Understanding the Power of Your Words

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Be careful what you say to yourself because you are listening.

They say “stick and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” While this is true physically, it couldn’t be further from the truth emotionally and mentally. To illustrate the power of words and language, reflect on a time you fell and skinned your knee. Has it healed? Now think back to a time when you were hurt by words. Are you still suffering from harsh words that were said to you years ago? Words can be more powerful than physical wounds.

What’s more, words and the stories you tell yourself have the greatest power over the way you view yourself — above anyone or anything else — which is why you must take great care to nourish yourself with words and thoughts that serve you instead of harm you.

Why words hold power

Whether we like it or not, words have the power to change the world for the better and to build ourselves up… or they can just as easily break one’s beautiful soul. This happens not only when others criticize or speak to us harshly, it also occurs every time you speak to yourself critically or harshly. And let’s face it, most of us say cruel things to ourselves that we would never say to anyone else.

We often criticize ourselves about our bodies, our appearance, our behavior, and even who we are as a person, making us feel inadequate. Feelings of inadequacy and underlying shame is associated with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

Paul Gilbert, who developed Compassion-Focused Therapy (2009), found that when we criticize ourselves, the same physiological response happens in our body as if we were being criticized or attacked by someone else. Self-criticism triggers the body’s threat-defense system, and our body releases cortisol and adrenaline as we ready ourselves for flight, flight, or freeze.

Of course, we can challenge self-criticism with mindfulness and logic to understand that what we are saying to ourselves is untrue. We can also have critical awareness that someone is making money off our insecurities (thanks to diet culture.) But often we need more than a neck up cognitive approach to counteract the stress generated by the threat-defense system.

By practicing self-compassion we can access our mammalian care-giving system, which evolved so that infants could remain safe by staying close to the mother. This system is triggered by warmth, soothing touch and gentle vocalizations (Steller & Keltner, 2014), and when it is activated it releases oxytocin and opiates in both the caregiver and child, helping the infant feeling safe and secure. When we practice self-compassion with kind words and soothing touch, we de-activate the threat-defense system and generate that same sense of safety.


How to use the power of self-compassion for good

Unlike self-criticism, which asks if you’re good enough, self-compassion asks “What’s good for you?
— Kristin Neff

Befriend your thoughts.
Sometimes, it’s too difficult to simply let go of a negative thought because it keeps coming back. When this happens, don’t push the thought away, instead recognize, acknowledge and befriend your thoughts.

  • First, recognize that it's merely a thought, and it is just is a reflection of how you feel about yourself in this moment in time (our thoughts and feelings are constantly changing).

  • Next, acknowledge that it is in no way an indication of the truth, and name it (such as “This is a self-critical thought, and it is making me feel bad about myself,” or “This is a harmful thought that is making me feel like a failure.”).

  • Lastly, befriend it by being compassionately curious towards it. Allow the thought to be just as it is, and without judgment try to understand why it is coming up for you right now, and how it is trying to help you.

  • Once you figure out how it trying to serve you, if it feels right, thank it for trying to protect you.

Ask yourself, “What do I need?”
Now ask yourself, “What do I need?” When you’re experiencing a negative thought such as one of unworthiness, dig down a few layers and ask yourself what you really need. Is what you really need acceptance? Love? To know your own worth? Show yourself compassion by nourishing yourself with words that you need to hear that validate your own acceptance of yourself, love of yourself, self-worth or whatever else you need.

Respond to yourself with kindness.
A heart-fueled practice is to speak to yourself as you would to a dear friend. You’d never be cruel with a friend or place words together in a way that tears them down. Treat yourself the same way. When you are critical of yourself, ask yourself, “If love could speak, what would it say to me right now?

Use a strengthening affirmation.
Use a strengthening affirmation when your words cause you needless suffering. Write down this affirmation and repeat it when you wake up in the morning to begin your day or when a harmful thought is permeating your mind:  “I will not allow thoughts to convince me that I am less than or unworthy or love. I will choose to only listen to thoughts that allow me to expand and shine in abundance.”

Practice being flawsome.
Here is a word for the day for you to embrace: flawsome. Flawsome is an adjective that describes an individual who embraces their “flaws” and knows they are awesome regardless.


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Marcella Cox