What The Words We Use Reveal About Us.

I’ve been thinking lately about the idea that we, at the least, co-create the life we live.  So if the life I have is not the life I want, who is responsible.  Me?  But how?  I try everything I’m supposed to do to create the life I desire but it’s not working.  Why?  The answers can be complicated but as a writer, I’m fascinated by one small aspect of it:  the words we use and the not quite hidden things those words reveal about us.

James Pennebaker  of the University of Texas has developed a complex software program that can analyse word usage down to the most simple “functional” words such as: I, and, the, me, you, to, at – the smallest words in the English language.  According to his findings, the words we use reflect a range of personal characteristics such as where we come in the pecking order of any group, how “personable” we are, our confidence levels and so forth.  They can even predict which first dates will lead to second dates and which will not.  The most publicized aspect of Pennebaker’s research is his analysis of the 2008 US presidential election, but what has always fascinated me about the words we use relates to how we either distance ourselves from or take responsibility for elements of our lives.

Responsibility can be a complicated and controversial issue, so for now let’s say that while we cannot control all life events, we are, to at least a certain extent, in charge of our reactions to those events.   We can take responsibility for our own reactions and choices, or we can distance ourselves from them.  Taking responsibility brings a sense of personal power.  I’ve found that the words and phrases we use can reveal to us when we are distancing ourselves from the empowerment that comes with responsibility.

Key “disowning” phrases to look out for are:

  • I can’t
  • He/She won’t let me
  • Whatever! (said with a shrug of resignation)
  • It is what it is. (also said with resignation – can be empowering when it indicates we’re facing reality)
  • Not my job, I just do what I’m told.
  • I wanted to (action) but it just didn’t happen.
  • It/time got away from me.
  • What can you (one) do?
  • Things just didn’t work out.

Key responsibility phrases are:

  • I won’t
  • I didn’t
  • I don’t agree/like this.
  • I let time get away from me.
  • I chose to do…
  • I decided to/not to…

A 2007 study shows the effect words like “No” have on the level of cortisol, the stress hormones, found in the body.  The words we impact us physically and mentally, contributing to depression and other life dampening conditions.  It might be worth putting the effort into using more “responsibility” language in our daily speech.

You can read more about the power of responsibility in Radical Awareness.

What give away verbal tics have you noticed?  Please share them in a comment.