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Change Your Language, Change Your Life – Guest Post by Joy Tanksley

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

So. Not. True.

Words are powerful. And the words that have the most power over your life are the words that come out of your very own mouth. If you change the way you talk (both to yourself and to others), you will influence your thoughts, your belief systems, and even your identity. Here are three language traps that I invite you to ditch:

1. Have Tos, Shoulds, and Musts

When you say you “have to exercise” or you “should clean your house” or you “must not rob a bank”, you instantly put yourself in a position of weakness by giving away your freedom to choose and take ownership of your actions. You also create a sense of resistance with this language. The implication is one of force: I have to do this means there isn’t an option.

The truth is, you don’t have to do anything except die, and hopefully that won’t happen for a while. Instead, say “I want to” or “I choose to.” Or try this little twist: “I don’t have to ______ (be a vegetarian, get married, spend time with my pet lizard, etc.). Do I want to?”

2. I Wish

This one seems so innocent. But when we say, “I wish”, what we are really saying is, “I want that, but I’m too scared to go after it.” Think about it. If you say, “I wish I could play guitar” what does that really mean? It means you think it would be cool to play guitar, but you are just going to sit around, feel sorry for yourself, and be envious of those who can play. It also probably means you are afraid to try because you think you will fail.

There are no magic lamps, people. If you really want something, just say it. Put it out to the world: “I can’t play guitar, but I would like to learn.” It’s okay to speak your desires. And it’s okay to speak them without acting on them. If the desire is strong, you will eventually get busy making it happen. If not, it’ll fade and you’ll quit talking about it.

3. Hard

Writing is hard. Weight loss is hard. Being a parent is hard. People even say that life itself is hard. I propose that the more you say something is hard, the harder that something becomes. We often attach the language of struggle to things that we feel insecure or uncertain about. If we stick a label on it that says “HARD,” then we don’t have to feel guilty about not living our best lives. It’s not our fault, right? Stuff’s just hard.

Instead of saying things are hard (or a struggle), get precise and just state the facts. Say, “Sometimes I get angry with my children and I’m not sure how to control it” or “I am addicted to cigarettes”. Honesty and specificity will empower you to move forward rather than sinking in the quicksand of “life is hard.”

The next time you find yourself saying, “I wish I was strong like Josh Hanagarne. I should buy a kettlebell. But it’s so hard to stick to a training program” stop yourself, take a deep breath, and choose more empowering language: “I desire strength. I want a kettlebell! In the past, I didn’t stick with a training program, but I exist in the present.” Change your language, and you just might change your life.

About The Author:

Joy Tanksley is a middle school English teacher, the wife of a philosopher, and a coach for women who want to smash limiting belief systems and lead more abundant lives. She blogs about living a joy-filled life at Being Joy (www.joytanksley.com).

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave April 14, 2010, 5:39 am

    Thanks for this one! As an artist, when I teach kids I always begin with a talk about the words “fail” and “failure” and all their counterparts. I teach them that a when a drawing “fails” it means they have tried something new and have learned what doesn’t work. That “failure” is always a learning experience.

  • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 6:00 am

    Amen to that, Juliane! What a wonderful lesson for children to learn. What a gift you are giving them!

  • Todd April 14, 2010, 6:11 am

    Wonderful guest post, Joy. Words are very powerful devices, and you did a great job of explaining it.

  • John April 14, 2010, 6:30 am

    Great post. I was particularly struck by “It also probably means you are afraid to try because you think you will fail.” Absolutely true. Thank you Joy!

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 6:49 am

      You’re welcome, John! Thanks so much for reading!

  • jean sampson April 14, 2010, 7:35 am

    You are so right, Joy. In my painting classes, I teach students that there is no such thing as a “bad” painting. If you think it is bad then it is just “unfinished”. This is the way I paint and how I see my life as I look back on it. Nothing is a failure—-it is all the necessary underpainting which makes whatever is layered on top of it even richer. My students get the life lesson as well as the painting lesson. It is true for just about anything I can think of. Most inner critics cannot deal with calling “failure” “underpainting”—-and they eventually leave people alone!

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 2:28 pm

      Hey Jean! Thanks for coming over! I love that you Julianne both see this from the artist’s perspective. Beautiful.

  • Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire April 14, 2010, 8:02 am


    Very powerful message. I really appreciate the language you used in your post, telling people things that they know are true, but that they need to hear from an outside source.

    I have been working on changing my own personal language as well, in my business and life, and I really en-JOY how you summed up those 3 tips in a concise post.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 9:02 am

      Hey Joshua! I appreciate the comment. Glad to hear you are working on this in your own life. Do you feel it’s made a positive difference?

  • ami April 14, 2010, 8:05 am

    Joy – you nailed it! If you say you can, you’re right. If you say you can’t, you’re also right. Whatever you say – is true.

    Great job on the guest post!

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 9:20 am

      Hey Ami! Yep – we create our reality, don’t we?

  • Joe DeGiorgio April 14, 2010, 8:22 am

    I’m absolutely convinced that our success or failure is determined mainly by the words we speak to ourselves, and not others. Very nice and to the point post, Joy.

  • Srinivas Rao April 14, 2010, 8:41 am


    I saw in your bio that you are a middle school English teacher. That makes me really happy to know that people like you with this kind of knowledge are actually educating our youth. If we had more of this kind of thinking as part of our educational system, I think we’d have children growing up into much happier adults. Loved everything in this post. Very powerful.

