“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Witgenstein
As you grew up from a snot nosed kid to being a busy adult, you picked up a repertoire of words befitting of where you came come . You may have noticed how you start to speak like your friends, family, coworkers or anyone you spent a lot of time with. This is you fitting in with those around you. But what you might not have realized is that as you picked up the language, you also picked up the perspectives behind those words.
You may think this is BS. But let’s use an example that everyone can relate to: your inner critic.
“There’s no point in my saying anything, I’ll just get shut down.”
“I can apply but there’s no way I’ll get it.”
“I’m not cut out for this.”
Where did these words come from? Where did you get the language to say that to yourself? At some point, you learned to pull these words together and associated them with undermining your potential. If this sounds like something to think about, there’s more.
Perception Creates Reality
You may have heard this before.
“Can you phrase that differently?”
In one’s career, this is often advised if you don’t want to piss off important people. At the surface, this seems to just be softening the language. But really you are trying to influence another person’s perspective. You know, so they like you more.
Whoever you then talk or present to will see you through an image you put together of yourself. You might have suited up. Perhaps you may have a ritual to get you pumped up. Or maybe you just remind yourself to smile all the time. All this is to create the perception of who you want to be seen as.
Yet as much as everyone does this, they don’t apply this principle where it matters most.
What many overlook is that reality exists only as one perceives it. If someone grew up on the other side of the world, his or her reality will be vastly different from yours. There is a huge difference of how your perspectives were developed compared to others.
For example, to someone who lived through the Holocaust, the word “hate” has a far different meaning than if you were to complain about that guy who got on your nerves at that meeting.
When you hear someone else talk, their words reveal a bit of their past and how they came to choose those words to express themselves. As a leader, what if you were to notice the choices of those around you? What if you were to question them as to why they picked those words? And what if you find out that the meaning behind what you heard was different from what you assumed?
The word “success” is a particularly fitting example. What is that to you? I can almost guarantee your answer will be different than the next person you run into. Yours reveals what you value. What you value came to be because of how you grew up and your experiences. That will be very different from anyone else’s and so, you can’t project your definitions on someone else.
If you want to develop more self awareness around this, keep asking yourself this: Am I assuming my definition of this is the same as another’s?
In a coaching workshop I attended in the past, I noticed a common trend: many people used very generic terms to describe their emotions. For example, “fine” is not an emotion. Neither is “good” or “okay”.
But this is natural. People are rarely taught to describe their emotional state of being. Instead they are often taught not to show vulnerability. Do the phrases “stop crying” or “grow up” or “act your age” sound familiar at all? Many times, unwittingly, people are conditioned to suppress their emotions. So at times when it would be helpful to release those emotions, they don’t know how to.
They are literally at a loss for words. And there actually is a term for this: alexithymia or “no words for mood”.
When people struggle to convey how they are feeling, their ability to communicate drops significantly. If you feel like you can’t really get the point across about how you feel about something, what will you be feeling? Frustration? Impatience? Disappointed?
And even beyond that, you may not get the support you need if you aren’t expressing yourself effectively. You can say something along the lines of “this blows” and those around you think you’re just having a bad day. But deep inside, you may be referring to a growing dissatisfaction with many areas of your life. How will people know?
There are two parts to why you may have this difficulty. One is that you are simply not using a diverse array of emotional language, in which case you have to familiarize yourself with lists like these. There are many but take your pick and see how many words you currently use (or don’t use). Which ones do you think you could be using?
The second part is being comfortable with using your newfound emotional vocabulary. Journaling is amazing for this. You have no one to judge you. If this is difficult, look into freewriting methods. Often it’s your self judgment that gets in the way of your dumping out your soul onto paper.
Then move on with those close to you. Pick the words that resonate with whatever situation you wish to talk about. Language is interesting in that words have a certain flavor to them. Use that to your advantage.
Thinking about how you became who you are is always an interesting exercise. Why not take the time to see where your language came from?
You can then see how your choice of words is currently serving you. Whatever isn’t helping you, you can replace it with words that do.