We have all experienced it. The power language can have. Just by emitting certain types of words in a certain order a person can make us cry, laugh, smile, or explode. They can make us feel good, or they can make us feel absolutely terrible.

Language is a great tool we have as human beings. It allows us to communicate with others in a more efficient way, plan and anticipate what will happen in the future, and reminisce about the past. It can help us to express our emotions and explain our behaviours so people around us can more easily understand what we are going through. However, language is a very powerful tool, and we should therefore be aware of its powers.

All language is learnt. We are not born with a language, but we are born with the ability of its development. From the moment we are born, we embark on a journey of learning language. As infants, we begin to absorb sounds, gestures, and expressions from our caregivers, gradually building our vocabulary and understanding of syntax. Language is a social construct, passed down through generations, and it evolves as society changes and differs depending on the context you find yourself in.

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Language also gives us the power of emotional time travel. For example, if we think about things that happened in the past that made us sad, we start feeling sad in the present moment. Maybe not to the same degree or with the same intensity as we felt in the past, but we start feeling worse than before we started to think about the sad thing that happened. If we think about something exciting than is going to happen in the future, for example a fun trip, we start getting exited in the present moment, even though we have not yet travelled anywhere. This can be both helpful to us and give us some challenges. When we think about positive things that have happened or that will happen, it can help to motivate us to do the behaviours necessary in order for it to occur or occur again. When we think about negative things that happened in the past, it may help us to find different ways to go about what happened so that we do not have to experience the negative consequence again. However, sometimes we might take this to a more extreme level where we start to think about all possible negative scenarios that may happen in the future, something that makes us feel bad without actually being helpful for us.

Language is not innocent. The words we use are conditioned with different emotional responses. This means that when we say a word, we also feel an emotion. For example, if somebody tells us we are very pretty or very ugly, those two words will provoke different emotional responses in us; we would feel good if they called us pretty and bad if they called us ugly. If somebody tells us we are pretty or ugly in a language we do not understand, we do not feel any different as these words have not yet been learnt or conditioned. This is also why we often feel more when speaking or hearing our native language compared to a second language we have learnt, as our native language tends to have a greater emotional association and therefore provoke stronger emotional responses than languages we learn later on. Sometimes it can therefore often be easier to say difficult things in our second language as the words do not provoke as strong emotional responses as in our native language, keeping our emotions more easily in check. This can also make it trickier when learning a new language as we have not yet learnt how to properly use the most adequate vocabulary or expressions depending on the context. We might say things that sounds more offensive than what we intend to, or we are not able to provoke the desired reaction in the other person that we wish to.

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Language not only shapes emotions but also plays a role in guiding our behaviours. The way we describe and label actions can influence how we perceive and respond to them. For example, someone who habitually uses the phrase «I’m a procrastinator» might start to associate themselves with this label and make it their identity. This does not only describe the typical avoidance we do of tasks, but it may facilitate an even greater avoidance as this is “who we are”. The same goes for all negative words we pair with “I am”, such as “I am stupid,” “I am ugly,” etc. We are not stupid. There are many times we might say or do stupid things, but that is not enough in order to label our whole identity as stupid. We can definitely find many exceptions where we have not done or said something stupid, so “I am stupid” is not a good word for us to use to describe ourselves. When we say “I am” + a negative word, it may lead to behaviour changes that limit ourselves. If I repeatedly say that “I am stupid”, that might influence how often I raise my hand in class or make new suggestions to my boss. By being aware of our language, we can reshape our self-perception and encourage positive behaviours. Instead of saying «I’m bad at public speaking,» one might choose to say «I’m working on improving my public speaking skills.» This change in language can foster a growth mindset and empower individuals to take action towards self-improvement.

The power language can have is something politicians are very aware of. By pairing two words together, for example “women” and “stupid” or “immigrants” and “crime”, you start creating associations between the words and therefore also between the emotions they would provoke. Even though we would not think women are stupid, when repeatedly presented with the combination, it may still have an effect we are not completely aware of, and it may start to influence our behaviour, for example when selecting new personnel for a job. We also know that immigrants are not necessarily criminal, but if we often hear the two words paired together, we start associating the word “immigrant” with similar negative emotions as the word “crime” provokes in us. This may then change our behaviour towards or in the presence of immigrants, even though we know immigrants are not criminal and we do not want it to affect our behaviour.

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As we can see, language is not innocent but a very powerful tool. By making ourselves more aware of its powers, we can lower the negative influence it may have on our behaviour. And use this to our advantage and not limit ourselves. By choosing our words more carefully, even though the way in which we say things may seem similar or irrelevant, we can avoid giving ourselves unnecessary limitations and help us to feel better and use it as we intend to.

About the author

Amalie Hylland is a health psychologist at Sinews. She specializes in behavior analysis and modification, working with adolescents and adults. She has experience working with a variety of issues, including anxiety management, phobias and ruminative thoughts, assertive and social skills development, self-esteem, procrastination, self-harm and obsessive compulsive behavior. Her orientation is behavioral therapy, integrating evidence-based techniques and tools to help change the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that cause us problems.

Amalie Hylland
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Amalie Hylland
Languages: English, Spanish and Norwegian
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