Psychologists say a single trauma will strike you twice. First, you will live through the actual event—dealing with the reality of it. Second, when you think or talk about the event with others, creating your personalized story of the event, you will recreate the event in your mind. Although there’s nothing you can do about what has happened to you, it’s important to stay mindful of how you describe the trauma to yourself and others—remember that your words create your world!
Boris Cyrulnik, a famed French ethologist, says there’s good reason to watch what you say. Most of the women he’s worked with who have experienced sexual trauma have said that it was not compassion that inspired them to recover, but the influence of being told they were strong. Simply being told they were strong helped them to be that way. Cyrulnik argues that if another person expresses too much pity or horror for you, their view can actually escalate your pain.
I can relate on a personal level. I’ve been through some highly challenging times—some of which led me to research everything there was to know about the psychology of resilience. I found it so powerful that I shared what I learned and how it benefited me in The Bounce Back Book. What was one of the easiest, yet most powerful, strategies for bouncing back buoyantly from adversity? Remembering the mantra, “I must watch the words I use—because they create the world I see!”
I learned the importance of surrounding myself with people who I knew would verbally reinforce my identity as a strong person. I knew on an intuitive level that positive words of encouraging faith from others would help to reinspire my own inner strength, but I didn’t know that studies support this positive ripple affect on one’s psyche.
Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) is a therapy that attempts to influence the subconscious mind and affect positive change by consciously using positive words to refocus on the things within one’s control. For example, Cyrulnik warns that after a trauma, you need to make sure you don’t talk with people who accidentally keep you in the victim mode by using depression-inducing language such as:
- You must be suffering so greatly right now!
- How very hurt and in pain you must be!
- I bet you’re exhausted and depressed after all you’ve been through!
No, no, no! You must keep away from words like those! While on the surface they seem kind and empathetic, they’re far more capable of souring the mood of a person in crisis. During tough times, you must surround yourself with a chorus of folks who chant, “You are strong! You are strong! You are strong!” creating an endless loop of support!
Knowing the subliminal power of words, Morrie and Arleah Shectman, psychotherapists who specialize in bereavement counseling, purposefully use empowering language when helping people through a trauma. Morrie says he never talks “sympathetically” with his patients because it’s disempowering and keeps patients coddled in victim mode. “Too much ‘sympathy talk’ can keep patients stuck, reliving and examining their feelings rather than moving on,” Morrie says.
After a little research, I believe Morrie is practicing this “neuroscience of words”—purposefully priming his patients’ subconscious minds with positive language to serve as an inner-strength training program of sorts!
NLP is a pretty amazing phenomenon. In 2000, researcher John Bargh set up the now-famous study that showed how our linguistic context strongly affects our behavior. Bargh gave two different groups of people two different lists of words to unjumble, telling them they were being tested on simple problem solving.
The first list contained words suggesting impatience, rudeness and aggressiveness; the second list had words suggesting patience, politeness and calm. After the test was completed, the participants were asked to bring their lists to an administrator who was deep in conversation with a colleague—setting up the true experiment.
All the participants given the list of words suggesting rudeness and aggressiveness became those exact words—angrily interrupting the administrator. However, of the participants primed with language suggesting patience and calm 82 percent never interrupted the administrator at all. The lesson to be learned? The words we use and hear are powerful!
If you’re bouncing back from a challenging time, it’s essential to become aware to not dwell on the pain of what you are going through. Instead, consciously pepper your conversations, therapy sessions and journal writing with strong, uplifting, optimistic words that will keep you aimed in a strong, positive, healing direction!
“After you’ve been through a trauma or a large loss, assume people won’t be good listeners,” warns Dr. Al Siebert, director of Portland, Oregon’s Resiliency Center and author of The Resiliency Advantage. According to Siebert, the average person will listen to you talk about your ordeal for one to two minutes tops, before they want to get away or they interrupt you with their opinion. This can be really hurtful and emotionally stressful when you’re feeling vulnerable.
Siebert suggests you protect your spirit by constructing some boundaries and an “elevator pitch” of your story—a quick, one-minute answer. With this in mind, it’s helpful to take some time to consciously jot down what you want your elevator pitch to include so you’re prepared when people ask. Try to use neutral or positive language so you don’t keep reliving your pain. Be sure to put a positive “kicker” at the end. For example: “Yes, I’ve been through a horrible time, but I’m handling it okay. How about you? Have you ever been through anything like this?” Requesting empathy makes it less likely that your listener’s response will hurt or disappoint you.
If you feel you’re with someone highly supportive—a friend with whom you want to more freely share your experience—be sure to check in with them first, saying something like: “I must confess what I went through is a very emotional experience. If you have an hour, I’d love to share it with you.” That way you guard against the disappointment of not being able to share in the way you had hoped.
Siebert also reminds that it’s okay to decide not to share anything at all. You can simply tell people, “Thanks for asking, but I don’t care to talk about it right now.”
Another helpful NLP technique is to dilute strongly negative words. Try to stop saying things like:
- I’m furious!
- I’m devastated!
- I’m completely crushed.
Instead replace them with milder expressions such as:
- I’m a bit miffed.
- I’m disappointed.
- I’m surprised.
Be mindful that your words also have power in other areas of your life. For example, instead of saying, “I won’t get involved with cheating jerks or sociopaths or toxic people anymore!” you might say, “I’ll only get involved with healthy, loving, trustworthy people.” Instead of saying, “I am no longer going to be in total financial debt!” you might say, “I vow to become financially solvent.”
I’m also a big believer that who you think you are actually manifests who you will be. Your beliefs will create the actions and habits you choose. During a challenging time, it’s essential to view yourself as a strong person—capable of bouncing back stronger than ever! With this in mind, I recommend during tough times, you enter what I humorously call the “Identity Protection Program!” Own one of the following identities as yours:
- I’m the type of person who makes the world say yes to me.
- I’m an indomitable spirit, a phoenix rising from the ashes. Nothing keeps me down!
- A lesser person would crumble right now. Not moi!
- When life throws me curveballs, I hit ‘em outta the park!
If you find yourself in a challenging time, remember to repeat these types of beliefs as often as possible, even if at first you have trouble believing them. As Muhammad Ali once said: “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” Or as I like to say, “Sometimes you gotta fake positivity till you make positivity.”