"A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit." -- Proverbs 15:4
It is encouraging to see the practice of mindfulness penetrating the culture. It is a graceful antidote to the unconscious, knee-jerk reaction way of living. Our over-stimulated society has drawn us away from our inner life, and the principles of mindfulness are helping us to forge a way back.
Mindfulness is the experience of being fully present, bringing your attention to the present moment. When I bring up the subject of mindfulness to my patients, I find that many of them associate the concept of mindfulness with a structured meditation practice. While mindfulness can be experienced during a formal meditation practice, mindfulness principles can also be applied throughout the entire day.
We can apply mindfulness principles to all areas of life, such as eating, socializing, exercising -- even to the words that we speak. Using words in a meaningful way can significantly enhance your wellbeing and quality of life. Bringing more mindfulness to language will not take more time out of your day. It simply requires intention and attention so the shifts to more thoughtful words can be expressed. As mindful eating brings awareness to what you are putting into your mouth, mindful speaking brings thoughtfulness to what is coming out.
During the first meeting with a new patient, I inquire about their quality of life and peace of mind. I always ask my patients what they do to recharge. Too often the answer is "nothing," usually followed by a realization that they need to create some space for rejuvenation. Another common response is, "I know I should be meditating." This response lets me know that they have some awareness of the benefits of meditation, although that answer usually comes with a guilty look.
Often patients share how they don't feel like they have an extra minute in the day to devote to a restorative practice. Yet when they evaluate at their lifestyles and realize they are spending plenty of time burning themselves out, they usually are very open to finding a way to carve a new path.
As an integrative health practitioner, my intention is to guide my patients as they navigate through the maze of lifestyle choices. The tricky part is to help them to make better choices without adding stress during the incorporation of those changes. People already feel so overcommitted. The last thing I want to do is to give them a suggestion to improve their wellbeing that could feel overwhelming.
When they leave the office, I want to make sure they at least have some baby steps in place so they can start leaning into a more peaceful life. Steps that they feel are a pleasure to implement -- not a chore. Many patients have found the idea of bringing mindfulness into their choice of words doable. When they return for a follow up visit, they often report that they had fun in the process, and they are now enjoying the results of increased peace of mind. They find that being creative with their language helps them to have a new perspective as they approach their challenges.
Do your words inspire you or deplete you?
In those initial conversations with patients, I pay particular attention to how they answer my questions. I observe their use of language, which often helps me to guide them to take a look at their overall perspective.
I've noticed a connection between the words patients speak and their thought patterns. People who describe their lives as "hurried," "busy," "insane," and "stressful" often have difficulty finding peace of mind. They are headed for burnout if they are not already there.
As I ask my patients to consider bringing mindfulness to their language throughout the day, they have often found it helpful to consciously choose to eliminate one or two specific words for a month. The most common words I suggest are: "worry," "busy," "stress" and "should." Like those who notice feeling better avoiding certain foods that are not beneficial to them, the feedback from patients who make a conscious decision to take a break from a word or two that is not adding value to their lives has been remarkable.
Those who know me well are aware that I have a strong opinion about the overuse of the word "busy," and I rarely use the word. The disturbance I experience when I hear the word "busy" has developed from having the phrase, "How are you doing? Everything good? Are you busy?" being asked to me numerous times, with the implication that being busy was a good thing. To me, being busy means that one is actively doing "something," but it doesn't tell me anything about the quality of one's life or their emotional availability.
In "Why I'm Eliminating the Word 'Busy' From My Vocabulary," my dear friend Agapi Stassinopoulos shares that hearing my thoughts on language, specifically on the overuse of "busy," was inspiring. She writes:
It's not that we are not busy and we don't have a lot to do, but it's as if our whole selves ― body, mind and spirit ― are being wrapped up in our daily to-do list and we utterly lose perspective of the whole picture.
What are the replacements for the words that we choose to eliminate? That is where the fun and creativity comes in. Do we pretend that everything is peachy and take on a saccharine Pollyanna attitude? No, to the contrary. It is important to find shifts that feel authentic, although they might feel uncomfortable. You may feel vulnerable as you are seeking alternatives.
With an intention to bring mindfulness to your choice of words, you will notice words and/or phrases that don't feel good and that don't add value to your life. Now you can start playing around with language and see what phrases feel lighter and better and help you move in the direction that will bring more joy and peace into your life.
Acquiring new habits is often the result of subtle shifts, and a shift in language is no different. So, for example if you recognize that you use the word "worry" constantly, you might want to consider a trial of eliminating "worry" from your language.
You may be using the word "worry" to describe situations that you feel you have no control over. The constant use of the word "worry" can immobilize us and interfere with the ability to efficiently find solutions to our challenges.
