Language and Cognition – Can Linguistic Choices Lead to “Bad Thinking”?

Words are extremely powerful. Let us start with this axiom. A word is a powerful tool.

And powerful tools can be both excellent friends and formidable enemies. The language we use and our own intra/interpersonal communication style impact how we experience and interpret our world and our life. They might even end up defining how we see ourselves.

It is not only “in translation” that things get lost. Things like generalizations, deletion (discounting parts of the information) and cognitive distortions also warp our understanding.

According to psychologist Albert Ellis, inner conflict often arises simply from bad thinking that appears rational yet isn’t. Or, as he famously put it, from “stupid behavior on the part of non-stupid people”. Another leading scholar in the field of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism”, says:

“Emotion comes directly from what we think. Think ‘I am in danger’ and you feel anxiety. Think ‘I am being trespassed against’ and you feel anger. Think ‘Loss’ and you feel sadness.”

Well, you can’t think those things – or others – without using language. And since complex thought and language use are inescapably entwined, let us look at some of the most important instances where the language we use plays tricks on our brains. And since we are creatures endowed with conscience and cognition, we can train our choice of words and the way we use language to be an ally.

But first, let us identify some of the PITFALLS:

  1. All-or-nothing / black-or-white thinking. (“There’s no point in even trying if I cannot give it 100%. “You either like me or you don’t!”, etc.)
  2. Overgeneralization – creating a feeling of permanence and pervasiveness (“You always do this / I’m never going to make it/This will ruin my entire life/They’re late again – They are completely unreliable.”)
  3. Shoulds, musts and oughts – pushing for compliance/conformism/duty and feeling anger and disappointment when self or others do not follow through (“I should have known/I ought to have been more alert/He should have paid more attention.”)
  4. Labels – attaching deprecating/demoralizing labels to self or others, usually following a single event (“I just stood there and said nothing, I’m such a fool!/He cut right in front of me, what an idiot!”)
  5. Jumping to conclusions without evidence or factual support – now this has several subcategories:
    • Mind-reading (making pessimistic assumptions about how other people think/feel about you or a situation – “She thinks I am lazy.”)
    • Fortune-telling (making pessimistic predictions about the future – “I’ll lose everything and be stuck here forever.”)
  6. Discounting the positive (“That doesn’t countanyone could have managed that.”)
  7. Personalization and emotionalization – the guilt and blame game and I feel therefore I am (“If only I hadn’t said that, he would have given me the job/I feel so guilty for yelling, I am really selfish and inconsiderate…”:
  8. Rumination or rigid mental filters – dwelling on the negative.

Have you ever encountered such pessimistic language use? Perhaps a killer-combo of the 8? Perhaps even in yourself?

It appears that our brains have evolved to be more focused on what is wrong, in order to fix it. But the way we put our environment and experiences into words is crucial to reaching goals, achieving communicative success, and enjoying positive emotions and outcomes. Training more optimistic ways of thinking and communicating is often the key to unlocking a lot of good potential.

For more insights and communication coaching, contact me right here.

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