Words can be taken for granted in an age where technology allows us to publicize our thoughts instantly. Even the most extraordinary comments eventually fade into the endless stream of other posts. Yet, once words are released, it is impossible to reverse the effects. In fact, certain books and quotations have been re-read and repeated for years, some surviving thousands of years as they become embedded into culture or philosophy.
Social movements adopt a few central phrases that capture the spirit of the cause. Businesses and organizations are commonly developed around a mission statement. On a smaller scale, people say marriage vows, give each other nicknames, and bond in person through conversation. From our earliest years, we’ve been taught to use words to communicate our needs, feelings, desires, and intentions—virtually everything related to existence is somehow connected to the power of words. Some major religions of the world teach that God spoke the very earth and its inhabitants into existence.
Words have the power to build up or tear down. This is where their relationship to our well-being comes in. We can all think of times when we were encouraged by what someone said to us; on the other hand, we most definitely remember when we were hurt by what someone said. Remembering the negative can be a survival technique meant to protect us, but sadly, more harm than healing seems to come from remembering negative messages we’ve heard. If we hold onto words that tear us down, we can begin to believe they are true, that we are what those words mean.
Imagine an author writing a story. She sits down with a pencil or device in hand. Her imagination is filled with the details of another world. She thoughtfully considers how to best describe the characters, places, events, and all the other elements that form the story. The words she uses are vitally important because they bring the story to life. In the same way, the words we use to describe ourselves form our personal story, our narrative. This is a powerful act because we think, behave, and feel according to how we tell our story. Unlike a book, however, when we tell our story, we do not describe every detail; rather, we highlight the parts that we consider most relevant to our self-understanding. Can you begin to see how this forms our identity?
If we are affirmed in our story and identity, our lives usually feel purposeful and more fulfilling. Yet, all of us struggle with parts of our story and what we think about ourselves. With so many competing messages about our identity, formed from the building blocks of words, it can be very difficult to really know who we are. This is a journey a counselor, a good friend, a partner, or family member can take with you, but ultimately, you get to decide what words you will give up or take up to tell your story every day.