When I first learned this Commandment in my childhood, I thought it was because God wanted us to respect Him. Again, this rule makes sense. For the Commandments to work, God needed us to respect Him. Today, it means something far deeper and more intimate to me. While preparing the first draft of this book, the basic coping skill for this commandment came very easily. The unwritten lesson here is to use kind language with ourselves and with others- at all times. This is a concept I discuss almost daily in my private practice. I cannot promote it enough.
Some people believe they find strength in profanity and speaking down to others. But the crux of those behaviors are both driven by anger and fear. Not a lot of good things tend to come from anger and fear. With either of those emotions, individuals tend to lash out, and make rash, impulsive decisions that tend not to end well. And while the initial feelings of power from unkind language may feel good in the moment, that moment will be short lived, and that angry person will be left with only the memory of how they were made to feel less than, disrespected, or afraid. Additionally these angry people typically have a surge of guilt from whatever mean things they said, or they have a lot of needed apologizing to do in order to repair that damages that their anger caused.
I would like you to ask yourself, “What do most animals do right before they strike out when they are afraid or angry?” What does that animal look like to you?” Once you have a visual, I want you to ask yourself, “Does this animal look happy or at peace?” No! They look terrifying! They bark or growl or make some sort of aggressive sound. Some animals can even make their fur stick out to make themselves look bigger. I was once chased by an angry goose at the park. It was terrifying! I accidently walked too close to her nest and she attacked! Mrs. Goose lowered her neck and stretched out her wings and charged right at me! I ran for my life! Mrs. Goose was angry, and I was terrified! Neither of us were at peace.
Humans forget that we are not that much different from the other animals on this planet. Replace the word “animals” with “humans” in the first sentence of this section, and it could still be read the same. “What do most humans do right before they strike out when they are afraid or angry?” Hopefully a human won’t growl but, a human will typically start broadening their shoulders, standing taller and or slinging out vulgarity, or other negative comments. When we humans feel threatened (physically or otherwise), something is signaled deep within our brains that queues up what I like to call our “survival switch.” (This is more commonly called the Fight or Flight system that lives in our sympathetic nervous system.) This switch essentially makes us more animal and less human. What I mean by this is that this switch allows us to harness our deeply embedded survival skills that us “civilized” humans do not normally have to exercise. Fight or Flight mode allows us to care more about surviving rather than what social etiquette would require. We become “feelers” verses “thinkers,” and this can be a very dangerous switch to make. When the choice comes down to civility and/ or survival, we are going to choose survival every time. To survive is instinctual, but it can also be ruthless. This is one reason why rescuing a drowning person can be so dangerous. They are in such a panic to survive, that they won’t even realize that they have you by a strangle hold and are pulling you down with them.
The human brain is capable of making quick, smart decisions, and it is capable of making long term and short term plans and seeing both the short term and long term consequences of our behaviors. But when we get scared, some of our exceptional human brain skills get thrown out of the window. This is why in the movies, the terrified girl runs up the stairs instead of more wisely running out the door. This is why panicked people run into the streets and get hit by cars. They are so focused on trying to survive that they lose focus on how to stay alive.
Unlike the movies, most of us are not being chased by serial killers on a regular basis. Therefore more typical triggers for the average person include a.) Being late to work, b.) A fight with their spouse, or c.) Bills. Notice that none of these things can actually kill you. An envelope notifying you that you are late will literally not kill you. Your wife yelling at you for drinking too much will not kill you, and being late to work will not kill you. No one has ever been admitted to the ER for the above issues. No mortician ever wrote: “cause of death: bad hair day.”