Eliminating "Worry" From Her Vocabulary Helped Annie Ace Her Test
Let's look at the example of Annie*, a student who was worried about an upcoming test. She was telling her friends and family repeatedly about how worried she was about the test. She noticed how using the word "worry" repeatedly seemed to be increasing her stress regarding the test, and was interfering with her focus towards success in test taking. She decided to eliminate "worry" from her vocabulary, and to consider using her words to focus on what could bring her success in test taking. As she noticed the familiar feelings that usually brought up the "worry" word, Annie consciously chose to play around with words to find phrases that were more uplifting without denying her concerns. Some phrases that she found helpful included: "Even though I'm concerned about the upcoming test, I really love the subject matter and I am going to use my energy to study instead of stressing out." "I am going to speak with my teacher about my concerns and make sure I'm up to date on everything I need to know about the test." "Even though I get nervous thinking about taking tests, I usually do well on tests and there is no reason to think I won't with this one."
When Annie actually went to the classroom to take the test, she noticed she was unusually relaxed. When the time came to take the test, she was able to go through it well. Annie reported how the change in language helped her to breathe better; she noticed how she was breathing shallowly when she was using the word "worry" so much. The words and phrases she chose felt more graceful, and her improved breathing habits also helped her to feel calmer.
She remarked how eliminating the word "worry" from her life helped her to feel lighter, more creative and solution oriented. Her family and friends also noticed that she seemed happier. As a bonus, Annie aced her test.
What Words or Phrases Define You?
There are also certain common phrases to watch out for. Phrases like: "I'm stressed because...," "stressed all of the time," "crazy busy," "I'm so crazy," "I'm overwhelmed," "I'm just getting by," "wired and tired," and so on.
"I'm stressed because..." is one many people use from time to time. Of course, sometimes there are circumstances that are extraordinary or multiple stressors that really throw us into a loop. However, if someone is using the phrase "I'm stressed because" on a regular basis, most likely they're spending time reacting and have become stuck in a fight-or-flight response lifestyle.
By the way, the last thing I would want to do when suggesting this practice to you or my patients is to "should" you. There is nothing inherently "wrong" about the use of these words or phrases. It's just that the words have become so overused in unconscious ways, and they're becoming barriers to our peace of mind.
James Reduced a Week's Worth of Stress With a Few Simple Shifts
We actually condition ourselves with our words. I've noticed that if small shifts are made to words that feel more hopeful and less stressful, positive changes can occur.
For example, James* was about to travel to see his sister. In addition to visiting together, they planned to handle some legal matters. James came by my office for an appointment before his trip. He told me, "Next week is going to be so stressful." James hadn't left L.A. yet, but he had already labeled his entire week away as "stressful," and felt stressed just thinking about it. I knew that if he stayed with that perspective, he could easily miss some precious moments, and his quality of life leading up to the trip as well as the time out of town would be compromised.
So I coached James and broke the situation down with him. It turned out that he was angry with his sister. As we discussed the situation that he felt angry about, James was able to better understand his sister and got into a more empathetic state of mind. He released his resentment before he even left Los Angeles. Together we also looked at aspects of the trip that were going to be great. We came up with the perspective that "It might be challenging, but I'm open to the trip being more peaceful," rather than "Next week is going to be so stressful." James agreed that the former statement more accurately reflected how he felt due to a shift in perspective. When James left the office he wasn't feeling stressed, he was hopeful, and James was looking forward to how this new approach might play itself out.
When James came back, he told me that he and his sister experienced healing in their relationship, and the trip was actually enjoyable. He was very grateful for the shift in perspective, and enjoyed the creative process of thinking of different ways to express his challenges that helped him to move in a more positive direction.
Gracious words, gracious thoughts
When bringing mindfulness to your choice of words, it is important to remember to have fun as you explore new choices. Play around and notice words that are uplifting, affirm life, and show the direction you want to go in. While you can't control every thought in your head, you can control the words that flow from your mouth. Over time, your will notice that more uplifting words choices will bring more serenity to your thoughts.
This is not magic, but it's quite amazing how your life can shift when your attitude does, and your attitude is often best reflected in your words and thoughts. I love this verse from Proverbs: "Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body."
As you choose words that uplift and recharge you, instead of words that stress and deplete and drain your vitality, will notice that your thoughts patterns will be more uplifting and optimistic as well. Your words and thoughts can guide you to creative solutions when challenges occur. Bringing mindfulness to the words you speak is an important aspect to creating a life truly worth living -- where you are not merely surviving, but really thriving.
Have you noticed how words that you use or that others use affect you? Have you implemented any changes that have been helpful? Please share in the comments below.
*not their real names