Experiencing Life through Language

A friend brought me a blown-glass fish dish from Nova Scotia, Canada. The very next day, I was working downstairs while Mary was cleaning the house. I heard a crash. I knew instinctively it was the dish. Between clients I went upstairs. Mary asked if it was expensive; I said it was a gift. Mary moved on with her day. At the time I was amazed that she had no guilt, no remorse over her actions. Then I re-watched this TED Talk on how language shapes the way we think.

In English, I was fuming. “Mary broke the dish.” The rest of my English moved into Mary is to blame and Mary needs to right her actions. I was focused on the subject, Mary, breaking the object, the dish. In Mary’s Spanish-language mind the conversation was different. The subject in her sentence was the dish. “The dish broke.” She was not involved. It was a fact of life. Looking through my eyes, my perception of always apologizing for my actions – even when it was a no-fault mistake – I was in awe of her ability to remain strong and confident. I was astounded by her cool demeanor. Not one part of her showed shame or guilt over what happened. This wasn’t because she has stronger self-confidence than I do. It is because her language shapes the way she thinks differently than my language shapes me.


I recommend that you listen to the TED Talk and hear first-hand just how our 7,000 different languages shape 7,000 cognitive universes. No wonder we have a hard time understanding each other sometimes. We are not only speaking different languages, we are also seeing the world differently because of those languages. Our language tells us what is important. It helps us learn and become more perceptive of the things we deem important. The language shapes how we see and describe things. How we speak reflects how we see ourselves in the world. Over the last few years I have been exploring this concept through how we express ourselves, how time is perceived, and how new concepts are born in how we speak.

What does your language say about you? 

One of my friends is constantly apologizing. She apologizes for mistakes and is also frequently apologizing for things beyond her control; sometimes she apologizes for just being herself.

Another friend speaks of everyone and everything in how it relates to him. People or things do not exist to him if he does not connect them to himself or his actions.

When I worked for a Taiwanese company, I learned quickly that their language stayed away from confrontation. Many times, we would miss deadlines because my Taiwanese counterparts could not honestly tell me they were behind. It was easier for things to not happen than to be shamed for admitting they were behind schedule.

Living in a different culture has taught me that sarcasm does not translate. I grew up where a sharp tongue was expected and revered. It was the way we bonded and communicated. I now live among individuals who take every word as fact. My sarcasm is not only not-funny, but it is not comprehended. My quick wit causes a lot more confusion than joy.

How do you use language? What assumptions do you make about yourself and the world by the words that you choose and the way you format the sentence? Are you being believed and accepted through your words, or is the way you are expressing yourself turning others away?  Take time this week to watch your words. What do they say about you and how you view the world?

Stress is . . . oh, wait, I don’t remember

For years I was caught in the trap of overdoing everything. I took on more and more work because I felt I had to prove myself. I couldn’t let go of my responsibilities because I felt I would no longer be of value. I made myself feel more important than others because I did more than they did. I was not only creating an unhappy life; truth is I was also hurting my brain.

According to recent research based on The Framingham Heart Study, high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, leads to reductions in brain volume, memory, and visual perception. This agrees with that I have found in my life. When I am too busy, when I am overextending myself, when I have intense stress, I don’t think, remember, or see well.

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

During my recent visit to the States, I had to prepare a property for a new renter. The last renter left a lot of surprises. Almost every day we found something new to repair, a utility bill that was not paid, or some other twist that now needed untwisting. I was stressed. I was under a deadline. Much of what had to be done was outside of my abilities which made me feel powerless. Plus, I was trying to do this while still working and attempting to visit with people I had not seen in a year.  Every day I was at the rental house, I felt distracted. I was unclear as to what to do or what I intended to do next. I didn’t see things the first time I looked at them. Basically, I was not working on all cylinders.

Stuff happens and we need to deal with it. This is part of life. But there are a few ways we can minimize the effects of stress on our lives and our brains.

Stick to Your Routine

This is my current challenge. I know, believe, and see proof that when we keep healthy daily practices, we are better able to deal with the challenges of life. However when life becomes too stressful or busy, I find myself more times than not saying I don’t have time for all of my practices or I am not doing them thoroughly. Our daily practices are our foundation of our sanity and serenity. Hold true to your practices as much as possible even when things go sideways.

Phone a Friend

Whether you ask a friend for help or just have a kind, compassionate ear to share with, making connections with others can lower our cortisol level. We go from stress and victimhood, to feeling heard and supported. This can make a difference in our physiological response, our ability to handle situations, and our experience of the challenges. Remember to reach out to the right person for the support you need. Brené Brown has some good advice about this; she talks about sharing shame but it applies to sharing our challenges as well.

Don’t Make More

Life is terrific at taking a left turn. Part of life is dealing with challenges. And there can be a lot of them. That is why it is important to not create more. Are you making mountains out of molehills? Are you currently in a good spot and therefore feel a need to create an issue to deal with? Do you feel naked and exposed without something to complain about? Life is better the less we have to be stressed about. Be aware of when you are adding on instead of removing stress from your life.

Be kind to your brain. Reduce your stress.

No Rules. Just Right.

I lived the first half of my life by the rules. I studied hard in school. I focused on work and advancing my career. I followed social norms and protocols. I did the best I could to do everything “right.”  Then somewhere along the line, I realized there are no rules.