The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword
While the above is all true, our brains have come to associate everyday stressors as threats that need to be taken care of swiftly! We have come to associate common annoyances as being threats to our integrity or our lifestyle. We see all these triggers as threats, and we know that brute force will not solve these problems, so we turn to our other set of weapons- our words. Remember the quote, “The pen is mightier than the sword”? This quote is just as true and just as applicable today. If a sword, or another weapon will not be effective, let’s use our words. Using our words as weapons is seen in the News, politics, and gossip columns every day! The Bible even discusses the same idea in Proverbs 18:21, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” With a simple movement of our breath and tongue, we can either lift ourselves up to the light of hope and joy, or we can thrust ourselves into the darkness of hopelessness and fear. We can make people believe a falsehood, or we can inform them of our truth. It is our choice how we want to be effective, and our speech is an incredible weapon. Why else would the first Amendment of the United States be freedom of speech? Our Founding Fathers knew how powerful language was, and other nations know this as well. Silencing a people is the first step towards their disarmament.
Words matter. Semantics matter. A person who dismisses or minimizes the importance of word choices and semantics will more than likely have chronic communication problems. To accurately understand ourselves and each other, we need to exercise accurate language. Words can be such an incredible force. From speeches that inspire nations, to poems and lyrics that cause us to cry and reminisce about the past, to the stand-up comedians that have us holding our stomachs as we “belly laugh” so hard it hurts, to the horrible break-up letter your ex left on your kitchen table- words are incredibly powerful. Use with caution. Once you say something you can never take it back.
Slinging out insults is easy, and it can make us think that we are hurting a person who hurt us. The desire to hurt someone who hurt us is understandable. It is not a very mature or evolved thinking process, but understandable. As a general rule, seeking tit-for-tat justice will typically leave you feeling unfulfilled. This is true in death penalty cases for murder and it is true in your everyday life. When someone hurts us, and we want to hurt them back, it is important to recognize that hurting them will only make you feel justified, not necessarily happy. If someone keys your car, and you key their car back, do you now feel happier? I doubt it. While you may have felt powerful, or justified or maybe even vindicated by keying the other person’s car, I doubt there was any happiness there. After you return to your car, you still have to process and deal with your own keyed car, and not to mention any lingering feelings of being disrespectful or victimized by someone. I implore you to really begin to identity your emotions. Feeling powerful, feeling vindicated, are not the same feelings as feeling happy.
The Power of Kind Language
Another logistical problem with “unkind” language to others is that it typically shuts down the opportunity for civil mediation or any platform for explanations. While passion is typically the catalyst for fights, com-passion is typically the solution. Mean language and vulgarity quashes that option. When individuals lose chances or opportunities to explain themselves or find out more about the issue at hand, people can start making up the other person’s intentions in order to fill in the gaps. This is a serious problem. Believing that you KNOW the intentions of another person is a true delusion. Unless you know some secret way of practicing telepathy that I am unaware of, you do not know what others are thinking. This type of arrogance is murderous.
Humans cannot read minds, and choosing to believe that another person’s intentions and motivations were nefarious will only make you feel worse. If you have a tendency to believe that people’s intentions are always bad or aggressive, start challenging yourself on the evidence for that belief. Put on your white lab coat, and start asking for objective proof for your assumptions. Become a critical thinker, not just a critical speaker.
The Truth Doesn’t Matter
Let me give you another example. Let’s say you are driving along, minding your own business when someone speeds up beside you, cuts you off forcing you to slam on your brakes, only for the other driver to get into the other lane and fly off. No wave, no nothing!
A very typical (and understandable) thought you may have from that experience is “That asshole cut me off!” While the action/verb part is true- “cut me off,” the subject of “asshole” implies that the person is a mean, bad person, and the implied message is that he did it to you personally. (After living in LA for a year, I had this experience MANY times.)
