Words Can Hurt & Words Can Empower

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A dear friend recently asked me to write about the power of words and in particular, the words used to describe a death by suicide. 

The term “committed suicide” implies criminality.  It is a carryover from the Middle Ages when suicide was considered both illegal and sinful by the laws and religions of the time.  Those who died by suicide were forbidden traditional funerals and burials and civil authorities punished the survivors by confiscating their property. 

In Canada, suicide was decriminalized in 1972. 

The phrase “successful suicide” is particularly hurtful to the deceased’s surviving family and friends.  It does not reflect reality – every death by suicide is a tragedy.  Likewise, it is not accurate or helpful to describe a suicide attempt that does not result in death as “unsuccessful,” “incomplete,” or a “failed” attempt. 

It is time we use more accurate and non-judgmental language such as “he or she died by suicide.”

The power of words is well demonstrated in science.  Words trigger memories, concepts, and ideas.  Words can invite or reject, connect or detach, calm or excite.  The words we use, whether our self-talk or in our dialogue with others, affect our emotions and our actions.

There are phrases which have a significant negative impact on our psyche and on our relationships.  “I have to … you have to … or he/she/it makes me ...” leave us feeling disempowered when used internally and they incite argument or rebellion when used with others.

I have never found a person who likes to be told what to do yet we do it to ourselves and to others many times a day. 

Our self-talk may sound something like this:  “I have to get up, I have to get gas on the way, I have to stop and pick up coffee, and I have to get there on time.”  It’s like we’re using a whip to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow. 

The result is that by indulging in that kind of self-talk, we feel more and more disempowered, as though we are at the mercy of others.  We are not!  We are powerfully creative!! 

I remember sitting at my kitchen table many years ago listening to this inner dialogue: “I have to do the laundry, I have to pick up the kids at school so I should get groceries while I’m out, and I have to …”  I remember feeling like I had a choke chain around my neck and I kept yanking on it.  Why was I doing this to myself?  I concluded that I believed that if I did not prod myself with a stick, I would be totally irresponsible and nothing would get done. 

A somber second thought told me that I am a responsible person and I could take the choke chain off and trust that I would do what needs to be done. 

I have learned that I can encourage myself to accomplish what I want to with much more positive self-talk such as “I’m going to do the laundry and after I get the kids at school, I’ll get groceries.”  With this self-talk, I feel more empowered.  I’m making the choices.  I’m in the driver seat.

When I use phrases like “he makes me angry or she made me do it,” I am blaming others for my feelings and actions. 

Blaming other people, the weather, the economy, the government, etc., leaves me feeling powerless, helpless, out of control. 

Taking responsibility for my thoughts, feelings, and actions helps me feel less vulnerable. 

When I own my feelings as in “I am angry,” I feel more empowered.  Being able to have more control over our emotional experiences is a skill that can be learned by every adult. 


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