Whether we realize it or not, the words we think and speak significantly impact our lives and wellbeing in good and bad ways. And whether we want to believe or not, even the most flippant of comments can reveal a lot about how we think about ourselves and others. “Our word choice is both an expression of how we are feeling but also impacts the way we think and feel, especially if certain words or phrases are repeated regularly and/or carry a strong emotional load,” explains neuroscientist Tara Swart Bieber, MD, Ph.D., citing phrases such as “just my luck” or “things never work out for me” as examples of things to stop saying ASAP. “These get embedded into brain pathways and become our internal narrative.”
Furthermore, when these negative phrases are repeated over time, they can influence our perceptions. “These conscious word choices can impact our lived reality, affecting our perception of our experiences and the way we see our situation,” explains neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf, author of How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess.
To understand the science behind this, Dr. Leaf points to a study examining how negative words affect our brains. The study indicated that pain-related words activate brain regions associated with pain. “This means that negative words can actually increase our stress levels and cause our body to release an imbalance of hormones that can induce anxiety and feelings of pain,” she explains. Conversely, she notes that words that come from a place of love promote positive reasoning and action.
With all that in mind, negative phrases we think or say a few times here and there won’t hurt us, Dr. Leaf says. It’s the habitual ones said regularly that we need to watch out for, as they can impact our mental and emotional wellbeing. In particular, there are four types of phrases neuroscientists recommend avoiding. Read on to learn what they are, plus tips on phrases to use instead.
Phrases To Avoid
Negative Phrases About Yourself
If you’re human, you’ve probably said something negative about yourself, such as “I’m ugly,” at some point. These types of phrases are at the top of the do-not-say list. “These are harmful to our self-esteem, confidence, and overall mental wellbeing,” Dr. Leaf explains. “Being mean to ourselves, such as calling ourselves dumb or stupid, can become a habit that affects our perceptions and hinders our healing.”
Along the same lines, Dr. Leaf advises avoiding phrases that undermine your contributions and abilities, such as “this is probably a stupid idea but...” which impacts your mental health and how you view yourself over time.
Phrases That Use Extremes
According to Dr. Leaf, extreme phrases, which typically contain absolutes such as “never” or “always,” are also on the list of things not to say. “This kind of thinking creates an imbalance in the energy frequencies of the brain that impacts the emotional and physical wellbeing of the mind, brain, and body,” she explains. “Phrases such as ‘I will never be accomplished’ or ‘I will always mess up’ are like sentencing ourselves; they create a perception that there will always be something wrong or negative within ourselves. They can make us feel like there is no escape from a negative experience or habit and that we are ‘stuck.’”
“What If” Or “Should Have” Statements
“What if” or “should have” statements (or derivatives such as “could have” or “would have”) can also impact how we feel, which is why Dr. Leaf recommends avoiding them. Rather than lingering on these statements, she suggests learning from the experience and moving on. “When we recognize that we could have said something differently or done something differently and we feel regret, we should acknowledge these feelings, process them, and then try to figure out how to move forward while avoiding the cycle of rumination that these words can lead to,” she says.
Phrases That Invalidate Someone’s Experience
In addition to the words we say to and about ourselves, watching what we say to others is also important. “Our words are powerful enough to change the level of stress hormones released that negatively and physically impact someone’s health,” Dr. Leaf says. For this reason, she recommends avoiding phrases that invalidate another person’s experience, such as “it’s just a joke” or “you are overreacting.”
Phrases To Say Instead
To change our internal monologue, Dr. Leaf says the first step is paying attention to what negative phrases we use often. Moreover, she recommends noting not just what phrases come up most often but also how those words make you feel. If you have trouble with this, she suggests starting your day off with positive phrases and gratitude. “Once you start doing this, you may begin to notice the negative words that you use more because they will feel very different from these positive phrases,” she says.
Once you’re aware of the negative phrases you tend to think or speak aloud most often, Dr. Bieber recommends replacing them with a positive affirmation or mantra that states the opposite. For instance, instead of “I’m stupid,” say, "I made a mistake, and these things happen sometimes, but I can learn from it.” In essence, Dr. Leaf says this technique is about reframing the phrase so that it provides grace, builds you up, and encourages you to move forward while still acknowledging any feelings that come up. With practice and consistency, Dr. Leaf says this self-regulation process will improve your self-perception.