Using words to heal

Using words to heal

In late May, the world mourned the passing of Dr. Maya Angelou, who was revered as one of the most prolific American authors, poets and civil rights activists. Angelou was known for her inspiring words, which shed light on the beauty and injustices of the world.

Oprah Winfrey once said, “I don’t know anyone who understands the power of words more than Maya Angelou. I’ve been in her home at a party and someone telling a homophobic joke or making fun of someone in a derogatory way and watched her invite them to leave or stop them in mid-sentence and say, ‘Not in my house you won’t!’”

According to Angelou, “Words are things; I’m convinced you must be careful about the words you use.” Psychology Today shares that same sentiment: A single word can make the difference between liking or disliking a person. If a friend describes the person you are about to meet for the first time as untrustworthy, you will be predisposed to view that person as untrustworthy, regardless of the person’s actual level of trustworthiness. The single word, “untrustworthy,” creates a filter, or primacy effect, that predisposes you to view the person you are about to meet as untrustworthy. Thereafter, you will tend to view everything that person says or does as untrustworthy.

Dr. Gabrielle Roberts, a clinical psychologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital, in Oak Lawn, Ill., explains that words are among our most powerful tools.

“The words we hear, those we choose—and those we choose to omit—lay the groundwork for our relationships with others, our view of ourselves and our perception of the world,” says Roberts. “Words can predispose us to like or dislike something or someone, and they can influence those things that we hold as truths.”

“Words are intimately tied to our emotional experience and make a significant impression on us from birth,” she adds.

According to Roberts, scientific research has demonstrated that we have a relatively strong memory for emotional experiences and, in particular, negative emotional experiences. While thought to serve an adaptive function from an evolutionary standpoint (that is, helping us to avoid future threats and danger), the memory of such experiences can also be very psychologically distressing. “In the context of verbal abuse or emotional abuse, the negative things one may repeatedly hear can shape one’s self-image and lead to problems such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety” says Roberts.

Roberts offers four tips for using words in ways that motivate and heal:

1)    Use “I” statements: When you are at odds with someone or trying to help them understand your point of view, describe what you feel instead of what they did.

2)    Note the positive: At any age, we all want to feel appreciated. Whether it’s a friend, child, employee or romantic partner, finding and commenting on positive things that they do—big or small—will make them feel valued.

3)    Stop and think. We have all heard it before, but it is simply good advice. Hurtful words seem to flood out with ease when we are angry.

4)    Describe what you want, not what you don’t want. When you need someone to change his or her behavior, describe the behavior that you want to see, instead of that which you do not want.

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  1. Couldn’t aggree more! Maya Angelou was an inspiration with her own words: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

  2. Great article. Maya Angelou was an inspiration to many. The lessons she shared with the world, including the power of words, will continue have a lasting impact on my life.

  3. Great article! We must understand words have the power to build up or destroy. They should be carefully thoughtout before released into the atmosphere. I believe the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt” is one of the biggest non-truths ever spoken. Physical pain may eventually go away but the pain of ill-spoken words can last a lifetime. We must use our words to “Speak LIfe”. Remember, there is Power in the Tongue, how you use that power is up to you.

  4. GREAT Article. Sometimes we all forget the power of words. Thanks for reminding me how words can have a lsting impact on someones life.

  5. Excellent article! It is with words that we can raise healthy children or demise them to a point of no return. Words can also be healing. One of the therapies that has become so signifiant for individuals who have experienced great loss is journaling and describing both the pain of loss and the stages of healing. Words, and the nice thing is that are free! This article is great work.

  6. Words are so important. And we do take them lightly. They are powerful and strong. Maya Angelou was able to leave a great legacy. Thanks for giving us some tips, we all should live with.

  7. This is outstanding. I will take the opportunity to share this with my work team as well as within my personal sphere of influence. If we all would take the time to guard the words, both spoken and unspoken, I’m sure this world would be a much better place. What I plan to do is think twice in considering the words I use and how I personally can make this world a better place.

  8. This article made me smile. 🙂

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.