The Impact of Words

I never suspected that I would receive such sagacious advice about life in a firearm safety class. After an hour long course on how to safely handle a firearm, the instructor left us with a simple and profound concept. He simply said to always remember that once you pull the trigger, you can never go back. There is no way to stop that bullet if you’ve changed your mind. In the context of the class, it was brutal and honest advice to always keep in mind. But that same advice holds true in almost every aspect of life. There are few things in life you can truly undo. Even apologizing can never reverse your mistakes, regardless of whether you are forgiven or not. This same concept applies in a very real way to our words and how we use them.

This is something I know in a profoundly real way. Every day I usually say something that I later regret. I once learned that there are parts of our brain that are activated to inhibit our immediate impulses and reactions. I sometimes wonder if that area of my brain functions normally or if it’s just lazy or frequently on vacation. My David Letterman ‘Top Ten list’ of things I say would definitely include “I’m sorry,” “I was just kidding” or simply “Uhhhh…oops!” This is one area of my life that I continuously try to improve upon. To learn that sometimes it’s okay, even better, to leave something unsaid. I’m fortunate to often have the ramifications merely be an awkward silence or nasty look thrown my way. But words are powerful and in the wrong context, they can have a much stronger impact.

One aspect of life where words are profound, impactful and often difficult to use correctly is in dealing with mental health. If you’ve read this blog, you’ll often find the term ‘mental health challenge’ instead of ‘mental illness.’ This subtle but important terminology is used to de-stigmatize what truly a common element in the lives of many people. So if we can discuss what we call it (mental illness vs mental health challenge), it’s understandable that we might also have a hard time actually talking about it. Even when we are trying to be helpful, our words can often undermine our intentions.

These challenges can be especially difficult when talking to someone suffering from depression. They may be in denial about their condition, we may be in denial, we may not fully understand, we may try to downplay the symptoms to try to be supportive, we may suggest options that to us seem like easy solutions and sometimes, even with the biggest of hearts, we may found ourselves frustrated and lash out. Therefore it’s important to keep in mind the power of words and, critically, the state of the individual receiving those words.

A recent article on the Huffington Posts offers some great tips and talking points when trying to help someone with depression. The article offers what not to say and how to change your words to be more positive and supportive. While the article focuses on talking to someone with depression, these lessons can be applied to any mental health challenge. It’s important to recognize the very real struggles the individual may be facing and that downplaying, ignoring or suggesting a quick fix is often not going to be effective. Instead, with a little empathy and understanding, we can choose the best way to express ourselves and offer advice, help or just a simple shoulder to lean on.

Oh, and I’m sorry if you didn’t find my jokes that funny.