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Improve your Language, Improve your Experience

Language is a powerful tool that allows us to connect with others, put meaning to our experiences, and reflect on our emotions. Ludwig Wittgenstein said it well in that, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my word", reducing our sense of belonging and connection to our community. This can promote feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, and less than. This article seeks to cultivate awareness on how our language is molding our perception of our life and how, with a gentle shift, we can expand our limitations so we feel seen, heard, and understood, both in our relationships with others, and with ourselves. When we feel grounded in who we are and our sense of connection is restored, the intensity of the heavy emotions can start to decrease.

Separating our identity from our emotions

A common answer we often provide when asked how we are emotionally doing is to answer with, “I am _____”. We then fill in the blank with all kinds of emotions, such as sad, anxious, overwhelmed, exhausted, annoyed, etc. While this helps to convey our mood to others, by saying “I am…” we have blended our identity into our emotional state. I am now one with my emotion. This causes us to feel less capable of navigating our experience and a lack of control of our emotions because we are now no more perceivably powerful than the emotion itself. Try instead to say “I am feeling _____” or “I am experiencing ______”, as this separates who we are, from what we are feeling. This is a gentle reminder that we are human beings who experience a vast array of emotions, while allowing us to maintain a sense of control over our emotional state. It’s much easier to reframe a thought or self-soothe an emotion then tackle our identity as a whole.

Thinking vs feeling

Similar to the situation above, another common error we make is blending our thoughts and emotions together. A common statement I hear that represents this is, “I feel ______”, such as “I feel my boss doesn’t like me”. While we may feel unseen and unheard, what we are describing is a thought process. Try replacing the old statement with “I think _____”, such as “I think my boss doesn’t like me” or “I’m having a thought that I am not good enough”. Other words you can use in place of “think” include believe or assume, which is especially appropriate when we don’t have all the facts. This continues to separate who we are from our thoughts and emotions. After all, thoughts are simply neurons firing in our brain. Once we are aware of the thought/belief (Catch it), we can challenge the validity of it (Check it), and reframe the thought to something honest and hopeful (Change it). Again, it's easier to reframe a thought or self-soothe an emotion then tackle our identity as a whole.

The Story I’m telling myself is……..

Ever been in a disagreement with a family member/friend/spouse, where you just don’t seem to be on the same page and it’s rather irritating. As the conversation continues, your mind may start to spiral into all the worst-case scenarios and make the worst assumptions about either yourself or the other individual involved. You may even find this escalates into name calling, put downs, yelling, or even the opposite, shutting down and isolating. When this happens, I encourage you to first pause. (Pause) . Take a second to gather your thoughts. (Breathe). Gently explore how this situation is being filtered through your life experiences. (Pause). Perhaps this reminds you of a previous situation and the two are being mushed together. (Breathe). What is the story you are telling yourself? For example,

“The story I’m telling myself is that I’ve hurt you and I failed at being a good partner. I’m afraid you may leave me”

“When you walk away from me, the story I tell myself is that I’m not important or meaningful. I'm not worth staying for”

“The story I’m telling myself is this workload is too much and I’m never going to amount to anything. I feel helpless right now”

“The story I’m telling myself is that if I’m vulnerable in sharing how I’m feeling, you may find me burdensome and not want to continue our friendship”

After you have identified the story, aka clarified your thoughts, emotions, and interpretation of the events, I encourage you to allow the other individual to do the same. Now the two of you can productively address the underlying emotional needs to provide relief and reassurance. Both of you are now back on the same page. This is so helpful as it helps give you insight into each other’s experience that you otherwise would not have and making assumptions rarely leads to the correct interpretation.

I’m in the red zone…..

This next section is based off of emotional regulation and The Polyvagal Theory. Whenever we are triggered or become activated from something in our environment that causes us to leave our window of tolerance, we will either respond by becoming hypo-aroused or hyper-aroused. A hyper-aroused state, or the red zone, is when our sympathetic nervous system release cortisol and adrenaline that provides us with energy to fight or flee from a stressor. This is our gas pedal, mobilizing us for action. In this state we may experience, high anxiety, impulsive reactions, anger, rage, and even OCD. Hypo-arousal, or the blue zone, is when the parasympathetic part of the nervous system kicks in, or the break, preparing us to freeze or withdraw from the stressor. This looks like lack of motivation, depression, disconnection, shut down, and zoned out. When we are hypo or hyper-aroused, we are disconnected from ourselves and the logical part of our brain. Meaning we are emotionally reacting to what we are hearing, rather than making sense of what we are hearing and how are body is holding the information.

The first step to this technique is being able to notice when you are either in your window of tolerance, in hypo-arousal or hyper-arousal, which takes a level of attunement and practiced awareness of what your body needs- aka the more you practice, the easier it gets. This gives you language to your experience and helps you identify what you need to return to your baseline, as well as what items may trigger or activate you so you can better plan for them. This further promotes improvement in your self-care routine.

It is also important to communicate the zones you are in with friends/family members/spouses, especially when in a disagreement, as it gives them awareness and insight as to how to show up for you. For example, let’s say you are having a disagreement with your partner and something is said that causes you to become hyper-aroused or really on edge. You are now outside the window of tolerance and therefore no longer logically processing what your partner is saying. At this point in the conversation, rather than impulsively responding, I suggest pausing, and letting your partner know that you are in the red zone or hyper-aroused and need to take a 10 break to cool down. Once you are within your window of tolerance, you will return to continue the conversation on. You could even incorporate “The story I’m telling myself is…” after doing so.

Without saying much, you have just communicated a whole lot of information to your partner. You have also prioritized your needs and advocated for yourself, rather than engaging in a potential non-productive conversation. Another example of how to use this is saying, “I’m in the blue zone and feel helpless and stuck”. This may be a signal to your partner to provide you with a specific level of support or remind you of your self-soothing techniques. Something as simple as saying “I’m in the red zone” or “I’m in the blue zone” gives both you and others knowledge of how you are emotionally doing and what you need, allowing you to feel more in control, capable, and equipped to navigate the situation.

I hope the tidbits of insight and information offered here can cumulate to offer a positive difference in your interactions with both others and yourself, allowing for a greater intimacy- In.To.Me.See. If you would like more information or how to apply this to your unique situation, feel free to reach out and we can connect you with a trained therapist who can assist you in diving deeper.

- Chelsea McDonald


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