The Power of Language

If your mind is anything like mine, it’s a bit histrionic. Rather than telling me I am sad or lonely, the voice in my head says, you’re broken beyond repair, and everyone hates you. A woman in a workshop I led some time ago said she had been “cut off from the herd,” referencing the isolation she felt in her family since her divorce. When writing fiction, such dramatic proclivity might serve us well. When we are trying to forgive ourselves or someone else, it’s a problem.

When you hear an expression like “cut off from the herd,” what imagery comes to mind? For me, I see a group of people working well as a team and a lone, dejected person watching them longingly from afar, unable to belong. That, in turn, leads me to feel helpless, afraid and abandoned.

On the other hand, what might you see and feel in response to the thought, I feel disconnected from my family? For me, this does not feel hopeless, nor does it lead me to a fear response, which might incapacitate me or lead to defensive anger. It feels sad, like something I can grieve, move through, and, if I choose, make an effort to change.

The words we use, both in our internal monologue and our external dialogue, are integral to our whole experience. And while the voice we hear in our heads is not always framed as language per se, in the context of healing, it is helpful to look closely at how we speak to ourselves and recognize that that voice uses the same dialect as the words we speak.

The language we use—with ourselves and others—influences what we believe, think, feel, and do. When the chatter in my head says, you’re stupid (about me), which it regularly does, I have a choice to make. I can do what I always try to do and redirect the mistaken habitual drivel—No, no, you are not stupid, just look at what you have done. I love you. Then, I can get on with what is mine to do in that moment. Or, as does sometimes happen when I feel particularly insecure, I can listen to the voice and believe it. When I do this, it gets louder, less kind. My emotions boil, and I often speak the words aloud—you are so stupid! This leads predictably to tears and exhaustion.

Notice in this example the link between what I thought and what I said. Words are a natural expression of what we think. They also serve as confirmation of what may have previously only been a whisper in one’s mind. This is equally true if we look at language in the more traditional sense of interpersonal communication.

There is adequate evidence in multiple disciplines, including linguistics and neurology, to support the intuition: We believe what we say and hear. This is one reason mantras and affirmations are shown to increase the efficacy of self-improvement goals. And, while there is likely more magical thinking in the zeitgeist around this idea than actual proof (thanks in part to The Secret and other misguided pop-spirituality nonsense), research has demonstrated that focusing on a well-defined goal and speaking one’s intention aloud does tend toward improving individual success.

Understanding and effectively utilizing language is helpful in forgiveness precisely because we believe what we hear and say. As we reach inevitable resistance points in the process, our minds search for reasons to stop before we find resolution and peace. The following are some examples of language that can create real obstacles when working through difficulties.

Violent or evocative imagery

When we engage in violent or unkind self-talk, we reinforce the belief that we are not capable or worthy and undermine our motivation. The same issue arises if we are cruel or aggressive in our language toward others.

Cut off from the herd is an excellent illustration of language that is evocative in all the wrong ways. Other common examples might include “the end of the world” or “battlefield” to describe a relationship or one’s emotional disposition. When using violent language to describe our reality, we arouse fear and emotional disruption. Although we may believe that we are describing something that exists, we are not. How can a person be cut off from a herd? Can a relationship really be a battlefield? When you catch yourself using language this way—with you or someone else—try to find a plainer way to say what you mean. What simple, truthful language can you use instead that allows you to maintain the clarity and balance needed to move forward? Save the hyperbole for writing the next great novel!


Words like always and never leave little room for nuance and questioning, not to mention the truth. When we say things like “You never do what you say you’re going to do,” or “I always make the wrong choices,” we are telling ourselves that the issue is unresolvable, that it is and will always be a problem.

Generalizations mask actionable truth. I used to tell myself and anyone who would listen that my mother always forgot to pick me up after school. This, obviously, is not true. She forgot me a handful of times but mostly she remembered. Another example that hides the generalization is, my mother didn’t care about me. The “didn’t care about me” in this implies never. As long as I held onto these stories, I couldn’t see a way forward.

The actionable truth behind the stories we tell can be found in our pain. I was embarrassed when I waited outside the school as my friend’s parents came and I was left waiting. I felt unimportant and scared. I could work with that, but I had to get beyond the broad and vague narrative to find it.

Value judgments

Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. This one is trickier for most people. We want to hold onto our evaluations. And, for a good reason. They help us navigate life and stay safe. The problem occurs if we project more certainty than is necessary or helpful (which most people do compulsively). The power in questioning our judgments is in finding space to move. I can say, for example, that when my lover filmed our intimacy without my consent, what he did was wrong. That is a defensible assertion and valuable when making policy or educating young people. But, when considering my recovery and ability to move on, whether or not it was right or wrong is not relevant. We hold tightly to our judgements to insulate ourselves from the emotional pain (and ambiguity). My focus on being righteous limits my ability to find the fullness of my suffering. In that, I can mourn, heal, and maybe (if it matters to my forgiving) find his pain too. Ask yourself if the judgment you have causes you to suffer. If it does and you no longer want to suffer, peek behind it and see what you find.

Looking closely at the language we use is one of the most powerful tools we have in healing. It is possible and important to use language more mindfully. One simple technique to increase your awareness of the words you and those around you use is to practice listening as if you are hearing the words like an echo. Hear what is said twice, essentially. This switches us from the observed to the observer—where awareness resides. Try it now as you read. Try it now as you read.

Of course, we also have affirmations. Verbal reminders of our commitment to self-compassion and wholeness can help us focus on transforming the language we use to serve our well-being.

My words are kind and powerful.

My words heal myself and others.

My language reflects truth, beauty, and mutual goodwill.