We recently came across the idea of "language tweaking," and it got us thinking: Have you ever really thought about the way you talk about things going on in your life? For example, when it comes to the day-to-day, how often do you use the phrase, "I have to go to the grocery store" or "I have to finish this work”? It's easy to fall into the trap of framing chores or aspects of our life as complaints but choosing tiny language tweaks like "I get to" instead of "I have to" can make a big difference. Keep reading to learn more about how making subtle changes in your language choices can have a positive impact on your life.
The lowdown on negative bias
For starters, it's important to note that we're actually hardwired to focus on the negative, so the words we choose in speech or our thoughts might reflect that bias. As Dr. Chloe Carmichael, PhD, clinical psychologist and Author of Nervous Energy states, negative bias is a tendency to "perceive or evaluate information in a negative way rather than in a positive or neutral way."
"Back in earlier times, people had to be aware of negative things in their environment to be able to successfully defend themselves and survive against real or possible threats to their daily existence," explains Dr. Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, whose specialties include self-esteem and motivation. "People who were able to do that typically passed this gene on to future generations, who consequently had a greater ability to recognize and protect themselves against negative threats in their lives as well."
Dr. Thomas adds that negative bias can disrupt and interfere with one's emotions, thoughts and behaviors because people tend to recognize and remember negative things more intensely compared to neutral or positive things. "Negative bias can also make it difficult to forget about and/or get over negative things as easily as positive or neutral ones," she tells Lively.
How constant complaining affects us
Given that we’re already hardwired to focus on the negative, coupled with the fact that life comes with its fair share of challenges and disappointments, it can be rather easy to find yourself in a bit of a spiral. "Constant complaining can keep us focused on negativity," says Dr. Carmichael. “While it is helpful to express and discuss problems, constantly doing so can be problematic. If we are constantly complaining about something, it might be a sign that we need to take action about whatever is causing the problem or learn to focus on other things and/or increase our coping strategies."
There is good news, though. With practice, it is possible to defeat negative bias and overcome a proneness to complain.
Tiny but mighty language tweaks
Language has a big influence over our ability to overcome a tendency to revert to the negative. "The language we use in thought and speech is incredibly important; it dictates our chemical response, emotional response, and can greatly influence our behavior and positive or negative ways," explains Dr. Julie Pike, PhD, licensed psychologist and anxiety disorder specialist in private practice, who appears regularly on Sirius XM Radio's Doctor Radio and was on TLC's Hoarding: Buried Alive for four years.
She adds that a useful tool, especially in times of uneasiness, is to challenge yourself to use only factual and neutral wording. For example, Dr. Pike suggests rather than using a statement like, "I can't handle this feeling of being overwhelmed and I'm completely losing it," which is how we might speak colloquially, try something like, "I am experiencing higher levels of work volume today."
Dr. Carmichael reiterates that small language tweaks can make a significant impact on our mindset even if doing so might not feel entirely natural. "Using language to frame what we once regarded purely as a chore — like going to the grocery store — as an opportunity (i.e. "I get to go to the grocery store") is a way to help us focus on the fact that going food shopping actually is an opportunity that some people do not have," she tells Lively. "We don't want to be in denial about the fact that certain tasks actually are draining or unpleasant, but sometimes it's helpful to take steps to ensure we recognize the positive aspects of these situations as well."
Why it works
"Small language tweaks can influence our mental health and help us overcome negative bias by counteracting it through using more positive words to motivate, guide and be emotionally supportive," notes Dr. Thomas. She adds that instead of feeling dragged down by negativity about something like working out, you might consider thinking about the rewarding parts of exercising, such as feeling energized and healthier (physically and emotionally).
Dr. Carmichael adds that generally you might even feel more gratitude as a result of using positive words. Reminding yourself of the good things in your life and what you have to look forward to is key.