Beware the Power of Words: Your Vocabulary May Be Why You Feel Stuck
Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.” —Rita Mae Brown
I have long been fascinated by the power of words. Words have this inexplicable ability to make our lips curl up in a smile, our hearts quicken with adrenaline, and our eyes blurry with tears of both joy and sorrow.
Words can comfort, energize, and encourage. They can also provoke, stifle, and frustrate. Words can hurt as much as they can heal.
If words are so powerful, do the words we use affect how happy we feel?
In their book titled “Words Can Change Your Brain”, Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman use science to show us how positive words like “love” and “peace” can improve our thinking abilities and encourage motivation while negative words like “hate” and “anger” can produce stress and hinder our reasoning processes.
But today, rather than talking about the words and phrases that we can easily identify as being “negative”, I want to share with you 3 phrases that are not so obviously negative and yet their effect on our happiness is no less destructive. They may be hiding in your vocabulary, slowly gnawing away at your happiness without you knowing.
The 3 phrases are: why me, if only, and not now.
1. Why Me?
For a long time after I was diagnosed with Leukemia for the first time, I searched high and low for a reason as to why I was struck by this disease. I was young, healthy, and watched what I ate saved for the occasional burger and soda. I had always been nice, responsible, and said my “please” and “thank you’s”.
Wasn’t all this enough?
What had I done wrong?
And the answer—as I came to realize—was nothing.
Like what the doctors said, it was just one of those “sporadic” cases that occurred without a clear cause. It had nothing to do with family history, lifestyle, or the lie that I had conjured up to my Grade 10 Physical Education teacher to get out of class.
So then, why me?
After a period of struggling for an answer, I finally came face-to-face with the fact that there was no answer.
You know that saying “everything happens for a reason”? I wish everything in life was as simple as that, but as I learned from meeting other cancer patients like myself—a lot of times bad things, terrible things, unbelievably horrendous things happen to good people for no apparent reason at all. And we have to accept that as a fact of life.
When I was diagnosed with Bronchiolitis Obliterans—a rare lung disease that can affect certain post-Bone Marrow Transplant patients—7 years after my transplant, I didn’t even bother asking “why me?” this time. I could have if I really wanted to. I was not the typical transplant survivor who would get this disease. Again, like the Leukemia, the doctors couldn’t explain the cause of this disease.
To this day, no one knows why I would get Bronchiolitis Obliterans while other transplant survivors who are more at risk for developing the condition manage to escape from it.
As much as I would like a straightforward answer, I now accept the fact that bad things just happen in life, and they can and do happen to good people—people who are kind, loving, and honest (for the most part). People who do all the things we know we’re supposed to do like exercising, cutting sugar, and staying away from Tobacco and hard liquor.
This acceptance is not a white flag, don’t get me wrong. I’m not throwing in the towel just because life may not always seem like a fair referree. It’s just that instead of struggling against this fact of life, I choose to accept it as the rule of the game, and play my best within it.
So don’t ask “why me?” It is an unanswerable question. Instead, learn to accept that things can go sideways, or even completely fall off the railings, when we’ve done nothing wrong. It’s a hard pill to swallow indeed, but it is the pill that does the most healing.
2. If Only
If only I were taller.
If only I were smarter.
The biggest problem with the phrase “if only” is that it describes a scenario that does not exist. It creates an illusion of a desired reality which makes our current reality pale in comparison.
When we use the phrase “if only”, we remind ourselves that there is a gap between that desired reality and our current reality. If there is something we can do to close the gap—for example, investing in personal development can take us closer to “if only I were smarter”—then it’s not so bad. In fact, it might even motivate us to achieve a worthy goal. But a lot of times, we can’t fill the gap no matter what we do. And we end up feeling dejected and hopeless.
“If only” also prevents us from enjoying the present. It has us looking constantly at the pot on the stove, wondering what other delicious bits might be in there, instead of savouring the food already on our plate. How can we ever be satisfied with what’s in front of us if we never let go of the imaginary reality that we constructed in our minds with the words “if only”?
