Using Our Words Mindfully
Words are only 7% of our communication, but they can be one of the most powerful things to shift our internal state and our external experience, so why don’t we choose our words more wisely?
I know we all learned at some point that WORDS MATTER. Your words definitely have power, from the word itself to the way it is used in a sentence or said out loud can have enormous consequences.
So, why don’t we choose our words more mindfully? It’s not that easy. When I first started practicing mindfulness, my life kind of turned more stressful to be honest. I went from being kind of mindless about things to now thinking about every single thing I was doing. Before, I could just go through my day and not think too much about what I was doing, who I was affecting, or how my actions were impacting my health. Wait…I thought mindfulness was supposed to bring me peace, right???
Once I began to understand that I wasn’t operating in the present moment, it began to feel burdensome to flex that mindfulness muscle. Like, UGH! Can’t I just not THINK ABOUT IT?!? But, no. Once you understand the concept of mindfulness it isn’t really a switch you can turn off.
For example, I am an excellent driver (maybe not according to my husband). I have only recently been in 1 fender bender, and it was quite minor. No tickets, nothing. Now, that sounds like a pretty good driver, right? Especially considering I grew up in LA, driving on the 101 or 405 daily! Well, I also used to talk to myself while driving - calling this guy a moron, yelling at this woman to use her blinker, and asking the person in front of me if they wanted an engraved invitation to GO! I never really thought twice about how I behaved in my car…I was alone, so who cared? Typically I would arrive to my destination and sigh a big dramatic UGH, traffic was terrible, or “you wouldn’t believe how many idiots were on the road!” Acting this way wasn’t helping my internal state. I was adding to the stress by talking about the stress so dramatically.
Why am I using this as an example? Because now, I may still have those thoughts or feelings of irritation come up. My habitual reactions are still there, but I catch myself now. I may start to say something, but then stop, and tell myself I am not being mindful. How do I know why the person is driving so slow? And why do I really care? Is their behavior really going to affect me that much? Probably not. So instead of working myself up, I let it go. It just isn’t worth it. Notice how I said “working myself up” instead of “them getting me worked up?” That’s because they aren’t getting me worked up! I AM! They have zero control over whether I get worked up or not. That’s MY choice, not theirs.
When I was first married, I’m sure like most couples, we had arguments over the smallest things. Arguments that would turn into something absolutely mind blowingly out of proportion to the issue that started the whole fiasco. Sound familiar? I attributed it to my being so much younger than my husband and our age gap causing issues. OR I would blame it all on him, he was so misunderstanding, blah blah blah. We would fight over things like dishes, laundry, changing diapers, the list goes on. I can tell you without a doubt that I was to blame for the arguments…(little secret here - so was he). As time went by, the arguments were less frequent, but they were definitely biggies. Now, I am not here to tell you that I am smarter than my husband, or that I am a better person. Not at all. I just have a different perspective and approach than he does when it comes to communication. The main reason for this is being mindful of my words. If I am able to mitigate and minimize an argument, even at the cost of “being wrong” then I am going to do it. Because peace of mind is much more important than being right. And I no longer hold onto the need to prove myself.
I learned after over 20 years of being together that certain words trigger him, just as they do me. We did a meditation earlier this week on mindfulness of words, which is really just visualizing a word in your mind and holding it there to see your body’s reaction to it. Now in trauma-specific situations, you may not want to do that exercise without a professional. But words, even though they are technically a smaller way to communicate (over body language and tone), can hold so many meanings and emotions. They can definitely be used as weapons…and if our intent is NOT to harm another person physically, then we should not be using words to harm another emotionally. It can have the same mental effect.
There are a few words which I have pretty much removed from my verbal vocabulary, mainly because they are very triggering for me. And if they are triggering for me, chances are, someone else is triggered too. So let’s talk about a few of these words.
NEVER. The word “never” holds a lot of negative connotation. You NEVER listen to me. You NEVER do anything around the house. You NEVER think you’re wrong. This word holds such finality - and leaves no room for anything else.
SHOULD is one of those words we talk a lot about in our workshops. I could very well tell you right now that you “SHOULD NEVER” use the word “should” but then I would be a hypocrite, right? When we use “should” it is really telling the other person or people that we know better than they do. "You should really stop eating so much sugar.” Or “You should find a different job.” Think about when someone uses that word toward you…does your body tense up, or do you feel a bit defensive? That’s likely because you feel like the other person is being condescending or talking to you as if you don’t know as much as they do.
ALWAYS is another word, very similar to NEVER that holds a lot of weight with it. You ALWAYS nag at me. I am ALWAYS cleaning up after you. You don’t ALWAYS have to be so rude. Is the person really ALWAYS doing that? Probably not. So why would we say that?
So what words can we choose to use over some of these? A few suggestions could be sometimes, could, willing, etc. “Would you be willing to consider my side of the situation” - instead of “You never listen to me” or “You could try to find another job” instead of “You should find a new job.”
Most of us do not like being told what to do. So in all communication, when both parties feel like they have a choice, and that they have some sort of control over their own outcome, the tone changes dramatically. In reality, we truly only have control over ourselves. Really and truly. We can suggest, we can wish, and we can certainly hope that another person will act a certain way. But the focus is on US. Why do we feel the need to be right? Why do we have to prove any of it? That’s the ego, rearing it’s ugly head. Think about the last argument you had. Did you get in that last word? Just to stick it to the other person? Was it effective? Did you walk away feeling like YES, I got him! Or did you walk away thinking “I wish I hadn’t said that.”
What I have learned is that the more I get into “discussions” with my spouse, or even with my kids or even others, if I just PAUSE, consider my words I am about to use in response, and then decide that what my ego wants is entirely different from what is effective in the moment, I can respond instead of react. That is our biggest problem, I think, is that we allow our emotions and words to get caught up in the moment, with no forethought of what may happen when we open our mouths (this mouth included).
Mindfulness, as i said before, has changed my life. Most of the time, my ego stays in the basement. But it does occasionally come up, and when it does, I immediately feel the difference. I am not perfect at mindful communication. And I am not perfect at being a mom, a wife, or a friend. But I can also forgive myself. I know that I am only human, and we are all here having a human experience. If we can consider our words and the way they affect us, we can begin to understand how our words affect others.
Consider paying attention to this week to the words you use and ask yourself if they're accomplishing what you intended.
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A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims.