When do our family interactions become toxic?
I recently sat with a close friend, talking about the grittier parts of life. We have both experienced our fair share of fertility issues over the past few years. I’ve had two miscarriages and have experienced unexplained sterility since the birth of my last child. My friend and her husband are about to undergo in vitro fertilization over genetic concerns for their next child.
“Isn’t it interesting?” she said, punctuating statements that could have otherwise been described as terrible, devastating, or heartbreaking. Instead, she chose interesting. As a result, I left our conversation feeling much lighter than I normally do after rehashing details of my fertility struggles. I walked away with an appreciation for the way my fate was playing out, thinking deeply about the implications this complex path had for my life—all the ways it made my journey more interesting.
Words can have a profound impact on the way we think and view the world. The language we choose to describe our problems has the power to positively or negatively affect our outlook. It can change the way we view our agency in a given situation. So if we want to alter the way we approach a normally stressful or anxiety inducing experience, a good place to start is changing the way we talk about it.
“Your thoughts create your reality,” says Melody Wilding, a licensed therapist and coach who helps clients overcome emotional challenges. She says using negative language impulsively can contribute to a sense of powerlessness or helplessness, and is an area in which she sees many clients struggle.
“You’ll interpret situations through a negative explanatory style that only serves to confirm your inadequacy,” Wilding says. “However this type of damaging habitual thinking can luckily be unlearned.”
Being mindful about the words we use to talk about our problems can completely redirect the way we react to a situation. In fact, word choice can even help shape the way our brains work. Positive words such as peace and love have the power to activate genes that help to lower stress. However, negative words have the opposite effect, causing the brain to release damaging neurochemicals that induce stress.
Learning to use the right kind of language to talk about what you might normally describe as a difficult situation is key if you want to reprogram the way you react. If your default setting is negative self-talk, you will find yourself suffering the same cycles over and over again, telling yourself stories that become your own brand of suffering. But Wilding says using words that are simply “positive” isn’t going to help either: you need to use language that is growth-oriented and realistic.
“Using a positive affirmation like ‘I am wonderful and powerful,’ may backfire because you don’t truly, deeply believe it at both a cognitive and emotional level,” Wilding says. “Rather try something like ‘I am a work in progress, and that’s OK.’ It’s pointing you in the direction of positive growth and is both realistic and achievable.”
Rewiring your brain to choose neutral or positive language in the face of adversity takes some serious mental practice. But if you focus on being mindful about your language, over time you just may start to see the world in a far more interesting light.