Every so often, a thought sneaks into my head that says: “if only the doctors had checked my lungs more frequently after the transplant, they might have caught this condition sooner and prevented it from progressing to where it is now.”
The thought is like a sharp knife that jabs at my sides when I’m least expecting it. In that moment, I feel the grief over what I had lost—lung functions that could have been salvaged but are now gone forever. The thought drenches me in a shower of self-pity, anger, disappointment, and anguish.
And then, I remember that I have absolutely no control over what had already happened. There’s no magic pen for me to rewrite the past. The “if only” world that I just imagined will never come to fruition. I can only make the best out of what I have in the here and now.
The next time you catch yourself using the phrase “if only”, ask yourself this: “do I have the power to get to that desired reality?” If the answer is yes, consider if that desired reality is a worthy goal for you to achieve—if it somehow makes you a better person or gives your life more meaning. If the answer is yes again, what are you waiting for? Get off the couch and do something!
If the answer is no for the first question, don’t let yourself dwell on what could have been or might have been “if only”—it’s time to get over that regret and start enjoying your life now.
3. Not Now
When was the last time you said the words “not now”? Did it go something like this?
Not now, I don’t have the time.
Not now, I’m not ready.
Not now, I can always do it later.
You get the idea. “Not now” frames some form of explanation to justify why we can’t dedicate ourselves fully to the present moment, why we turn our backs on the things we secretly know we should be doing. Be it we’re too busy, too tired, or as much as we hate to admit it—too lazy.
“Not now” used to be my go-to response when people asked why I wasn’t writing.
I had always wanted to write. I had told close friends and family that my goal was to write. And deep down, I knew that I needed to write consistently to get to that goal. But I never committed enough time and energy to actually write.
For me, writing was something that I had tucked away in a drawer neatly labeled “someday”. The thought of taking it out of that drawer was always dissuaded by reasons that started with the words “not now”—reasons that look exactly like the ones you saw a few paragraphs ago.
But the truth was I had always had the time. We all do when we really push ourselves to make room for the things we view as a priority. I was never going to be ready enough. Ready meant perfection in my book, and perfection—as we all know—is unattainable. And if I was truly honest with myself, I knew the “later” in my excuse was a moving target that would never come.
As time went by, I started to feel a discord inside of me whenever I used the words “not now” to explain why I wasn’t writing. I felt like a hypocrite for calling myself a “creative soul” when I did close to nothing to justify that self-view. The words “not now” had created a fortress of excuses that had confined me to the status quo. And I was miserable inside it.
Then the excuses fell apart. There was a series of events that first opened a crack in the wall and slowly the excuses crumbled away bit by bit. I’ll share the details of these events in a future post but just know that by the end, I looked in the mirror and said: “why not now?”
And I began writing for my blog the very next day. I have felt this renewed sense of passion and purpose ever since. It’s a deep contentment that goes far beyond just mere happiness that I never knew existed until now. The words “not now” had kept me away from experiencing this feeling all this time, but not anymore.
If you have the habit of saying “not now” to things you know—if you’re being utterly honest with yourself—that you should be doing, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re missing out on something magical. No, don’t roll your eyes. This is not a cheap infomercial. I’m not selling anything for half-price in the next 5 minutes, I promise.
I just want you to know, as a person who used to be trapped in the fortress of “not now”, the world outside its walls is a much happier place.
So why not now?
Remember Change Takes Time
If any of the 3 phrases I mentioned here is a regular in your vocabulary, don’t be disheartened if you can’t immediately stop yourself from using them.
Words and thought patterns are ingrained in us. We can’t easily change them as if we’re changing outfits.
I still find myself using these phrases from time to time, but the difference now is that I am aware of how they affect my feelings of happiness. I can remind myself to make that shift towards more positive words and away from negative ones.
So start with the awareness of the power of words. The simple act of taking notice of what you say, to others and to yourself, will build the foundation for change to happen. It will take some practice, but change will come.
Let’s practice together.