I’ve started this particular post three times. Had three different images in place as a visual muse. This one finally feels right.
It’s a difficult concept to convey, but an important one. I’ll do my best.
If you read my recent post entitled “when words are sentences,” you may have been inspired to think more carefully about the words you choose. That’s terrific! As the old adage says, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Even if what you need to convey isn’t exactly nice, you can say it in the nicest way possible, without crushing another’s spirit, by talking in terms of specific items of behavior rather than character.
But the battle for real change is not fought on the grounds of words alone.
I saw an episode of Everybody Hates Chris once (I actually think it was the only time I’d seen it). I remember that Chris’ mom, known for being critical, was dared that she couldn’t resist nagging or yelling for a certain amount of time. There was money involved, which acted as her motivation. In a comical fashion, as dishes were left in the living room or children were not doing chores, the mom’s eyes would bug and her mouth would start working up the delivery of her missive. Her husband, ever nearby, would cast her a knowing glance and tap his money pocket. And the mom would draw in an icy breath, then exhale the most unnatural, sugar-coated, “request” that things be done her way.
With some motivation, this TV mom was able to curb her words. But she had not addressed the more important elements behind the words. Thoughts and attitudes.
As I recall, her resolve did not last long, despite the would-be prize dangling before her. I think this is not only true of TV moms, but of everyone.
All three of these – words, thoughts and attitudes – are interwoven. I do believe that changing what we speak can affect our thoughts, certainly. Words are part of a feedback loop to our brain. So denying negative auditory information can help by not reinforcing negative thoughts. Likewise, speaking positive words can bolster positive thinking.
But this is not enough.
Anyone who’s had a difficult boss can attest to the fact that we can harbor the worst of thoughts, even while carefully monitoring what we let escape through our words. Jobs depend on it. But, while we may not be fired, leaving it at polite words can still make for a miserable time at work every day.
Or what teen hasn’t decided it might be wise not to unleash what he is really thinking on his parents? But, while he may avoid being grounded this way, it will not bring a sense of harmony at home.
Do continue to be mindful and intentional about what you say! But, in order to really see change, we have to be willing to get at what is going on behind the words. But how?
Start with attitudes. Here are just a few examples of negative attitudes we may have, and which direct both our thoughts and words:
I am very important; others are not very important by comparison.
Being right is more important than being kind.
People are background props on my stage.
And here are some positive attitudes we may adopt, and which will also direct our thoughts and words:
My family is precious to me and worth treating with kindness.
Being kind is more important to me than being right.
People are worth knowing and going out of my way for.
Take some time to identify negative attitudes you have toward others (or yourself) and instead, replace them with positive attitudes that you would like to be characteristic of you. Try writing these new attitudes down and putting them where you can see them often: your dashboard, the bathroom mirror, the refrigerator. “But what if people see them?” you may ask. Great! Even better! In fact, I would recommend that you tell the others in your life about the new attitudes you are determined to live by. Give them permission to remind you of them if you seem to be going back to your old, comfortable, negative attitudes. (You do really want to change, right?)
As you change your foundational attitudes, you will begin to find that you aren’t struggling so hard to think about how to formulate positive ways of saying things. But we aren’t quite there yet.
Whereas attitudes are global, thoughts are specific. It’s sometimes easy to feel we are doing OK in our overall attitudes, all the while letting stray thoughts run rogue. And rogue thoughts can insidiously corrode attitudes.
So let’s say that I’m focusing on my attitudes and words with family members at home. Terrific. Now, I’m out at the convenience store, and I see a guy wearing skull parachute pants and sporting a fantastic mullet. I think to myself, “What a loser. Probably on government assistance, buying lottery tickets with my hard-earned taxes. And, by the way, the 80s called and want that ridiculous outfit back.” Big deal, right? I don’t know this guy. I didn’t say anything mean or treat him badly, and I’ll probably never see him again. It’s just trivial entertainment. I don’t mean anything by it.
But if I allow these thoughts to go unchecked, I bolster that attitude that people are props on my stage in life. And if people are props, then I am most important. And if I am most important at the convenience store, then I begin to believe that I am most important period. Even at home, where I was trying to change my attitudes and words with my family. Think about it. How long do you think you will succeed at home, while allowing thoughts elsewhere that feed the attitude that you are the most important person? I dare say not long. These seemingly unrelated thoughts will chip away at otherwise good attitudes, allowing negative thoughts to seep in. We just aren’t that good at compartmentalizing.
That leaves us with the challenge of continually being willing to identify and change attitudes and thoughts that are negative, in all areas of life: school, work, home, running errands. Life.
When you become aware of a negative thought, the best strategy I’ve found is to call yourself out on it and to replace the thought with an intentionally positive one. So in my example of my thoughts about the man at the convenience store, if I realize I’ve let in a negative thought, I take the time to think, “That was wrong of me. I don’t know that man. He might be the nicest guy around.” Or if I find myself thinking, “I just don’t understand why my daughter is so lazy around the house!” I could check myself with, “No, wait. She isn’t lazy. She is in all honors classes and doing fine. She’s committed to her track team. She’s just not that picky about her room. I’m going to tell her I noticed all these things she’s doing well at.”
This doesn’t mean you always roll over and let things slide. But you can address a problem while being intentional about your thoughts, attitudes and words. It’s called being gracious. And each success in these three areas will strengthen the cord, until the most natural feelings and responses you have toward others are positive ones.