Let’s work backwards and first tackle the implied message- that he did it to you personally. Trust me, that LA driver would not have cared if it was you or not. He would not have cared if the person in your car in that specific location and time was you, the Pope, or the President. That driver felt compelled to get over into your lane and so he did. It wasn’t about you in the least. Secondly, and to my point on kind language, it is overreaching to assume he is an “asshole.” To label someone as anything is an all-encompassing description of that human being. Maybe the driver is actually a good person who just didn’t see you. Maybe the driver is actually a good person and just got news that his family member just got sent to the hospital or that his home just got broken into? Now are you starting to feel more compassion for this driver? Would it make you feel better to believe these thing vs the original beliefs that he is an asshole? I think so. Here is the important part: We will never know the truth. You and I will never “get down to the bottom” of the mystery of whether the driver is a good or bad person, or why he cut you off rather than someone else. Especially if you live in LA, or another big city, you will probably never see him again. The truth is, that the truth doesn’t matter. What matters, is what you choose to believe. Releasing yourself from the negative thoughts about this stranger and his actions will also release you from feeling assaulted, threatened or otherwise disrespected. Embrace that you cannot give yourself “the truth.” This will then make it easier to allow yourself to create an alternative interpretation of the actions that occurred. Then, sense you are already making things us, why not create something nicer and kinder to believe that will make you feel happier?
We also direct negative comments and beliefs to ourselves all the time. We drop a glass and it shatters all over the place: “Damn it! I am such an idiot!” While no one likes to break things, it happens. We are not robots, so we are going to make mistakes sometimes, and mess up. No big deal- it’s a glass. Yelling at yourself will not make the mess go away. It will only send you deeper into the self-loathing abyss, making it much harder to climb out of. We miss out on little opportunities for self-compassion all the time. Self-Compassion, through acts like kind language is the yellow brick road to happiness.
Seize Opportunities to be Happy
Every day we are faced with hundreds of opportunities to be kind to ourselves. Happy people seize these opportunities for kindness, while unhappy people seize every opportunity they can to cement their beliefs that they are worthless, stupid, ugly, unlikeable people. If we already have a fixed belief that we are stupid, worthless, ugly, etc., it is easier and oddly more comfortable to accept this as the status quo. It takes courage to challenge our beliefs. Change is hard, and can typically be scary. Learning to look in the mirror and see a decent, smart, kind human being can be a difficult task for some people who have learned to look in the mirror and see an indecent, stupid, spiteful human being. The war of identity politics we wage in my minds is merciless. But remember what I say, “If it’s the hard thing to do, it’s probably the right thing to do.” Learning to be kind to yourself will be one of the most important things to ever learn to do for yourself.
The Secret Coping Skill: Kind Language
If you have that critical/ mean tendency of viewing yourself and others in a negative way, I am challenging you to start using kind language for a month starting right now. I promise you will not regret it. This exercise is free and is a non-medicated approach to mood management. No vulgarity, no cynicism, no negativity, just compassionate kind language to yourself and others for a month. (And if you really want to say something mean, find a more intelligent, tactful way of insulting someone. At least put some effort and creativity into your habit of breaking down people. Winston Churchill once said, “tact is the ability to tell someone to go to Hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” Tact does make insults more challenging and impressive when you succeed, but seriously if you find yourself REALLY wanting to say something mean to someone or about someone, just don’t say anything at all. The world will keep spinning without everyone else knowing your thoughts and options.
Once we can reduce our tendency of feeling threatened and disrespected all the time, it can become much easier to use kinder language! If we can increase the threshold to our survival switch, we can remain calmer, more collected, and more thoughtful people capable of producing kind language. As with the driving in LA example, when we can remain calm in the face of unwelcome events such as getting cut off, we can respond more as thinking humans, versus feeling animals. A thinking human can respond by noting, “Oh wow he is going fast,” (an observation) or “Oh wow that was close!”(a slightly subjective observation) or even a “Wow he must be in a hurry,” (a positive assumption about the other person’s behaviors.)
Responding calmly to unwelcome situations will maintain your emotional stability and ultimately your life satisfaction. Negativity is an airborne disease. Whether you are breathing out negativity about yourself or others, or you are breathing it in from another person spewing negativity in your vicinity, you are either going to infect those around you, or you will keep yourself sick because of the negativity that you are breathing in. One great thing about being your own problem, is that you can then be your own solution!
