’t want to hear any of my positive BS or woo-woo crap as she called it.

What I was urging her to do wasn’t think positive and get all Pollyanna.  I was asking her to accept the reality of her situation while simultaneously create a new narrative around what she could do about it.  The diagnosis of COPD did suck and wearing oxygen 24/7 did create hurdles and discomfort to the new lease on life she imagined when getting both her knees replaced and the amazing ability to quit smoking once and for all (she never smoked again!), BUT the list of positive, healthy, abundant blessings dwarfed that if she was willing to lean her mind towards those things more than the COPD diagnosis.

I’m sure in a difficult time, you’ve been told to think positive or look on the bright side right?  Did you instantly shift your thinking?  I’d bet big money you’d say no.  And rightly so, to be told that feels dismissive and like the other person doesn’t get the difficulty you’re going through.  However, if you were told, ‘please watch how you speak to yourself and about this situation – your words hold power and influence over you and how you’ll get through this season in life’ – would you pause and maybe consider how to reframe it?  Say it with less sting?  Maybe even look for what’s ok about the situation and start there?'

Here’s the thing, thinking positive that’s not also grounded in reality isn’t helpful because you don’t believe it.  If you don’t believe what you’re saying, at least a little, it won’t stir hope within.

To have hope, you need 3 key ingredients:

  • Believe your future will be better than your current reality
  • You recognize where you have direct control or agency over your actions that will directly influence your future, and
  • You’re solid in your resolve that you’re willing to take as many pathways as it takes to get to where you’re trying to go

How often are you flexing your hope muscles through the power of your words these days?

I started writing this blog after I was reminded of my mom’s defeated and poor-me language while reading a summary of Ellen Langer’s book Counterclockwise, Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.  For a video summary of the book by my Optimize teacher Brian Johnson – click here

Langer’s book is amazing and the psychological studies she’s conducted on a person’s mindset are fascinating.   Talk about mind exploding stuff!  Truly.

In her book, she describes the power of priming the mind and how it influences a person’s confidence, behaviors and how they see themselves and the world around them, not to mention their future.  And it’s not just in the words we use, but our body language, role playing (acting as-if) and our environment also prime our minds.

Langer has a quote I’ve used for years and find it so helpful in my word choices:“Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow.”

Yes, the words we use, the thoughts we breathe life into - they prime our mind and they directly influence our physical health.  WHOA right?!!

Example A:  Asian Girls and Math

Example B:  Crossword Puzzle and Aging

Using stereotypes to prime Asian girls (those being that Asians are good at math; women are not good at math).  Asian women were primed to think about their gender as women and when they did, their math test scores dropped. When Asian women were primed to think about their ethnicity as Asian, their math scores soared.

People were given a crossword puzzle that had words associated with old age and afterwards, they walked more slowly to the elevator following the study than those who were not primed with old age words.

In her book Counterclockwise, Langer has an entire chapter called “What’s in a word?” that takes a deeper look at the effects of the words we use.

Do you notice or think about the words you use?  How are you priming your mind?  Are you aware of their power?  

For most of us, we’re unaware when we’re being mindless.  “When we’re not there, we’re not there to know we’re not there” she says.  This is taking away years of our lives and vitality of being.  It’s serious stuff my friend.

Living life mostly on autopilot is easy, but not fulfilling.  Think about that for a moment – somewhere in your gut you know this to be true right?

So if the words we use massively matter, I challenge you to start becoming aware of your word choices and patterns.  Becoming aware first entails deciding this idea/topic matters.  When we operate in a more aware, mindful way, we look for opportunities to pause and pay attention to what we’re doing and saying.

Mindfulness is an especially important skill to work on in today’s uncertain and often tumultuous times.  For more on this, watch Langer’s 20-minute talk here.

It’s most important to focus on the words you say to yourself (out loud or inward).  Start there.  Later, with practice, you can take on what you say to others.

