The power of changing our words

My colleague Helen asked me to share a story on self-care. She leads Self UnLimited, a brilliant organisation reshaping our identity and possibilities around our relationships with work and value.

So given the current times, I’m sharing this here too. It’s a bit longer than my usual posts. And there’s an activity at the end that, if you feel like it, you can have a go at.

Recently I had the pleasure of listening to Bill. He’s an incredible human who’s successfully recovered from a stroke. Now saying this doesn’t mean it was easy. It’s been a long journey that continues (and now includes sharing expertise on Recovery after Stroke).

And one Sunday morning, it was this story Bill shared that was a powerful reminder of how one small shift creates profound change.

So what happened?

Bill was in a rehab session, working on activities to retrain his hand to grab and pick up things. While doing this, he noticed a fellow stroke patient was struggling. Ivan’s task was to pick up a cup and move it sideways. Sounds simple right? Well not for a stroke patient learning to use their hand. And Ivan was having no luck. He kept knocking the cup over, every single time. He was getting no where and he was frustrated.

And Bill noticed something. At the start of each attempt, Ivan kept saying to his hand, “C’omon bugger”.

 So Bill offered Ivan a moment to pause and asked him: “Hey Ivan, I’m curious. Wonder what’d happen if you call your hand Friend instead of Bugger?

So Ivan paused. Then gave it a go.

His hand picked up the cup and moved it sideways.

At this point the whole room stopped. Dead silence. Everyone was in awe. How this one word – one simple shift in what we say to ourselves  – changed the game. It made something possible. It led to a better outcome.

Now, it’s true, words powerfully wire our brains and bodies. And this shapes our actions. Even the one act of labelling a negative thought or emotion activates our logic thinking part (ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) and reduces activity in the emotional part that’s responsive to stress (amygdala).

So how interesting and powerful is it to know, that in caring for ourselves, we can start with the simple act of choosing your words wisely. And this is available to anyone! And it’s free!

And when you’re feeling challenged or finding something difficult or uncomfortable, perhaps consider the following quick and simple actions you can do:

1. Ask yourself out load: “What is this feeling and what am I saying to myself?

2. Write this down

3. Next, look at these words – and ask yourself how can I change this? What’s the one word or phrase that can replace it so it’s more positive, kind and encouraging?

4. Now do it. Write it down. Say it out loud … and then, go do something.

5. So now, can you notice how much different or better that feels compared to before?

And isn’t it always good to remember, how the small act of changing a few words can shift how your feel and boost the care and kindness you give yourself.