Words have no inherent weight other than the positive or negative meaning their use over time has assigned them. This makes language a powerful tool that shapes the way we think about the world and, because of this, influences the way we act. Research shows that the way we talk is crucial to our self-growth and success. Positive language can improve our mood, increase our optimism, and lead to greater achievements, while negative language can create feelings of guilt and hold us back.
“I am” phrases are fine for positive reinforcement and when we want to bring a sense of permanence. For example, “I am kind” or “I am proactive” are great for self-talk because they activate the areas of the brain involved in motor planning and control, which can improve performance and help us achieve our goals.
In contrast, negative self-talk activates the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with fear and anxiety, which triggers the release of stress hormones. When we use “I am” for negative feelings and traits (e.g. “I am angry”, “I am lazy”, “I am stupid”), we impose on us a false impression of permanence. The result can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and a negative self-image.
When dealing with intense emotions like anger, disappointment, fear, or guilt, it is preferable to use “I feel.” In Cognitive Psychology, this practice is known as labeling and offers several benefits. Firstly, it fosters self-awareness, which aids in regulating our emotions and reducing stress. Consequently, it helps us build better relationships by enhancing our emotional intelligence, which is a common characteristic of successful individuals.
In a conversation with a former manager of a 5-star Parisian hotel, he shared an anecdote about a guest who requested to book an entire floor for his family, with the rooms connected by doors. The manager did not say that this was impossible. Instead, he explained how much time and money it would take to construct the doors. The customer was happy to accommodate the expenses and praised the manager for their professionalism.
This may be an extreme situation, but it illustrates how displaying a can-do attitude can leave a lasting positive impression. Using “I can’t” creates a negative mindset, limiting our potential. Instead, using “I want” makes us sound assertive and in control. For example, “I want more time to figure this out” or “I want more information.”
But what happens when we objectively cannot do something? The best approach is again to select positive language. “I wish I had the knowledge or the skills to do this. Maybe one day, but not today”. They will appreciate our self-awareness and honesty to say we are not the right person for it.
The importance of You/I statements has long been established in the field of Psychology, especially in couple’s therapy and conflict resolution. People tend to use “You” statements because it deflects responsibility.
However, using “you” statements like “you always do this” or “you never listen” places blame on the other person, making them defensive and resistant to change. Instead, using “I” statements, such as “I feel frustrated when this happens repeatedly” or “I feel like my voice is not being heard,” express our own impressions and feelings without assigning blame.
This is an example of the cognitive technique known as reframing. Reframing involves considering alternative viewpoints, which can increase our self-awareness and lead to stronger relationships and greater emotional intelligence.
“Should” and “Need“
Let’s imagine you had planned to go to the gym after work, but now you feel tired. What sounds better: “I should go to the gym” or “I would still like to go to the gym“?
To motivate ourselves, it is best to use positive language such as “I want to” or “I would like to.” Using words like “should” or “need” can create a sense of obligation that limits us and triggers feelings of guilt or shame. In contrast, “I would like to” gives us a sense of control and choice. Even if we don’t end up doing what we intended, we won’t be punished. Empowerment begins with kindness and compassion, especially towards ourselves.
On a Friday afternoon, a colleague messages you about an urgent report that takes three hours to run, but they are too busy to complete it. However, you have plans and need to leave in an hour. What do you do?
In this post I advocated for establishing boundaries and saying “no” more often, but it is important to consider how you do that. Saying the word “no” can come across as negative and uncooperative, even if it is necessary to decline a request. In this case, instead of “no”, we can focus on what we are able to do. “I can export the report and start it, but you or someone else will need to finish it since I’ll only be here for one more hour”.
This response communicates our limitations while still promoting collaboration and our willingness to help, which can trigger reciprocity. Even if we are unable to complete the entire task, the other person may feel obliged to return the favor in the future due to our effort and willingness to assist.
- The language we use has a powerful impact on our cognition and behavior.
- Experiment with different words and phrases by paying attention to the subtle and instant change in your emotions.
- Positive language can create an empowering mindset for us and those around us.