We have just gone through the process of learning about our Self-Memory Systems and how they guide our ability to draw from our past experiences to make decisions in the present moment and drive what we will anticipate for our future selves. We can also appreciate the large role that autobiographical memory plays in the Self-Memory System. Deeply rooted in our personal experiences, autobiographical memory is what feeds into our self-identity and allows each of us to orient ourselves in the space-time continuum. Autobiographical memory is also what gives each of us a narrative, which is one of the most crucial components of self-identity. All of these underlying factors are what shape us to be the unique individuals that we are with different experiences, perspectives, thoughts, feelings, personalities, and so on. However, arguably one of the most important influences on our narratives and identities is language. Words have power, not just in what we say to others but in what we say to ourselves. Words are what give us an understanding of our experiences, and the quality of our words has a great influence on all aspects of our daily lives. We can use them for good in regards to our health, relationships, goals, and motivations, and once we align our good words with actions, we will reach a level of self-identity that signifies coherence, confidence, and authenticity.
So far there has not been a way to pinpoint exactly why language creates such benefits, but we do know that it does, and expressive writing is a way that has been shown to utilize these benefits. People can alter their self-perceptions, and language is the mechanism that allows them to do so. Simply talking or writing about internal thoughts and emotions gives individuals the opportunity to earn a greater understanding of themselves (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). Writing down thoughts and experiences is particularly helpful for individuals who have experienced traumatic life events and have a hard time finding people that they are comfortable talking with about the thoughts and emotions linked with these stories.
Expressive writing functions in a way that is unique to what most people would probably expect. Evidence shows that this type of writing does not serve as a venting mechanism or to blow off steam, and it does not cause an individual to immediately engage in healthy behaviors (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). Instead, writing or talking about an emotionally tasking experience has shown to have the ability to modify the way people think about their trauma, their emotions, and themselves (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). Putting our thoughts and emotions into words is what makes a difference and doing this through expressive writing allows us to come to a better understanding as to why things happen, giving us more of a sense of autonomy and control.
As a middle-aged adult, by now you have most likely experienced an event that has impacted you physically, mentally, and/or emotionally in some way. These might be events that you don’t want to burden your child with, even if they are older, more mature, and you tell mostly anything to. If you do not have children, maybe these events have struck a particular chord that makes you feel like those closest to you just won’t relate, won’t understand. If for whatever reason you fear judgment, dismissal, or criticism and decide to instead keep particular events to yourself, I challenge you to put your thoughts to a piece of paper. Improvements in health have been tracked to increase by writing about emotional events and can have an even greater benefit to individuals who are high in hostility and who have a low awareness of their emotional state (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). We cannot always control what events take place in our lives, but we do have some say in how we go about coping and healing from them, and it can be as simple as putting our thoughts and feelings into writing.
This process has the power for individuals to undergo self-reflection in a more non-purposeful way and understand at a deeper level why certain events made them feel a specific way. Across all stages of human development, self-reflection is an important process to understanding our self-identity. During middle age, there are continual trials, challenges, loss, and heartbreak, especially throughout the last year of living in a pandemic. Yet most likely you are in charge of keeping yourself, your household, and the rest of your family healthy, happy, and functioning. When it comes to be too much, I would urge you to take the time to value your emotions and put them to paper or tell them to a listening ear.
The way in which language works is not nearly as straightforward as we might have previously predicted. We might expect clear and concise language to be the only way to achieve the job of communicating effectively, but evidence shows that there is another way that can provoke communication and shape our thinking (Thibodeau et al., 2017). This involves the use of metaphors. At this point in time, I am sure that you have had your fair share of hearing or saying metaphors within conversations. Metaphors are what guide the spreading activation toward our knowledge. The more ways in which we give our minds the accessibility to receive a cue for a particular experience in the past, the more likely we will continue to exercise the neural pathways that were originally created, and the more likely it is that we will be able to remember whatever it was that happened. The more background information we have on the topic being presented in the metaphor will determine how this metaphor will affect us (Thibodeau et al., 2017). For example, we could use one of two metaphors to describe climate change, one centering on war, the other on race — Thibodeau and colleagues (2017) found that there is a greater sense of urgency and willingness to adjust behaviors when the ‘war’ metaphor is used. Words change the messages that are sent to our spreading activation models and can signal very different perceptions of the same topic, so it is always important to shape our words to err on the side of growth and positivity.
Metaphors are useful in everyday language, and this coupled with expressive language helps each of us interact with the surrounding environment that our Self-Memory Systems place us in. Expressive writing has shown to have great benefits in overall wellbeing, and those who are able to write down what they are feeling as well as open up to others often reap more benefits than those who choose not to do either of these things. The importance of language use when it comes to metaphors can affect behavior and drive changes in the environment (Thibodeau et al., 2017). Metaphors can be used to guide the spreading activation towards our knowledge, just like expressive writing allows us to access our emotions at a deeper level.
Our self-identities come together when we combine our words with our actions. Aligning our goals with our actions and life values is not an easy feat, especially when time never seems to slow down. Understanding the power that words have is crucial to being able to use them in an effective way. Each word that we use functions as a memory cue, and the memories that are generated from these cues become motivational forces. Motivational forces help us control our individual narratives, and language is a way to adjust our narratives to increase our wellbeing and frame our goal setting in a way that will increase the likelihood of wanting to achieve them. It is essential to realize that motivation falls on a continuum that ranges from fully autonomous to fully controlled, meaning that we are completing things either because we truly love what we are doing and want to continue doing it all on our own, or we are completing things because we have to (Kleinknecht, 2021). I’m sure you can take a guess at which one improves the quality of life and which one does not. If we continue to surround ourselves with situations that we do not find joy in and combine this with negative language, we will continue in a downward spiral of feeling like we are only doing things because we have to, which does not set us up very well for success or joy in many aspects.
We are in control of the words we say to ourselves and to other people. Whether we are working on improving our relationships with our surrounding environment and the people within it or working on ourselves with regard to goal setting and motivation, the language that we use makes a difference. I’ll leave you with a few do’s and don’ts to keep in mind as you continue on this journey of self-awareness and improvement and there will be more to come when we put this knowledge to use in our workbooks. First, do shape your goals in a positive framework. For example, don’t start off a goal by saying “Don’t drink too much caffeine/alcohol.” Instead, phrase it suggesting something else, like “drink this much water before you have another coffee/beer.” Do set specific goals that will trigger specific motivations. Don’t be too broad in your language, it can feel like you have way longer to go than you actually do to reach that goal, and it might be easier to give up. Do try your best, and don’t set limits as to what you can achieve just because of your situation, age, or environment. Find ways to do what you love, even if it means doing it just for yourself. Being aware of the language we use and how we use is helpful in the self-reflection and self-improvement process, and understanding that even the smallest of modifications in our everyday language can go a long way in how we use our words for the good of our identity, health, and wellbeing.