James Pennebaker is a psychologist, and the person considered to be the first to use writing as a way of working through trauma and other difficulties in your life. It’s come to be known as Expressive Writing, and some 200 studies later the outcomes of those first studies have been confirmed - and added to. Expressive writing can make a difference; it boosts immune function, brings about a drop in blood pressure, and can reduce feelings of depression and elevated daily moods.
Following those early studies, not everyone could agree upon why writing made a difference, since why writing is effective for one person does not necessarily explain why it works for someone else. However, in trying to figure out what it was that made writing so effective, the researchers forgot one thing, says Pennebaker, “What early writing researchers failed to consider was that people were using words to describe their personal upheaval.”
It seems obvious that people were using words when writing. And it is obvious… but it’s the words they used that needed to be investigated. And this lead to the development of a computer program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). The idea was that this program would analyse the words people used – whether in expressive writing or in everyday speech – and this would provide insights into their emotional states.
"the words people used...would provide insights into their emotional state."
In his book The Secret Life of Pronouns Pennebaker shows us how the words we use can help us to understand ourselves. He says that he began looking closely at words in his own life, at the words he spoke in talking with friends and family, when writing emails and letters, and while not fundamentally changing the way he spoke or wrote, the analyses he did, pointed to some natural shortcomings, which he has been working on ever since!
Robert Tennyson Stevens, says that ‘language changes are extremely powerful!’ In his book, The Logos of Now he writes of the ‘momentous’ day when he had an ‘aha’ moment, recognizing that his own words, his thoughts, his inner language, were all shaping his reality, how he was living his life. Like Pennebaker, Stevenson used this awareness to reshape the language he used – both the inner language he used when talking about himself and his circumstances, and the expressed language he used to communicate with those around him.
"His own words, his thoughts, his inner language were all shaping his reality."
We’ve known for a long time that the words we speak, the conversations we have can bring life, or death. What language are you using? How are you shaping your life? Are your words positive, encouraging, life-giving words? Or are they negative, discouraging, death words? When you are confronted with challenges and difficulties, how are you likely to speak of those things?
It’s just too hard. I can’t do this.”
When things don’t work out quite the way you wanted them to, what sort of conversation do you have with whomever you are talking to about it?
“I don’t know why I even bothered, things just don’t work out for me.”
When you make a mistake, what is your inner dialogue?
“ I’m so stupid, I knew that would happen.”
Well, that was a stupid thing to do.”
The words you use can help you, or not… start with yourself, and begin to practice being aware of that inner dialogue that can sabotage you and prevent you from moving forward into a better, brighter life. This starts with noticing your thoughts, and not accepting everything that comes into your mind as truth or reality. It’s just a thought, not fact, so you don't’ need to engage in conversation with it! As you start changing the inner dialogue, the words you speak will change too – watch for changes in your life as you do this!