The choice and power of words

Cathy Adams Dear Girls 1 Comment


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When I was little I knew I wasn’t supposed to use swear words.

This made me want to use swear words even more. They felt powerful, big, and important.

Kids love to swear because it makes them feel older and freer. At least I remember feeling that way.

I still swear, more in laughter then I do in anger. Swear words tend to make a story livelier, they add effect and personality.

But when swear words are directed at people, they become something entirely different. They morph into weapons to demean or gain power.

This is partially the fault of the amygdala, a little almond-shaped part of our brain that deals with fear and anger. When we get scared or mad our amygdala tells us to run or fight.

So sometimes we launch words as a means of protection, thinking we need to do this to stay safe.

Yet the vast majority of time, we don’t.

Instead of taking a breath or slowing down enough to assess whether we are truly in danger, we just react.

This can so easily happen when we are disconnected from our feelings, or when we aren’t paying attention to the reality of the moment.

When we are living on autopilot, in our heads instead of in the present.

And once words are said, they can’t be taken back. We may ask for forgiveness, and it may be given, but the sting can have lasting effects on a relationship.

It can lead to mistrust and it can create disconnection.

Your dad laughs at how careful I am with my words. I know sometimes it can seem is if I’m overthinking or trying to be “politically correct”, but it’s not that simple.

When I say words I feel them in my body, I feel how they may be received or recognized. Words are alive and they exert powerful energy. They can heal or harm based on their intention.

In a moment it can feel really good to yell at someone, to release the anger through words. It’s like unloading heaviness onto someone else for awhile, like a momentary relief.

But later we are left feeling guilty and ashamed, with the realization that we were irresponsible.

We forgot to pay attention. We lost sight of what was real and most important.

We use words against ourselves, too. When we constantly say things like “hate” or “can’t”, or we speak negatively about our bodies or minds, we are self-harming.

Negative thoughts and words come into everybody’s head, that’s just a normal part of being human. But if we continuously decide to believe them and act on them, we give them the power to drain and weaken us.

Gandhi once said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”

That’s similar to Maya Angelou describing words as “things”, energy that vibrates and ripples into the world. She reminds us to choose our “things” wisely.

I remember what it’s like at your age, I know you want to use adult words, argue, make your point. That feels like freedom, it feels like power.

But with freedom and power also comes responsibility. Words impact – you, other people, the world.

So pay attention. To your emotions, to that often overzealous amygdala, to your great choices and also your missteps.

Pay attention to your ability to breathe or react, encourage or hurt, connect or disconnect.

There is freedom in knowing you have a choice. There is power in knowing you’ve chosen wisely.

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The Dear Girls blog consists of letters to my daughters about self-awareness and mindfulness. Type your email address in the subscription box to the right of this page. The list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

About the Author

Cathy Adams

Cathy Cassani Adams, LCSW, CPC, CYT is the author of three books including the multiple award-winning Living What You Want Your Kids to Learn: The Power of Self-Aware Parenting. She co-hosts the internationally popular Zen Parenting Radio, and she’s co-creator of the annual Zen Parenting Conference. She’s a sought-after speaker and she teaches in the Sociology/Criminology Department at Dominican University. Cathy and her husband Todd are raising three girls.

Comments 1

  1. Thank you, Cathy. This is a beautiful note to read as a daily reminder of the power of choice. I remember when I first started listening to the show, I too felt a lot like Todd. I didn’t dismiss it as wrong or bad, I just couldn’t fathom being able to slow down enough to really choose my words so thoughtfully. I truly think I’ve learned that that’s where the freedom is though – in that space between conscious action and reaction. Between throwing the first thing your ego says out there and processing the right words to both speak the truth and be kind. Immediate reaction may feel safe and easy but as you so wisely put it there is a great deal of responsibility in there as well so long term it isn’t very easy at all. Thank you for putting this out into the universe and inspiring me to keep at it 🙂