The Power of Words
I recently had an interesting conversation with a new author acquaintance about the power of words. I took from it two important lessons – one about being kind with our own words, the other about not letting others’ words get in our heads.
This author wrote a historical fiction trilogy in the early 80s, which went on to some modest success, including winning a few minor awards. Published by a small Canadian press, he had the opportunity to meet with a couple agents from one of the larger houses with international reach. “Over lunch, one of the agents said something that affected my life for the next 20 years,” he explained. “If you were someone, we’d publish you in a heartbeat.”
Translation: “You’re not famous or important or impressive enough for us to take a risk on you, so we’ll pass. But buck up, old chap. Your books are really good.”
The man explained that he went back to work as a CPA, put his head down, and didn’t write another word for more than two decades. Wow – those are some powerful words. You hear about this all the time: parents, teachers, and other adults who burst children’s dreams, often behind the excuse of “helping them face reality.”
And how often do the rest of us say similar things, usually speaking the first thing that comes into our minds, rather than stopping, considering for a moment, and saying the thing that might be the most useful or helpful? It’s called a filter. Some of us have stronger, better developed filters; others just go with the first thing that pops into our heads – kind, cruel, whatever. If they can’t take the feedback, they shouldn’t share their news with me in the first place.
Why is the negative or critical thought so often our first comment? I’m sure there are many pysch studies to explain the phenomenon – but I think it probably has to do with two things: (1) it’s human nature to try to make ourselves feel better by bringing others – even close friends, our children, our spouses – down a peg, and (2) we’re lazy and sloppy and don’t stop to think before we speak. Ultimately, I believe it’s a bad habit that can be unlearned and replaced with a kinder, more thoughtful one.
So here’s lesson two. Why do we allow ourselves to be so detrimentally affected by others’ words in the first place? Now I can understand a child who grows up with damaged parents who constantly harp on the kid or tell him that he’s stupid or his dreams are stupid or he’ll never amount to anything. That’s some deep karmic energy that’ll likely warrant therapy, hypnosis, and/or lots of reprogramming and rebuilding of self-esteem.
But what about those toss-off phrases, like “If you were someone, we’d publish you in a heartbeat”? Why do we give such power to another person’s negative comments, letting them get inside our heads and literally affect the course of our lives? Why do we doubt our own power? Why do we let others’ words, rather than our own thoughts and self-talk, become the mantra we embrace? Why do we live our lives according to others’ expectations of us, instead of our own? And, most importantly, why do we let others’ expectations of us become our own?
Toss-off comments can also be supportive, but you don’t hear too much about those. Let me share two examples. My sixth grade teacher at St. Agnes Catholic School in Phoenix, Sr. Laurian, told me I had great capacity for words and would someday make writing my life’s work. I took a circuitous path to get here – and yet here I am. Being told you’re good at something when you’re 11 years old sure is validating and gives you plenty of incentive to keep getting better at it.
Then there was time the immigrant farm-worker father of my client introduced her to Cesar Chavez, telling the labor leader, “She will be the next secretary for the United Farm Workers union.”
“No,” Chavez said. “She will become a lawyer who fights for our rights.”
It took her a long time to get there, and she had to fight for every degree and promotion, but my client is now a very well-respected immigration attorney. She was two years old when she met Cesar Chavez, but a toss-off comment from him emblazoned itself on her father’s heart, and he went to every length possible to see her become the amazing advocate she is today.
Ultimately, words have whatever power we give them. But it’s essential that we choose them carefully – for you never know where someone else is in the process of developing a thick skin and the ability to let your words roll off, in the event you are inadvertently (or deliberately) incautious, callous, or just plain lazy.
Here’s to the power of words!
We welcome and encourage your thoughtful, courteous comments below.
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