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By Kay Hannaford

Mind your words

This was to be the first week of a long-anticipated five-week overseas holiday in UK and Europe. But when my husband became ill unexpectedly, two weeks before departure, we cancelled the trip.

I’ve been noticing the words that have come to my mind – and others’ – in relation to this turn of events and how the words we use precipitate matching feelings and behaviours. A dear friend asked if I was devastated. No, I wasn’t devastated, but I was certainly disappointed. While it was important to acknowledge that feeling rather than pretend I wasn’t, there’s a fine line between doing that and wallowing in it. Once you cross that line, you’re in trouble and I knew I’d crossed the line when I began to feel upset and sorry for myself. On reflection, the words I was saying to myself that day were verging on the catastrophic, along the lines of “this is the end of overseas travel for us” and “this is not the future I envisioned for myself“. No wonder I felt miserable. It’s just life! And it’s not what happens in life that matters but how we interpret what happens. The words that define and describe what happens make all the difference to how we deal with events.

Since the revered neuroscientist and writer Oliver Sacks’ recent death, many words have been written about him. The saddest I’ve read are the words of his mother, when she found out that, as a young man, he had a sexual preference for boys. “You’re an abomination” she said. “I wish you had never been born“. Sacks reported this in his memoir ‘On the Move’, acknowledging both the need to understand her words in the context of the times and the devastating impact they had on him, leading to three decades of guilt and celibacy.

I’m reminded of an episode I witnessed once involving a young boy on a jetty with his parents. The boy proudly clutched a shiny new fishing rod and his dad was teaching him to cast a line into the shallow water below. He draw the rod back over his shoulder and, with an almighty effort, let the whole thing go. The fishing rod disappeared, hook, line and sinker. An easy mistake to make on your first attempt. But the tirade of abuse that followed from both parents was shocking. “You stupid idiot, you’re hopeless, useless”. That child’s sense of himself would have been irrevocably shaped by those words. Imagine the difference if they’d said “that’s OKbad luck, never mind, let’s try again and this time, hold on tightly to the rod”. 

We all have to be mindful of the words we use to describe ourselves, as well as others. I’m as guilty as the next person of being my own harshest critic at times, but it’s a very bad habit and something well worth paying attention to – and giving up. We constrain ourselves every time we say negative things to or about ourselves. Even quite innocent-sounding ‘truisms’ like ‘I’m not a morning person’, ‘I’m shy’, ‘I’m too old to …’, ‘I’m hopeless at games’ can entrap us in an ever-shrinking world of self-limiting beliefs.  They are only words, not the truth. I realised recently that one of mine, ‘I don’t like driving on country roads at night’, has been restricting my social life ( since I live in the country ) so I’ve just dropped it. I’m now more open to initiating or accepting invitations to evening events in the city which in turn juices up my life.

What are the words you use when you look in the mirror or prepare for an important meeting? It’s useful to notice. Otherwise they remain unconscious wallpaper, many of them demeaning and quite probably inhibiting your aspirations.

I’m taking a leaf from Thomas Hardy’s (and my current favourite) heroine Bathsheba Everdene in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. Addressing her workers for the first time after unexpectedly inheriting her uncle’s large farm, she announces that she will be out in the fields before them every morning.

“I shall astonish you all”, she proclaims. (In the recent film version, Carey Mulligan replaces the word shall with intend –
“I intend to astonish you all”)

I dare you to do the same, by dropping any words you use that diminish or constrain you or others and replacing them instead with words that enhance, elevate, encourage, inspire, exalt or embolden. It might take practice but I can promise it will make a difference.

Now that my husband is well again, we’re relieved and grateful that he didn’t get sick while we were on the other side of the world and we’re perfectly happy to holiday at home instead. We appreciate the beautiful place where we live and we’re now focusing on simply enjoying being here. And there are plenty of stimulating places to go, people to see and things to do closer to home.


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