You are Not Your Thoughts: How Language Can Trigger an Emotional State

business woman speakingPatrick Pomfrey, Psy.D., is a doctor of clinical psychology in Fairfield,Iowa.

Dear Dr. Pomfrey,
You’ve mentioned in two of your articles the importance of language and the use of language in therapy (cognitive therapy). You also told a friend if he learned to use language correctly his anxiety would “vanish.” This sounds like psychobabble. It is not words or thoughts that cause problems. Not knowing how to transcend thought and go beyond words to the source of the mind is the cause of all problems. Transcending thought and experiencing the inner spiritual self is the most important thing you can do in life. That’s what ends problems. —Transcendent

Dear Transcendant,
I agree. Now let’s talk about the second most important thing—language. Language is the greatest invention of all time. The development of language has allowed humanity to evolve in all areas of life. Everything to which humanity aspires is primarily based on our ability to conceptualize through language. Can you imagine building a rocket and going to the moon without language?

The problem with language, however, is we forget that it is merely a tool and mistake it to be ourselves. What do I mean?  Shortly after birth, our parents begin to teach us language. As our brains develop, we begin to speak—mommy, daddy, etc. We learn that the sounds of words represent objects. Eventually, we are able to take these sounds into our brains and use them in place of objects. This internal use of language, we learn, is called “thinking.” Indiscernibly, we begin to associate ourselves with language and experience ourselves increasingly as our thoughts. Decades later, the distinction between who we are and the thoughts we have has become indistinguishable. Language, formerly our tool, has become our identity.

When an event happens in our lives, we begin to use language inside our heads. That language or thought triggers an emotional state. For example, you are on a walk and see a friend across the park. You wave at her. She, however, looks at you and turns away. Immediately, you begin an internal dialog. You may begin to feel anxious, sad, or angry. Let’s imagine that you feel anxiety. Inside, you may have been saying, “What did I do to deserve that kind of treatment?” or “I wonder if I said something that got back to her?” The anxiety gnaws at your stomach.

Emotions form the basis of behavior. We get married—or divorced—because of emotions. Sometimes a country will go to war because of emotions. Emotions are the most powerful motivating factors in our lives. In the case of your friend, let’s say your anxiety motivated you to call her. Your friend sees your number, picks up the phone, and exclaims, “Sarah, how are you? I haven’t seen you for weeks!” And you say, “But . . . but I just saw you in the park!”

You know the rest of the story. Your friend was looking elsewhere but you thought she saw you. Where did your anxiety come from? The event in this case didn’t actually occur. You perceived your friend looking in your direction and then spoke internally to yourself. We believe events in our lives cause emotions, but they don’t—language does.

Next time you experience an emotion of any kind, stop and ask yourself, “What was I just thinking?” After a week of doing this exercise several times a day, you are likely to have an “aha” experience. You will become acutely aware the environment is not causing your emotions—it’s what you are saying to yourself about your environment.

Many people say to me, “Oh, you mean I should think positively?” My response is positive thinking is dangerous—but so is negative thinking! What I advocate is rational thinking. Catastrophic language or overly positive language represents childhood positions of the mind. Just ask a five-year-old if she would like to have a popsicle. You are likely to see an overly positive response. However, if you open the freezer and find you are out of popsicles, you are almost guaranteed a catastrophic response. But your adult mind says, “It’s okay, honey. We’ll go to the store and get more.” With this, the child settles down.

The adult part of the mind uses the tool of language rationally. As a result, the mind trusts itself to be a reliable narrator of life experience. With this, many juvenile fears and problematic emotions vanish.

For easy reading on the topic of the proper use of language in overcoming psychological concerns, I recommend The Feeling Good Handbook, by David D. Burns.

So, dear Transcendent, dive deep within yourself to the source from which language arises, but when you come out, use language like any tool—carefully and responsibly. Otherwise, it will use you.