The Secret: Kind Language Continued
Negative words and negative talk also tend to serve as platforms for people you are talking to, to also complain about anything. For example, if you have ever started a conversation with, “You know what I hate…”? A typical response is “I know! You know what else I hate?” And before you know it, you and your talking partner have complained about several different things, and none of those things have changed, and neither of you feel better about the situation. Misery may love company, but she hates solutions, and resolutions. While it may feel good to “let off some steam” about a topic” that feeling will be short lived, and the insidious nature of negativity will creep back over you until you are as unhappy about something as you ever were. If negativity is the disease, kind language is the cure.
If you want to be happy, use kind language with yourself, and with others. Using kind language will produce more positive feelings. The more positive feelings we have, the more likely we will feel happier more of the time. So what if you screwed up at work? “Whoops.” Remind yourself that we all make mistakes, and that you will try not to do it again. Not only will you feel better handling the mistake this way, but you will also have just saved yourself probably 30 minutes of your work day since you didn’t go hide in the bathroom and berate yourself about what an awful worthless employee you are. Making a mistake does not make you a worthless employee. Hiding in the bathroom for 30 minutes- that makes you far more worthless of an employee. Get back to your office, own the mistake, correct it, and move on with your life. Not only did you fix the mistake, but you also gave yourself something to feel proud about, which will be another positive experience for the day.
So what if your son failed his math test? Calling him stupid or a failure will only make him feel worse, and will keep you angry. Talking to him and offering compassion will inspire him and keep him in a place of safety so that he can perform. I was seeing this young patient for several years before he was college bound. He was very sweet, and suffered with extreme anxiety. Among other things, he was a victim of severe emotional abuse with a foundation of cruel, unsupportive language. He shared with me that one of his biggest fears of college was failing a class, because then that would “prove” that his father was right about him being an “idiot” and that he will never succeed. In that moment, I could have chosen a variety of very traditional psychotherapy routes of challenging his cognitive distortions or “All or Nothing Thinking”, and trying to expand his view of success and failure, or developing more coping skills to tolerate negative emotions and experiences such as failure. All of those routes would have been sound therapy. However, I took a leap of faith and instead I exercised Honesty, self-disclosure, with the intent of instilling more compassion and kind language self-talk.
I said, “John, what would you say if I told you that I failed two classes in college?” When I told him this, his jaw dropped and he said, “No way. You’re like a nerdy doctor.” I said, “Yes I am a doctor. I am a doctor that failed two classes in undergrad, and a class in graduate school. I had to retake all the failed classes, which I passed on the second try, and then just kept going.” I explained how I made some mistakes, which I suffered consequences for, and that I made up for it and kept marching on. After I shared what I physically did, I highlighted how I was able to use kind language as a coping skill for allowing me to reach my goal- which was to graduate. I explained how I chose to see that the grades were a reflection of my mistakes and that they were not a reflection of my global skill, or that they were a reflection of my fate. I used positive, kind self-talk to say things like, “You will get it next time,” to keep my going. John is currently a junior in college and doing well.
Sticking with kindness will keep the negativity at bay so you can practice kind language and stay solution focused rather than problem focused. Instead of, “You are such an idiot! What is so fricking hard about algebra?!” how about, “Honey, a lot of kids struggle with math, how can I help you?” Compassionate talk, kind language, will always open the door for a more positive solution focused conversation. It also provides an opportunity to nurture a relationship with the person you are talking to. Kind talk provides the platform for a happier life.
The Power of Compassion
If you are looking to feel powerful, try being vulnerable. What takes real strength is the courage to be vulnerable enough in the first place to talk things out as mature human beings, and the humility to know that you don’t know everything. You feel threatened or hurt in some way? Tell the person, and have a conversation about it. Keep your human brain! Keep your humanity! The Dalai Lama XIV once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion, if you want to be happy, practice compassion.” In my experience, these are very true words. This can all start through kind language. The words we use becomes our inner narrative and also becomes our lens through which we see the world. When we start using kind language with others, we will naturally start using kind language in our self-dialogue, and before you know you will start believing that little voice in your head. It goes back to that old saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This is good advice in your communications with others and with yourself. Life will present enough obstacles in your way; don’t let your own language be one of those obstacles.
