How are your words disabling you?

The other day I was feeling blue and typed these words into Google: “feel like you’ve lost your way.” Curiously, one of the first search results was  the Happiness Project; the author wrote a book and blog about a year she spent testing all the advice, theories and conventional wisdom about how to be happy.

I skimmed the article–it was a little too happy for me–and scrolled down to the comments to see how people reacted. One commenter posted a link to Aimee Mullins’ speech, “The opportunity of adversity” on TED. (If you aren’t familiar with TED, you might find this article from FastCompany interesting.)

Curious, I clicked. Ms. Mullins, who had to have both legs amputated below the knees when she was an infant, discusses the dictionary definition of  “disabled.” The writer in me immediately recoiled–starting with a dictionary definition is a standard way to begin a term paper, but writers are encouraged to think more creatively.

But when the screen goes black and the defining words for “disabled” pop up one at a time in white type, it’s quickly forgotten. She reads each word aloud–every sad, miserable word. I feel the weight of each word bearing down on me even though I am not physically “disabled.”

Mullins says that when she repeated this definition to a friend, her voice cracked in the middle and she had to stop. Despite all of her tremendous accomplishments–model, actress, paralympic athlete, truly inspiring human being–the negative definition of “disabled” broke her.

This is the power of words.

This is why I take my job as a writer seriously. Words can change the way people think. Words can persuade, inform, enlighten, but they can also hurt, destroy, maim, define…disable. They are more powerful than weapons. That old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is wrong. Words can and do hurt.

But wait, there’s more. Mullins redefines “disabled” as a crushed spirit. She literally rewrites the definition of “disabled.” When I hear this, I begin to cry. And I am not a crier. When I repeat this story to Hubby, I tear up again. He looks at me strangely–are you…crying???

This is the power of words.

Words can crush your spirit. And there is nothing more sorrowful in my mind. OK, sure, death sucks. But as a friend of mine once said in her sage way, “We all have to die someday. Can’t hang around forever.” With death, life is over. But how long can you live with a crushed spirit? How long would you want to? What kind of life is that? I imagine it’s like living with Alzheimer’s. You are a shadow of the person you used to be or could be. You are never whole again. You are never the same. You are damaged. Hurt. Disabled.

Mullins also posits that adversity gives us a sense of ourselves, that it’s a part of life rather than something that we need to just get through, emerging unscathed on the other side. She suggests that adversity is “change you haven’t gotten used to yet.”  Hence, “the opportunity of adversity.”

This is the power of words. A shift in thinking. A different way of looking at the world, at change. I don’t know what I’m going to do with this yet. But it has made me rethink how I “disable” myself and those around me, often unintentionally. I resolved to work on three things:

Use less “disabling” words. I’ve tried to remember to say thank-you more and share positive feedback. It’s easy and tempting to harp on what’s wrong rather than focus on what’s right. For example, I sent Hubby an email that just said “have a nice day” instead of the usual to-do list. I told a friend who always shows grace under pressure how much I admired her strength and courage. I am trying to remember to say something nice to myself, too, but that one is harder. 🙂

Examine unintentional “disabling” actions. School starts this week and I remembered how crushed my son was last year when one of his B grades slipped back to a C in a class he had worked very hard to improve. Hubby and I always told both kids that letter grades don’t matter; it’s the effort and learning that count. But our reward system–$5 for A’s, $3 for B’s, nothing for C’s–was negating our words.

I told my kids that effective immediately, we would reward them for effort, not specific letter grades. My daughter shrugged, but my son visibly relaxed;  a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. I am on the lookout for other ways I may be disabling someone, unintentional as it may be.

Stop disabling myself. I am my own worst enemy. I take on too much work. I multi-task to the nth degree. I burn myself out. So this week I cut myself some slack. I asked for help at work. I came home one night exhausted and burnt out and put myself to bed instead of forcing myself to continue working on a project that I was stuck on.

Another night, I gave myself permission to snuggle with my kids instead of going to the gym because “I should.”  On a Saturday, which I might normally spend cleaning, I stocked up on healthy food and went to the gym to reward myself instead of eating chocolate. (Huge for me, by the way. I should own stock in Hershey’s.)

I feel better today than I did when I first Googled “feel like you’ve lost your way.” Maybe I didn’t lose it so much as disable myself from seeing it. I think I’m on the right path again.

How do you unintentionally “disable” yourself or someone else? What can you do to embrace adversity and see it as opportunity or “the change you haven’t gotten used to yet?”

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8 thoughts on “How are your words disabling you?

  1. WOW, Really good commentary. Having three older brothers (I’m 65) I know what words can do and how they can disable.

    I will have to keep track of your writing. As a self employed woodworker, Marketing (selling) is my absolute scrape-the-bottom-of-the-barrel fun thing to do. Yet it should be at the top, next to furniture making. Hopefully, your insights will give me some fresh new thoughts.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. That post is funny and thought provoking, but THIS post is the one that deserves the prize.

    1. rich, thanks for your kind words! older brothers are the worst, so my daughter tells me. 🙂 i would love it if my writing inspired fresh new thoughts for you, i think that’s any writer’s ultimate goal. i enjoyed seeing your work in progress; you are a true craftsman! i especially enjoyed this quote: “As a working philosophy, I would paraphrase Toshio Odate, master shoji maker: We must do our best; do honest work regardless of what the customer is paying for that work.” great reminder!

  2. I often find myself analyzing words, their connotations, how we use them, etc. This is a good post that explores a could-be controversial word, yet we are all disabled in some ways. Maybe our interest should lie in becoming our own antonyms.

  3. I love what you said.
    This is the first time seeing your site.

    I am working on a magazine–disability issues and resources–fun things to do–etc
    Would you think about something inspiring and fun and creative to call it for me?
    I love it!

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