At the end of this article, I have a step-by-step 20-day challenge you can experiment with, but first, read on k 😁

Knowing our words leave a lasting impression on us and those around us, and directly influence our physical and mental health, why aren’t we working on this like we take our body to the gym?  Because it’s difficult to change our patterns and we don’t get quick results.  We lack patience and perhaps, don’t have the 1st ingredient required for true hope of change (believe).

Or we think we’re too old to change.  That's straight up BS, c'mon!

Yet, here’s another real-life example of why what we say to ourselves and others matters so much.  I recently made a trip out to see family and friends in CO.  While in my hometown, I got together with some girlfriends – we’re all turning 50 in the next several months.  I’m pretty damn excited about it btw…but I quickly learned my friends aren’t.  They say things like ‘why celebrate my birthday, just means I’m closer to death’ and ‘ugh, just look at me, and turning 50 isn’t helping’.

Those words genuinely hurt my heart to hear my dear friends talk that way and hold those beliefs. Try as I might, I listed some of the benefits of entering this new decade of age, encouraged them to see the gift in turning 50 and how each year we’re blessed with beyond this one offers us so many opportunities to live our best life.  

It fell on deaf ears.  So I doubled down!  I told them how the body responds to the words we say to ourselves and if they wanted to feel better about turning 50, they should talk to themselves and about their upcoming milestone age in warm, kind and loving ways.  Not fantasy talk, just with kindness and a gentleness.

Our bodies desperately want to support us through the aging process; they want to thrive, to be in balance and be held in that space of hope. 

It’s worth every moment of effort you take to change how you speak to yourself.  Think of it this way – why do you encourage a child or friend they can accomplish something challenging?

Just maybe you need that kind of encouragement from yourself too?

Check this out (bold emphasis mine), in another excerpt from Langer’s book “…those who viewed aging more positively lived, on average, seven and a half years longer than those who were negative about it. Simply, having a positive attitude made far more difference than any to be gained from lowering blood pressure or reducing cholesterol, which typically improve life span by about four years. It also beats the benefits of exercise, maintaining proper weight, and not smoking, which are found to add one to three years.”

As you’re reading this, if you’re thinking, it’s too late for me, I talk the way I talk and it’s too much work to change now – then, sadly, get ready to get more of the same from your life.

However, if you’re thinking, wow, I really want to be more conscious (mindful) of how I speak to myself and about myself, then woooo-hoooo, get ready my friend, things are about to get good!

It doesn’t have to be overwhelming or daunting either – so discard that fear right away!

“Ever the optimist in the eyes of others but the realist in my own, I’ve found a simple, positive use of this thinking that I call Reverse Zeno’s Strategy. It states that there is always a step small enough from where we are to get us to where we want to be. If we take that small step, there’s always another we can take, and eventually a goal thought to be too far to reach becomes achievable.” – Ellen Langer

Here's the basic idea of Zeno’s Paradox: if you always cover half the distance between where you are and where you want to be, you’ll never get there. Langer is reversing that logic by telling us there’s always a tiny little step we can take in the direction of our goals.  And that’s enough each and every time!

If you’re willing to take a small step, there’s always another one you can take. Persist in that process and the goal that once felt so impossible and out of reach becomes possible!!

You ready to prime your mind and start choosing more empowering and healthy words?  Great!

But how right?  There are a variety of methods, but here’s a 20-day method you could challenge yourself to and experiment with (if you want other ideas, reach out to me):

