Words are Just the Beginning

In recent months, prominent public figures, past and present, have been in the news for very different reasons. We mourned the loss of Nelson Mandela, honored the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and questioned the integrity of Governor Christie. All of these men, known as great speakers, have used their words to motivate audiences. Their words, however, are just the beginning as their actions determine their place in history. Dr. King and Mandela have changed many hearts and minds with their words and actions. Governor Christie will be judged in the eye of the public in the coming months.

From a young age we begin to hear and make sense of the conversations – strings of words – going on around us. We should not take words lightly; their value can never be overemphasized. We can also begin teaching children the power of words at a very early age. Not only are you affected by the words you say but so are the people who hear them.

As a child, I fondly remember listening to the works of Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II with my mother. I was unaware at the time that Hammerstein’s lyrics would help to shape my view of people.

Hammerstein had the courage to put himself out there even when it was not popular with the world. The musical “South Pacific” has been acclaimed for its sensitive and courageous treatment of racial prejudice long before the civil rights movement was headline news. It explored interracial romance and the differences that separate ethnic and racial groups. Themes of racial prejudice, tolerance and transformation were not the routine topics of Broadway musicals in 1949. The lyrics from the song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” are timeless and still resonate with modern audiences:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught from year to year,

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear…

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade…

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Are there modern day songs that also tackle difficult subjects? I believe so. You just have to listen. Here are a few lines from the song “Brave” by singer-songwriter and pianist Sara Bareilles:

You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug.

You can be the outcast.

Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love.

Or you can start speaking up.

Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do,

And they settle ‘neath your skin.

It’s often difficult to have our actions match our words, especially if those words reflect our inner struggles. For many of us, we seek inspiration in the words and actions of others.

For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave some of history’s most eloquent speeches. His pacifist work during the Civil Rights movement gave tangible value to his words and inner thoughts. He never swayed from his commitment to non-violent protesting. This past December, we mourned the death of South Africa’s President and former political prisoner Nelson Mandela. Credited with ridding his country of apartheid, Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible treatment, he never answered bigotry with racism or violence. The lives of these two great men have been inspirations to all who are oppressed and deprived.

However, sometimes we are faced with situations where people’s words and their actions are perceived to be at odds. Currently, in New Jersey some of the public is questioning the integrity of Governor Christie’s words and actions. In a recent interview with NBC News’s Kelly O’Donnell when asked if he was a bully, Governor Christie said: “I don’t hide my emotions from people. . . . Now, that has always made some people, as you know, uneasy. Some people like that style, some people don’t….But I am not a bully.”  Despite saying that he’s not a bully, there are some that look at his actions as being bullying in style.

But what about you, are you able to make your words and actions true up? We all have the tape recorder playing in our heads that is shaped by years of learned, automatic thinking. And the way we behave may sometimes be contradictory to the way we think about ourselves on the inside.

Once you pay more attention to your words, you may begin to realize that your words are not always the best representation of the person you would like to be, or envisioned yourself to be. Ask yourself these three simple questions to better understand why you choose the words you do and how your thoughts and feelings affect word choice and behavior:

What are the words you use every day?

Do you label yourself? You may call yourself dumb or fat in your head, which will then come through in the words you choose. For example, do you choose to joke about your weight to others? If you tell yourself that you are beautiful these jokes may not come to mind. You may even empower yourself to take actions that help you to discover your self-worth such as exercise, therapy and educational reading.

Are your words hurting or helping you?

Before you visit your mother-in-law perhaps you have negative thoughts running though your head. This negative frame of mind can create unease and stress, and your thoughts may be a ticking time bomb soon to erupt into a family feud fueled by negative words.

Would you consider yourself a role model?

When driving in the car with your children, you may get frustrated by other drivers, raise your voice, or even swear. Cursing may not be tolerated in your home and at school, but your children are enjoying the show as they witness your road rage. You have just contradicted yourself and undone your efforts.

For those of you who watch the Lifetime reality series ‘Dance Moms’, coach Abbey Lee Miller has recently gotten herself in some hot water for her words. Right before a group dance number, Abby gave a “pep talk” saying how the girls’ best isn’t good enough.” Are these really words of encouragement from a role model? I would say, for most, no, which is why there has been such a backlash online.

After you answer the above questions, try to better understand why you choose the words you do. Ask yourself do you live up to your words? Hopefully, they’re positive words and you are expressing them (or working towards expressing them) in your actions. If the words are negative, what are you doing to change them?

Words are powerful (mightier than the sword to be exact) and can affect us emotionally and physically. The good news is that we have control over words because they originate in our mind, and how we use them on the inside is often how they come out and affect us.

Words are the currency of psychotherapy. In my Cognitive Therapy sessions, I enjoy working with patients to discover the words that exist in their heads and which hold them back from enjoying positive lives. Understanding our self talk is the first step in changing the things about ourselves that we wish were different and it can be done at any age. If you think you would benefit from learning to change the words in your head, please contact me.

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