By Michael Kastelnik, M.S. — If you follow current events, you will inevitably hear about people getting in trouble for saying the wrong thing. The people involved either wittingly or unwittingly violated some rule, usually a specific company policy, but many times that rule was generally informed by social norms from some vague time in the past. The remedy usually involves a public apology and re-education about the rules and/or termination from employment or other contractual ties.
We must strive to use language properly. But keeping a job isn’t even the main reason to discern what to say and how to say it. What we tell ourselves and other people matters greatly for determining what we believe about the world and ourselves. Once we have this understanding, we can use our speech to relate to others. Then, we can see the power of speech as we relate to others, such as if we give someone a compliment or call them a bad name. Of course, the context matters, such as the relationship and the tone. Prayer is another example of the power of words. In the Catholic Church, priests give blessings and perform Sacraments. Their words indicate the intention of their souls and effect the change as Christ imparts His grace to live in union with Him.
While our words can cause change in the outside world, our mental self-talk can impact our inner state for better or worse. In his Introduction to the Science of Mental Health, Fr. Chad Ripperger reminds readers that one of the main goals of psychotherapy is to get the client back in touch with reality. This is true for everyone and not just those understood to be suffering from hallucinations or delusions. If someone is suffering from emotional pain, it may be something God wants him or her to embrace for the sake of healing and growing, but the suffering could also be due to an incomplete understanding of his or her circumstances or a habitual way of viewing their life. An example from the perspective of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, a popular modality in psychotherapy today, is the view that sadness and anxiousness are rooted in distorted self-beliefs, which could be thought of as phrases such as “I am unlovable.” Taking stock of one’s life and talking through issues can be a good way to clarify the situation and move in the direction of problem-solving. Again, it is important to make sure our words are as close to reality as possible to identify the source of our personal problems most effectively.
While words have an inner and outer effect, they also have a cause. The words are a manifestation of an inner reality that is composed of memories of previous experiences, beliefs, as well as physiological states such as hunger. Using your own experience as an example, you can usually tell a lot about a person about what they say and how they say it, notwithstanding examples of skillful acting or lying. Of course, there is a mutual relationship between what we tell ourselves and what we believe. Whether that is a vicious or virtuous cycle depends upon the message. The good news is that we can change some of these words and beliefs. Based on psychology class lessons from the late Fr. Steve Dougherty, who taught me the acronym CRAPS (cognitive, relational, affective, physical, and spiritual, with emphasis on the problems if you leave out the “S”), I will start with “S” and reveal some of the strategies I sometimes discuss with clients regarding proper use of speech with themselves and others:
Spiritual: pray, sometimes using the method of lectio divina
Cognitive (conscious mental processes): read books to learn helpful strategies for life’s problems, write in a journal to increase self-awareness, and create to-do lists as a first step in prioritizing your tasks
Relational: take your own side by using kind words assertive language I-statements, not aggressive
Affective (pertaining to emotions): try to identify how you are feeling, why, and what you can do to change your emotional state, if necessary
Physical: tell yourself and state intentions to others regarding eating, sleeping and exercise
Use your words wisely — they matter.