Reality is a complicated thing. In fact it’s so complicated you aren’t really in touch with it at all. You deal with reality in the moment by selectively focusing on a small fraction of what is represented to you by your senses. Your senses sort of cheat by only giving you some limited information. You also deal with the present by considering past experiences, which is to say your limited recollection of limited information. By the way, your memory definitely cheats and keeps only vague markers, creatively filling in likely details at the time you recall them.
Memory is an extension of attention: the more you experience/observe, the greater the intensity and breadth of experience, the more you will have to recall later. Recalling it as a narrative regularly after the effect will help reinforce that story for you. Let’s examine a couple: That was infuriating versus That was frustrating. Could both be true? Who chooses which is true? Is the difference solely descriptive?
Please consider that simply using the word infuriating alters your memory of the situation. Describing something with a word hashtags it in your brain. Laundry today was #infuriating. When you put hashtags in memories, you quickly check to see what’s trending and compare this experience with the others.
What do you think looking up all the #infuriating experiences in your life recently will do to your emotional state? Do you think describing yourself as infuriated might recall some bad memories and be upsetting on its own? For me, it certainly does. It’s one reason I try to omit the word infuriated from use.
It has been said that vocabulary is linked to comprehension of the world, producing greater understanding leading to easier learning. It produces better reading comprehension (obviously) which lets you understand more complex perspectives of the world, allowing for more complex decision making and consideration.
One cannot overstate the importance of vocabulary. After all, if framing can change your whole world, you are limiting this incredible ability by not knowing the words you desperately need to frame situations appropriately. The difference between #infuriating, #angering, #frustrating, and #irksome is quite significant. Tony Robbins discusses his favourite anger suppressing substitution as the word peeved. Firstly, you’re unlikely to have used the word so your feed will be empty when you try to compare it to other angering experiences. I also like throwing in a qualifier like slightly or moderately.
Moreover, peeved is a hilarious word. Try staying angry after saying “I’m a little peeved by this.” Alternatively you could try “This is a bit upsetting.” You can even invent your own word like taking pissed off or P.O.ed and pronouncing it pooed. “I’m feeling pooed right now.” It will instantly interrupt your anger train and give you a conscious chance to change your emotional state and prepare your response. Protip: If you are using this for relationship discussions, let your partner know you might erupt laughing after they say something that others might find really upsetting or angering.
If you can change an experience by changing a single word, what then for your vocabulary? Can you commit to taking some words out of use? Maybe retire them and think of others to replace them. Similarly, consider some positive words you might want to start using.
Exercise: Write down 3+ words you want to stop using to catastrophize negative situations. Next, write down 3+ words you could start using to improve how intensely you perceive positive emotions.
Cheating: My answers were “infuriating, depressing, resentful” and variations of those. For augmenting my positive emotional space, I selected “elated, excited, and passionate.”
Incidentally, prison libraries have major rehabilitative roles not least of which is improving behaviour. In fact, one doctoral thesis drives home the point that prison libraries potential while understood in academia are underappreciated and misunderstood by the public and prison administration in the US. This may be in part due to the growing gap between the vocabularies of the rich and poor.
Comparisons: Changing Feelings, Memories, and Mindset
One word can calm you down or fire you up (that was kinda nice vs that was awesome; when _ happens, I get frustrated vs when _ happens I go into a rage). What then for whole phrases?
More specifically, what then for comparisons, analogies, similes, and metaphors? Describing one’s emotional situation as a real life situation helps others understand where you are and clarifies it for yourself. This effective communication tool can be wonderful (it feels like I just won the lottery) or horrific (I feel like she wants my head on a platter). It can make us fearful of pursuing our dreams: “Don’t do it. Curiosity killed the cat.”
Using idioms can amplify feelings of powerlessness (I just lost it; I was beside myself) or helplessness to change (it was like I was a different person; when I __, I can’t control myself).
Some idioms are so heavy handed they’re simply ridiculous. Saying “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that” means you are literally saying if someone murdered you and dressed you in that clothing, your corpse would find a way out of those clothes because they revolt your essence so intensely.
Ridiculous idioms can be funny, and comedy can be socially bonding; however if you’re communicating with a partner and you say something like “you’ve got a gun to my head” or “fine – you’ve got me by the balls” or “you have me over a barrel on this one” you are communicating someone is threatening to murder, beat, or rape you. That kind of exaggeration can destroy intimacy and trust, even if they don’t take it badly. It’s very possible that you’re conditioning yourself to feel victimized, hurt, or even abused by them the next time they bring something similar up.
Be careful about exaggeration through metaphor or comparison. You are re-writing your memories. You are conditioning yourself to have associations. If you have an intense argument and you use a unique word/comparison, that word/comparison might take on all the power of that argument. You might say “it just feels like they have my dick in a vice” or “I feel locked up.” Some people refer to their family as their “ball and chain,” rarely affectionately or jokingly. Representing your commitments as a prison implies you’d rather be elsewhere. If your partner hears, your resentment can be poisonous. If any of these metaphors feel accurate, it might be worth a conversation even just to express where you are for you (bonus points if you use the book Nonviolent Communication/NVC – audiobook here).
When you consider your mindset and approach to life, the same principles apply. When you find yourself using statements such as “it’s like” or “it’s as if” or “I feel like” et cetera, you are probably making a comparison and defining your world.
Do you find that you’re fighting this thing at work “tooth and nail” or is it upsetting you feel unacknowledged? Do you feel “road rage” on your way to work or do you get a little frustrated? Do you frame all of your relationships as a “fight?” Is “love a battlefield” for you?
How do you think about your life? Tony Robbins does an excellent piece on framing your entire life as one thing. Life can be described as many things from a war to a love ballad. Come up with a few metaphors for life yourself. Is it a dance? A song? A journey?
Changing Your Mind
Your mind is so flexible you can alter your physiology with it. You can re-map neurons with it. You can even grow new neurons (in certain parts) or re-allocate preexisting neurons to take over tasks so that when you are performing a task, a larger part of your brain is active. You have the power.
Your thoughts are choices. The things you say to yourself (your internal monologue, your vocabulary, your examples and comparisons) – all of these are choices. They also radically affect your quality of life.
Choose today to pay more attention to what you’re thinking. Be militant about non-judgment. Focus on improvement, not shame. Trust that you’ll do the best you can with what you have and then put in the effort to make that happen. As you build trust with yourself and work to become who you want to be, so too will love for yourself grow. Esteem and confidence follow love and safety.
Loving others is always easier when you love yourself first because they feel heard when they express how much they care about you; they feel loved.