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 9:29 am

      Hey Srinivas! Thanks for reading today and giving such positive feedback. I find that there is a definite correlation between my successful students and the way they talk. My struggling students tend to use a lot of negative speech patterns. It’s a lot of work to try to retrain those patterns. It’s sad that 14-year-olds already have these pathways so firmly established in their brains, but I think I’ve had some successes in helping them form new pathways along the way.

  • Gail @ A Flourishing Life April 14, 2010, 8:54 am

    Hi Joy,

    Language is so powerful in how we think and what we say. Very wise post.

    May I add another word? Try. As in “I am trying to lose weight.” Try speaks to me of hedging, of being not fully committed to one’s path, of leaving a way out so you can rationalize not being successful.

    In each moment, we have the possibility to take the actions that are aligned with what we want, or not. Truly accepting the responsibility of this choice is the end of trying.

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 2:29 pm

      Hey Gail! Thanks for commenting. Oh, I totally agree about “try.” It’s very similar to “wish” in that way. Great addition!

  • James April 14, 2010, 9:41 am

    Great post. Although I wasn’t taught this growing up, I am trying to prevent my young sons (4 and 2) from using the word “can’t.” It is so limiting and prevents creative thinking. While it is true my sons are not able to reach a board game located in the top of their closet, they CAN get to it IF they ask for help. My hope is rather than thinking “I can’t” they will think “how can I.” If you think about it, there are very few things we truly can’t do if we ask for help.

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 4:00 pm

      James – what a great twist on “can’t” to turn it into a question! Excellent!

  • rob white April 14, 2010, 10:28 am

    Hi Joy. All Great points here. Well set up and concise. Like the old saying goes “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.” When we convert our WISHES into CONVICTIONS we can progress toward our goals confidently. Wishing traps us halfway — flip-flopping between ‘maybe’ and ‘no.’ Personally, the one I need to be aware of is HARD. I love working hard but but need to be aware when I declare new endeavors as HARD.

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 4:03 pm

      I’d never heard that saying! Thanks for sharing.

      Hard is tricky, I agree. I think it can be positive when used to express a feeling of genuine effort rather than as a limitation. I like working hard, too. I hear you.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  • Laura Kimball April 14, 2010, 12:03 pm

    There’s a large poster at my gym of a young boy making a wish on a dandelion bloom. In the background is his mother doing a box jump on a tractor wheel. The caption is “I don’t make wishes, I make goals.”

    You’re completely right about changing your language. Words carry so much weight that choosing the right one, even inside your head, can be more important than deciding to try.

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 12:33 pm

      Oh, Laura! I love the image of that poster! Thanks for sharing that. I’m always blowing on dandelions just cause it’s fun. Now I will “make goals” when I do that! 🙂

  • Picsiechick April 14, 2010, 12:22 pm

    Joy, this is fabulous. What a great reminder!

    I am tremendously careful about the words that I use with my photos, because sharing them has a very specific purpose to cheer, enlighten, create depth, and rejuvenate with beauty. I’ve recognized I am not always a mindful of the words I use on myself. It’s easy to forget. 🙂

    I know that turning those words around for myself will really help me achieve the mountain of things I feel buried under. I’ve chosen all of these things, now I need to enjoy them!

    Hugs and butterflies,

  • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 12:36 pm

    Hugs and butterflies? Two of my favorite things! Thanks!

    I’m glad that post provided a helpful reminder for you.

    By the way, I just checked out your photography and WOW you are talented, my dear. Gorgeous work.

    • Picsiechick April 14, 2010, 4:13 pm

      Two of my favourite things, too. And I love to share them! 🙂

      Thank you for popping over to my little blog, Joy, and thank you for the huge compliment. Reinventing a bigger, better venue for the photos and parlaying that into a business is just one of the parts of that mountain I mentioned. Big things are coming soon…..

      Hugs and butterflies,

  • Randy Hauer April 14, 2010, 12:41 pm

    Words are not just descriptive of the world we live in, they can also be a creative force.

    One of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever encountered is the discipline of “honoring yourself as your word”. This practice gives you leverage on your internal critic…if you choose “to be what you say”, you have power unavailable to you in the ordinary “you are what you think” scheme of things. You can choose your speaking, but you can’t choose (by and large) what you are thinking. (Try not to think of pink elephants for the rest of this post)

    Ontology (being) always trumps psychology (thinking) in the physical world.

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 2:32 pm

      Wow – your comment added so much to this post. THANK YOU! I do think we can, over time, retrain our thoughts. Or at least learn to stop believing them! But it’s so much quicker and simpler to change our language, which ultimately HELPS retrain the thoughts. Excellent!

    • Picsiechick April 14, 2010, 4:17 pm

      Randy, I love this. It is so true! Keep saying anything, good or bad, and you will eventually believe it. Thank you for yet another valuable tool!

      Hugs and butterflies,

  • Kathy April 14, 2010, 3:23 pm

    Words have an energy around them. That’s why it made me so sad when my two year old started saying, “I can’t”. He would be at the playground and ready to go down the slide and would say, “I can’t do it”. Broke my heart.

    But it made me realize how often we say the negative and not the possible.

    • Joy Tanksley April 14, 2010, 7:32 pm

      Hey Kathy! I can imagine that was tough to hear. I really like your twist of negative vs. possible rather than negative vs. positive.

  • Jan Small April 14, 2010, 3:51 pm

    Thanks for the powerful reminder, Joy!