The words we use often have a direct impact on how we think, feel, and behave. When people (especially experts) provide their impressions of us, the words they use can be very influential and lead to future self-fulfilling prophecies. We see these examples across the board, including when teachers inspire students to live up to their academic abilities, or coaches motivating kids to play up to their potential. Words can also thwart our future motivation and prevent us from becoming our best, like when we are told we do not have talent for a specific skill — and therefore don’t even try as a result of their words. Yes, words really matter, and sometimes we not only have to process the words others use about us, but also the words we use about ourselves.
How words effect mental health
When you visit your physician about a health concern, oftentimes your doctor can provide to you clear, objective evidence that you do in fact have a broken arm or an allergic reaction on your skin. Contrast that to how many people talk about their mental health status, and speak in the same — albeit erroneous — terms. For example, how many times have you heard someone say I have ADHD? Or I have anxiety? They speak about these mental illnesses as though they “have” them similar to how one might “have” a cell phone in their pocket or a car in their garage. Not only do you not own a mental health disorder, stating your condition in such an absolute sense has a direct, negative impact on one more thing: Your health.
When we believe we have a disorder, we often group that finding with other things beyond our control that we “have,” including our height or eye color, leaving us to believe we are helpless to doing anything about it. Comparing this to medical findings, your doctor can show you an x-ray of a broken arm, but what I cannot show you is your ADHD or depression. Furthermore, you do not “have” ADHD or depression in the literal sense where we can display it beyond you affirming a few mental health questions. No, at best you “have” mental health labels that describe temporary conditions where you might display more specific thoughts/behaviors than the people around you, thereby qualifying you for an official mental illness disorder.
The trouble with believing, in the absolute sense, that you have something is that it prevents any future efforts to improve upon the condition. In other words, why even try if you “have” something you can’t get rid of??
Using anxiety as an example
Human anxiety is defined as a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness. You don’t have anxiety like you might have a watch on your wrist, but you instead experience anxiety as part of the human condition — it is embedded in our natural hard-wiring designed to let us know when to be careful with people, situations, and places. We might all “have” anxiety as a tool to use, but we do not “have” anxiety in the sense that we cannot live our lives happily because of a 500 pound boulder of anxiety we are forced to carry around.
Words really matter when it comes to our mental and physical well-being. When we say things like “I have anxiety” as though it’s a personal possession that we can not rid ourselves of, why even try for future improvement? The reality is we all experience a variety of mental states, including anxiety and fluctuating mood states, and the key is to recognize that we can work through difficult times and that we are not permanently anchored down by these conditions.