Change Your Narrative
If your inner narrative says that you suck and that you will never accomplish anything, then you have already lost the race. If you tell yourself that you are stupid and ugly, and you value intelligence and beauty, you will never be happy. It is not hard to say to yourself, “I am a worthy, beautiful and priceless person.” It costs you nothing to say to yourself, “I am awesome and loveable.” The side effects of practicing kind language to yourself will be an increased sense of self-esteem, and quality of life. The cost of not practicing kind language will be continued pain, self-doubt, fear and self-loathing. Kind language may be one of the single best things you do for yourself this year. While I am not your therapist, let me help you start this kind language exercise. These are exercises I give to my patients every day. Every morning, wake up and say to yourself, “I’ve got this,” and every night before you go to bed, tell yourself, “You did great.” Replace absolute terms with less severe words. This turns phrases from, “I’ll never succeed” into “I’ll get it next time.” And with that mindset you will!
Practical Ways of Applying Kind Language as a Coping Skill
Kind Language is a wonderful gift to give yourself. Below is a list of practical was of applying Kind Language to your everyday life:
- Notice your negative words. They may seem automatic. In fact, a lot of therapists even call them “ANTS- Automatic Negative Thoughts!” Noticing that we have a problem is the first part of solving any problem.
- Replace and Rephrase. Whenever we notice that we used a negative/harsh word, just go back and replace it with a more positive/less critical word, and give it new phrasing. This is very similar to learning a foreign language. This will take training but it is easy and pain-free. For example, the next time you make a mistake a work and call yourself an “idiot,” I challenge you to calm yourself down, and Replace and Rephrase. So then you would say to yourself, “I’m not an idiot, I just made a mistake.”
- Stop Using Absolute and Catastrophic Language. Stop saying phrases like “FML.” This is doing you nothing but bringing you down! Stop using incorrect, dramatic language that fuels feelings of depression. Stop saying things like, “Worse Day Ever,” “It was a total disaster,” or “I look like a cow.” The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion was a disaster. September 11, 2001 was the worse day on American soil ever. Cows look like Cows. Stop using inaccurate dramatic language. This will only make you feel bad.
- Use Positive Affirmations as much as possible. Put up inspiration quotes around your room, or place Post-It notes in high visual places with kind statements to yourself. The more exposure to positive language the better. Put yourself in an Immersion Language Program for Kind Language. It is the most useful language in the world.
- Speak no Evil, See no Evil, Hear no Evil. With the same idea of the Positive Language Immersion Program, reduce or eliminate as much negative content as possible. Don’t watch programs with a lot of violence or cruelty. Don’t expose yourself to people to speak to you with cruelty. Surround yourself with as much positive content as possible. I way that I did this was that I replaced a lot of suspenseful shows with travel shows. The travel shows I watch are always beautiful, positive, as well as educational!
- Watch out for Shoulds. To bring humor, and a visual into session, some therapists like to say to their clients “Stop Should-ing all over yourself.” “Shoulds” have a very negative assessment of ourselves that lack compassion. Our shoulds tell us that who we are, what we are doing isn’t good enough. Shoulds brew negative evaluation and keep us feeling down. To use Kind Language with shoulds, add on a kind/compassionate phrase like, “but I trying,” or “and I am going to do ____ to make up for it.” For example, “I should be making more money by now… but I am in school so I can get the degree I need to make more money.
- The benefit of the doubt. Give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt more often. This goes back to a theory in psychology called the Attribution Bias. This theory has been studied for over half a century now, with lots of research supporting the idea that our thoughts and our beliefs lead us to feeling certain ways! So rather than making up a negative thought about a person, without much evidence, go ahead and say something kind. If you don’t know the truth about another person, why not make up something that will make you feel good rather than bad? This is one trick that happy people do. They choose to believe something positive, over searching for reasons to assume the worst in a person, themselves or the situation.