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Can Words Harm You?

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Can Words Harm You?

Dodging the bullets of everyday language.
Yosaif  August
Yosaif August More by this author
Nov 20, 2011 at 09:00 AM

Voicemail:  “This is the national rifle association…sorry we missed you!”

What did the caller mean by “missing” me? Had I somehow, unbeknownst to me, dodged a bullet?  Was it a close call?  (Sorry - unintended pun!).

This provides an opening (even if a spurious and playful one!) to the subject of language, particularly the impact of language on our health. The power of words….to heal, to energize, inspire, renew, affirm, challenge, empower……and, to harm, discourage, to disempower.

Language has the power to attract the things we want or things we don’t. Just like worrying has been described as “praying for what you don’t want,” so is language that we use unconsciously and uncritically i.e. language we use uncritically can put us in a critical condition!

“Ticking time bomb” said the gynecologist to my wife and me some thirty years ago, as he urged her to head straight to the hospital for emergency surgery. It was early in my own journey toward understanding the dynamics of these encounters and writing and speaking about them to clinicians and lay people around the country. We both felt wobbly on our legs. Just think of those three words:   ticking……time….bomb! 

My wife heard this as a death sentence. She was so distressed she initially got furious at me for suggesting that we get a second opinion. As I write this I can’t get over how crazy the language of this encounter was. When someone discovers a time bomb, they don’t ordinarily seek out a second opinion!! They call the bomb squad and get away as fast as they can!

We rocked back and forth on our heels for a few moments, gained our balance and lovingly acknowledged to each other that we both had a sense and a hope that there was more to the story—other possibilities than this one—which had death written all over it.  And, indeed there was. Faulty reading of the sonagram. No tumor, no cancer, no cause for concern. Phew!!!!  Yes, we dodged the bullet!  It missed us!

OK, enough drama. Now back to language.

Nowadays, the most common unconscious language I hear is when people say their back is “killing them” or refer to their “bad back.” What’s going on here?  Is this a way of scolding your back for being in distress?  Does your experience tell you that if you scold it enough it will shape up? Believe it or not, I hear this all the time from friends who are, otherwise, very conscious of how they live and create the reality of their lives. Somehow, our backs are exempted from this higher awareness.

This is a good moment to check out your own way of doing this. Focus on an area of your body where you recently felt pain or simply discomfort. At that moment, how would you have described what was happening?  Think of another one and do the same. And, maybe a third.  Reviewing these reflections, what was the language you used? What attitude and relationship did it reflect about how you connected with that part of your body? 

When I have back pain (which happens every so often) and when I’m conscious (which also happens every so often), I’d say that my back was in distress, needs some TLC or I describe what I need to do (e.g. exercise, bodywork) to relieve it.

“Cancer…A Word, Not A Sentence,” was the title of a video made by Bernie Siegel and another friend of mine, Joy Hausman-Hopkins, reflecting the double-edged power of words to heal or harm. 

I just had an aha! while writing this. I was about to say that words are like visualizations, and then realized that they are not just LIKE them, words ARE visualizations. So, my friends, watch your language. And do more than that:  use it to broadcast your aliveness, hopefulness, gratitude, intention, love, wholeness and full-heartedness. 

And let me hear from you about how words work for your healing and well-being, what you’re learning, what your challenges are, and where you want this conversation should go. Click here.

About Author
Yosaif  August
Yosaif August is the President and CEO, Bedscapes/Healing Environments International, Inc. My own vision is to create a healing cocoon or comfort zone around every patient in every bed in every healthcare setting in the world. -Yosaif August Continue reading