The language of Well-Being

Alan White New

Alan White

I have always been fascinated by language. It’s a very powerful thing. Depending on how we choose to use language, it can insult, hurt, criticise, and devastate someone. Or if used in a compassionate way, it can create meaningful relationships, positive interaction and even change someone’s life. Most of the time we never give language much thought. We take it for granted and use it to express ourselves, interact with people as well as many other uses.

Amazingly though, we do not think in words, we think in pictures. Language is a tool that we have developed over centuries to communicate these pictures with the outside world. For me, it was only when I learned a second language (French), that I really began to appreciate the power of language. How we communicate with each other is a key component in our overall well-being.

It’s very interesting to see how different languages express sentiment in different ways. The little idiosyncrasies between how different cultures can give an amazing insight into how people see the world and see themselves in it. If we look at how we communicate with others, this reflects how we feel about ourselves.

A simple example of the difference in language is how you say your age. In French you say “J’ai 30 ans” for example, which means, “I am 30”, but literally means I have 30 years. For me there is a powerful difference between the phrasing here. We say we are whatever our age is. This tends to define us by our age. Saying I am in this context means that this is part of who you are. However saying you have your age, evokes a sense that this number does not define.

This example might seem trivial, but we tend to use I am in many other ways that I believe is damaging to our well-being. For example we tend to say things like I am always doing the wrong thing, or I am unhappy, If not to others we might say it to ourselves. This is what I call defining language, and can affect how we see ourselves. By changing our language slightly to saying I have made mistakes, or I feel unhappy, we are shifting away from seeing these elements of ourselves as our whole selves and beginning to see them as only a part of us and something that can be changed.

When we talk to young people we often tend to define them though our words and the tones we use. Last week I spoke about criticism, and very often we use a critical tome in an attempt to alter the behaviour of young people. If we use phrases like, you are always making things difficult. You are not working hard enough in school. You are not doing your best etc. we are using defining language that young people will take in and accept as being who they are.

We need again to shift how we use language with young people. Instead of using critical defining language we can use phrases that are more empowering to change. For example instead of saying you are not working hard enough we could make a small change to our tone and language and say something like. “I know you are very capable and I want to see you do your best. Maybe you could do a little more work”. By making this small change we are getting the same message across that we wanted but doing so in a non-critical, non-judgemental and encouraging way.

Language is an extremely powerful thing. By choosing to use it in a positive way we can begin to instil a sense of wellbeing in all of us and especially young people who look to the adults in their lives for guidance and encouragement. This is an important responsibility and we must take it seriously and choose both our words and how we say them carefully.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

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