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Change your words, change your life

The simplest tool for immediately transforming the quality of your life

“Language shapes our behavior and each word we use is imbued with multitudes of personal meaning. The right words spoken in the right way can bring us love, money and respect, while the wrong words—or even the right words spoken in the wrong way — can lead to a country to war. We must carefully orchestrate our speech if we want to achieve our goals and bring our dreams to fruition. — Dr. Andrew Newberg, Words Can Change Your Brain”

The world’s greatest leaders and progressive thinkers have always used the power of words to transform our emotions to help inspire others toward their vision and create actionable change. From Winston Churchill’s focus on the “finest hour” to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s depiction of a “dream,” it’s evident that words shape our entire existence. But what about our own ability to use words internally to change our lives for the better – words that will ignite change, inspire action and improve our quality of life? Can changing your words change your life?

Our words are a vehicle for expressing and sharing our experiences with others, but do you may not realize the far-reaching impacts of the words you use on a daily basis.

How you speak to yourself directly influences how you experience things in life. If your internal self-talk is negative, chances are that your external experiences will be negative as well.

Over the past 40 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with more than 50 million people worldwide and I’ve witnessed the power that changing just one key word in a person’s vocabulary can have on the way a person feels – and how that person behaves. By simply changing your habitual vocabulary – the words you consistently use to describe emotions – you can instantaneously change how you think, how you feel and how you live. Make your internal vocabulary more positive, and you’ll be amazed at the positive external experiences you’ll discover. This is the power of Transformational Vocabulary – consciously using your words to improve and change your life.

What’s in your habitual vocabulary?

According to Compton’s Encyclopedia, the English language contains some 500,000 words. Yet, the average person’s working vocabulary consists of only 2,000 – 0.5% of the entire language. So how many words make up our habitual vocabulary? For most people, it averages around 200–300 words. (By contrast, John Milton’s writings used about 17,000 words and William Shakespeare used 24,000 words, 5,000 of which he only used one time.) Of those 500,000 words, about 3,000 are used to describe emotions – two-thirds of which are used to describe negative emotions.

With all of these readily-available ways to express our feelings and ideas, why are we comfortable with such an impoverished vocabulary? Our brains are working at high speeds, processing information and working to become more efficient. As a result, we resort to using the same vocabulary over and over again. In the pursuit of efficiency, we often create shortcuts that then shortchange us emotionally.

Words and emotions

For more than two decades, I’ve been testing live audiences all around the world, asking them to take on a very simple task: Make a list of the emotions you feel at least once a week.

Go ahead. Take ten minutes and write down all the emotions you feel at least once a week (not emotions you feel once a month or year). What did you come up with?

Astonishingly, whether the audience consists of 2,000 or 30,000 people, 90% of the people write down an average of a dozen words – more than half of which represent negative feelings. That means that out of the 3,000 words we have for emotions, most people list less than six words to describe good feelings. But the words for their bad feelings are more readily available, stored and remembered. Have you ever taken the time to think about which words you habitually use and how they may be affecting your life and well-being? Can you see how a negative vocabulary may affect your emotions and experiences?

Let’s look at this phenomenon is another light. What if a person was asked the same question and listed 30 positive emotions? How happy and fulfilled do you think that person is in life?

The problem is that our default setting isn’t to consciously choose our words to describe our emotions. When we experience distressing emotions, we unconsciously fall back on our habitual vocabulary. The words we attach to our experience become our experience. Words have a biochemical effect on the body. The minute you use a word like “devastated,” you’re going to produce a very different biochemical effect than if you say, “I’m a bit disappointed.”

It’s not hard to see the impact of language when we look at how we feel when other people speak to us. For example, if someone said to you, “I think you’re mistaken,” versus, “I think you’re wrong,” versus, “You’re lying,”would you have a different biochemical response to that simple phrase? The same exact process happens with the words that we use to speak to ourselves, but unfortunately, we’re less conscious of the impact.

A business lesson in emotions

I first became aware of the power of labeling emotions during an intense negotiation, more than a decade and a half ago. I shared information with the other party, thinking it would help my business partners and me cut through the positioning and show good faith. Unfortunately, the other party leveraged that information in an attempt to close the deal in an unjust way.