  1. Choose something in the near future (40-60 days out) you’re worried or nervous about – nothing too overwhelming, but something that you regularly think and talk about, and usually said in ways making all your worries laid bare for anyone who’ll listen. Write this number down and date it: on a scale of 1-10, how worried or hopeless are you about the outcome (1=not at all; 10=there’s no hope)
  2. For the next 10 days, take 5 minutes sometime before bed and recall where in your day you thought and/or talked about this worrisome situation and write down the basic themes/phrases you used. Don’t filter your words (curse words and all) nor analyze what you write, just write it down and put it aside.
  3. After the 10 days of awareness practice, sit down for 10-15 minutes with your daily writings and pull out the words that drip with despair, hopelessness, blame, frustration, fear and worry. Take the top 3 words or phrases from that and a) write them on a separate piece of paper or index card and b) make a conscious decision to eradicate using those words associated with that topic for the next 10 days.  A decision looks like this (write this down and date it): I, ________________, am committed to no longer using the following words/phrases for the next 10 days.
  4. Each morning and evening for the next 10 days, take out your separate piece of paper or index card and read your list of words and phrases (this is critical and only takes less than a minute, so don’t skip this step!!). Doing so each morning and night is a re-commitment to not use them in the context of that topic.  WARNING: When you do slip up (because you absolutely will and many times actually), don’t chastise yourself when you notice you’ve slipped up, but instead, in that moment, pause, take a breath, then choose alternative words of empowerment and/or hope; and if that’s not possible, then choose neutral words.
  5. At the end of the 10 days of practice, reflect upon the experiment. What did you notice about yourself when you chose alternative words?  What do you notice about your worry, fear or frustration related to that topic?  Write this down and date it, on a scale of 1-10, how worried, fearful or hopeless are you about the outcome of the upcoming situation (1=not at all; 10=there’s no hope).  Did your rating improve compared to day 1?

If you don’t experience something jaw-dropping or transformative, that’s ok.  You will experience a change of some sort though and whatever it is, pay attention to it. 

It’s helpful to remind yourself that changing something like the words you say to yourself must start with small steps and simple actions.  Every great, enduring and transformative change in our behaviors (mental or physical) happens that way – with tiny steps of action, then actively reflecting upon what’s working, what’s not and what’s the go-forward plan. 

If today’s article intrigues you, I hope you’ll give the 20 day challenge a try and then leave a comment here on the blog letting me know what was most impactful for you.

My greater hope is that you’re inspired to speak differently to yourself (and others) because you deeply believe it matters. It does! 

I couldn’t convince my mom to ever change how she talked to herself and her last several years of life were rough and sad mostly. She never had that lease on life getting new knees and quitting smoking. I can’t help but believe in large measure, it was how she talked about her health, her obstacles, bad luck and the all the words that lacked the ingredients of hope.  She left this world having never broken the habit of speaking words of lack, despair and hopelessness.

As a result, I will work tirelessly to convince others (hopefully you) that the words you speak to yourself directly influence your future and immediately impact your physical and mental health.

If you’d like to talk about this topic more or have a question for me, reach out directly to me or leave a comment.  And if you found today’s article valuable, please share it with others.

“How would things be different if we viewed all disease as psychosomatic? If this were the case, it might seem unreasonable and perhaps irresponsible not to try to heal ourselves.” – Ellen Langer, "Counterclockwise"

“Realistically, what were the odds of being the first person on earth to beat a focal dystonia? One in a million? One in ten million? I didn’t care. That person was going to be me. Thanks to my odd life experiences, and odder genes, I’m wired to think things will work out well for me no matter how unlikely it might seem.” – Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and author of "How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big"

“But the dramas of life’s ‘big decisions’ (which, almost by definition, are few and far between) should not hide the fact that in life we face choices all the time. Every moment of our waking life we face choices whose cumulative effect on us is just as great, if not greater, than the effect of the big decisions. I can choose whether to sit up straight or stooped; whether to say a warm word to my partner or give her a sour look; whether to appreciate my health, my friend, and my lunch, or to take them all for granted; whether to choose to choose or to remain oblivious to the choices that are there for the making. Individually, these choices may not seem important, but together they are the very bricks that make up the road we create for ourselves.” ~ Tal Ben-Shahar from “Choose the Life You Want”

“The mindlessness of our approach to our health is remarkable in its backwardness. We ignore our health until we think we need to become health experts. Instead, we ought to attend to our bodies mindfully while being health learners.” – Ellen Langer, “Counterclockwise”

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