How Words Shape Who You Think You Are

Published by Angel


Neon signs

We often think of hypnotism as a strange and alien experience—one that’s totally unlike our everyday life. And, yes, if we’re talking about the hypnotic state (in which we usually feel extremely relaxed), it is unusual. But, leaving the state of hypnosis aside, we are being hypnotized all the time, especially through the use of language.

The medical field has understood the placebo effect (and how praising a medicine can make it more effective) for over a century. (Medical hypnotism goes back much further although the potential benefits of paramedics using hypnotic language in emergency situations is only now beginning to be recognized.)

Recently, too, INSEAD Business School associate professor of Marketing Hilke Plassmann has shown that the price of a product affects our experience of it. If, for example, wine or chocolate is priced high we expect it to taste better than other lower-priced competitors and we actually experience it as better-tasting than those competitors (even if it is not).

It matters what other people tell us. It matters even more what we tell ourselves.

The problem, of course, is that what we are told and what we tell ourselves are often related. If someone tells us that we’ll never succeed at something (art, science, sport, etc.) we might accept this as true and give up. (The French pharmacist and hypnotist Émile Coué realized more than a century ago that, often, what we tell ourselves is self-defeating.)

Or, conversely, we might rebel against what we’re told, try even harder, and prove the other person totally wrong. It’s not unusual to hear of people excelling in later life in precisely the area that they struggled with at school.

Even stranger, people born into relative luxury, with good parental support, will often fail to excel to the degree that we might predict. In particular, they may find it difficult to take risks or to break away from a life of relative comfort and safety. (We see this with people getting stuck in jobs that they hate as well, of course.)

When we walk, we do so without conscious thought. Speaking isn’t much different. Although we do often think about our words and what we want to say, there is a level of unconsciousness that comes out in intonation, the use of one word as opposed to another, and even in an oddly-timed change of pronoun from “I” to “you” or “we.”

If you’ve listened to interviews with musicians, actors, or artists you might have noticed that the interviewers will often have insights into the creatives’ work and their intentions that the creatives hadn’t thought of. The creatives create the work but their work often emerges through intuition and non-logical processes. Rational thinking and conscious decision-making aren’t a big part of it. (Life is a bit like that.)

It’s difficult to estimate how many ads, media messages, or social media posts compete for our attention every day, but we know that it can be a constant bombardment. On top of this, we receive all kinds of messages from friends, family, coworkers, bosses, and, sometimes, even complete strangers.

It’s easy to get lost in all the noise and to find ourselves unsure about who we are, or take on other people’s judgments about us. But every quality can be described in positive or negative terms:

  • Impulsive/spontaneous.
  • Stuck/committed.
  • A daydreamer/imaginative.
  • Disagreeable/independent-minded.

While some people will always interpret your good qualities in a negative way (usually because they don’t feel good about themselves), of course, we have to recognize that sometimes people really are stuck or are daydreaming. But, once we recognize the negative aspects of our character we can begin to move towards the positive. We can use our tendency to stick things out instead to commit ourselves to something that is meaningful to us, and we can add consistent action to our daydreaming so that we can make use of our imagination to create something of value.

If you want to move on in life an unbiased conversation can help.

But there are some things you can do alone, beginning right now. At the top of the list are:

  • Think about the words you use to describe yourself and others and think about more positive replacements for unnecessarily critical terms that you use.
  • Cut out media that is wasting your time or making you feel unmotivated or angry.
  • Start a journal, carry it with you, and write down your thoughts and ideas (and any interesting quotes you come across) every day.

Becoming conscious of who you really are requires us to become conscious of the language we use.