To say it was upsetting at the time would be an understatement.

After the meeting, I was frustrated and angry, but the intensity of one of my partners baffled me. He was enraged and felt that the other party was “putting a gun to our head.” His face was beet red and he was out of control as I tried to calm him down. The intensity of his emotions struck me because it seemed over-the-top compared to my frustration. On the other hand, our other partner seemed completely unmoved by the experience. When I asked him, “You don’t seem to be upset by this. Aren’t you angry?” He said, “Well, no, not really. I’m a little annoyed by this.” I was incredulous. “Annoyed?” I asked, “Don’t you realize what these people have done?” He said, “Of course I do. I’m certainly a bit peeved.” “Peeved?” I echoed. “What do you mean, peeved?” To which he responded, “Well, it’s really just not worth being upset over and that’s how I feel.”

I was struck by how each of us used words with such varied levels of intensity, and also how our experiences of the event were so radically different. How could it be that I was frustrated, one of my partners was enraged, and my other partner was a bit peeved? I pondered the word, “peeved.” What a ridiculous word to describe what these people had done to us. I would never use this word to describe how I was feeling, but then again, I had never been that calm in an unjust situation. I began to wonder, what if I stayed calm and labeled this injustice as “peeving me?” Just to use the word would probably make me laugh. Maybe he was on to something.

Change your words, change your life

Is it possible that the words we attach to our experience actually become our experience? Do words have a biochemical effect? For the next few weeks after that meeting, I began to notice the different language patterns of others and how they magnified or softened their emotions. Can a change in words lead to a change in state?

It was time to test this theory. I created a 10-day challenge for myself. First, I would have to identify my emotional habits. Then, I would consciously replace these with a new word to break my default pattern of thought and feeling.

I got my first opportunity after a long series of connecting flights, all of which were late. I arrived at my hotel at 2 a.m., knowing I had to be up to speak at 8 a.m. I waited another 10 minutes at the front desk while the clerk slowly searched for my name in the computer. The frustration compounded until it turned to anger. Suddenly, I turned to the man and said, “I know this isn’t your fault, but right now I’m exhausted and I really need to get any room you can find for me because I’m feeling a little bit peeved.”

Just saying that word changed the tone of my voice and made the whole situation seem silly. The clerk looked at me in confusion before breaking into a big smile. I smiled back; my pattern was broken. As ridiculous and simple as it sounds, the replacement word broke my pattern of anger. The emotional volcano building inside of me instantly cooled.

A small but important shift

Could it really be this easy? Just by changing the words we habitually use to describe our emotions, could we change our feelings and the quality of our lives? Ten days turned into a month and I can tell you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was a life-transforming experience. This is not to say there won’t be times when you feel angry or enraged, but wouldn’t it be nice to have that be a conscious choice as opposed to a habitual negative reaction? We can be proactive in choosing our emotions—we can make experiences more pleasurable.

If you’re wondering how to change your life in the easiest way possible, start with one word. Replace one word that will transform the way you experience something “negative.” Shifting your emotional patterns is the key to shaping your decisions, actions and life.This is how you create a choice instead of a habitual reaction.

Transformational Vocabulary gives you the power to change your experiences in life by lowering the intensity of negative emotions to the point where they no longer control you. It can also be used to take positive experiences and increase them to even greater heights of pleasure.  

How extraordinary will your life be when you consistently lower the intensity of negative emotions and intensify the positive ones? Start small. Note the negative words you use on a consistent basis and ask yourself how you can change them. Can you be “peeved” instead of “devastated?” On the other hand, can you feel “ecstatic” instead of “pleased?” Internal dialogue can change your life. Start creating beneficial habits today, and you’ll quickly reach a more positive, joyful state.

Header image © Shutterstock/Antonio Guillem

Tony Robbins

Tony Robbins is an entrepreneur, bestselling author, philanthropist and the nation’s #1 Life and Business Strategist. Author of five internationally bestselling books, including the recent New York Times #1 best-seller UNSHAKEABLE, Mr. Robbins has empowered more than 50 million people from 100 countries through his audio, video and life training programs. He created the #1 personal and professional development program of all time, and more than 4 million people have attended his live seminars.

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