My husband and I often jokingly say, “I don’t make the rules,” when we expect the other to do something they don’t want to or when we request something to our benefit. “I don’t make the rules” means this is just how things are, ignore that it is completely and utterly in my favor. Just because it is a benefit to me doesn’t mean that I created the rule. But don’t we all create our own rules?

Some people create rules that benefit themselves. Other drivers should give them the right of way. They should get the next promotion because they have “put in their time.” Everyone should treat me fairly because I strive to treat them fairly.

Some people create rules because they expect struggle. Nothing ever goes my way. I never have enough money. People are going to hurt me. Whether beneficial or worrisome, we are still creating our own expectations. We are creating rules for life. But in reality, there are no rules.

la felicidad - to happiness sign
Photo by Cesira Alvarado on Unsplash

I think I first started to awaken to this as I got out into the world. The ways of life I learned in childhood were not absolute. Not everyone believed in the same religion. Not everyone grew up in a Suburb of Chicago with Midwest manners and extreme weather. Not everyone had the same career goals or the same description of success. This concept really gelled with me as I changed careers. I spent my early years focused on theatre. The goal was to make it to Broadway, or at least to get enough steady work to eat while fulfilling the passion to create. Then I landed a position at a company that created amusement park attractions. Suddenly there were new influential players, new definitions of success, a new language, and new viewpoints. I then moved to direct marketing and then to product marketing in four vastly different industries. Each time there were new rules, new expectations, new languages and culture, new definitions of success, and new assumptions of how to act.

Through all this I finally learned and began to accept that there are no hard, fast rules. No labels. No shoulds. At first it was a bit terrifying, as if the ground I was standing upon was no longer there. Then it was freeing. I now had the power to create life as I desired. Have you had this mid-life “unraveling” as Brené Brown calls it? Have you stopped to look at the rules you have agreed to? Have you explored if they are working for you – or not? Have you looked into new ways to live?

Take a step back. Write down the beliefs you have about what life and work are all about. Define what success looks like. Define your expectations for daily life. Then toss out what does not serve you. Start writing new rules. What do you want to see and create in life? Don’t be swayed by what was, what is currently, or what others believe. What do you want? Then take baby steps toward accepting and moving toward your own set of rules.

Being Present in Life and Work

I have written a lot of articles about work-life balance. Back in 2010, I shared that to be balanced in work and life we need to stop compartmentalizing our lives and look at bringing our work and life into wholeness. I have encouraged you to explore the cost of constantly “doing.”   And we have looked into our thoughts about time – as David Byrne aptly sung, “Time isn’t holding up, time isn’t after us.” Through all my exploration of work-life balance, at the core of finding our balance, of releasing the pressure to do, of getting out from under the time crunch, is learning, becoming, and being more present at work.

For a long time, being present was the subject of yogis and spiritual leaders. Now it is becoming more mainstream and has been adopted by many companies. Catherine Johns shares a great article of how mindfulness has entered the workspace, and how it is changing our experience and efficiency of work. To be present or mindful is to be aware of and in control of your experience. I agree with Eckhardt Tolle that now is a time of awakening of our consciousness. This can be on a deep spiritual level for some of us, and for many it is simply the opportunity to stop being stuck in the routine of life and finally take the time to ask why before we act.

man outside of swimming pool
Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

Being present is moving up to the 40,000-foot vision instead of trudging through our daily life. Being present is stepping back and seeing the broader picture of what we have agreed to participate in. Think of it like being in a swimming pool. When you are in the water, you are focusing on staying afloat. Maybe you are struggling. Maybe you are floating gently. Maybe you are splashing your pal. But you are in the water and all you can see is water. When you are outside of the pool, you can see the boundaries of the pool. You can become aware of how others are using the pool. You can see those who are afraid or those who are Olympian swimmers. Being present is having the perspective of being outside of the pool, while being in it.

Another way to look at this is when a friend shares with you issues in her workplace. She tells you about issues between departments and people. She expresses challenges with deadlines or technologies. You can understand what she is sharing, but you are not experiencing it. You are separate from it. Often you can provide insight into her situation because you are outside of it and can be objective.  Being present is being outside of and objective about our own lives.

Being present is watching our emotions instead of being sucked into them. Being present is realizing we are not trapped in a certain situation. Being present distances us from challenges where we can rise above and make choices based on perspective, not fear. Being present is knowing we are separate from our thoughts and beliefs. Being present is rising above life, so we can make better choices in life.

Have you experienced being present? At home or at work? What did it feel like? What did being present allow you to do that you couldn’t when you were unconscious in the situation? How do you include being present in throughout your day?

stop complaining

Quit Yer Bitchin’

I loved talking to Dr. Rick Hanson a few years ago about neuroplasticity. The basic concept is that our brain likes to be efficient, so the brain focuses on what we tell it is important and wires together circuits to help us more effectively focus on what we choose to focus on. This science makes sense to me and I love how we have the power to change our thinking by consciously creating new pathways in our minds.

The challenge is, we are often unconsciously focused on negativity. Travis Bradberry posits that we “complain once a minute during a typical conversation.” This does not take into account how often we replay the negativity and fears in our own mental monkey chatter throughout the day. If what we focus on becomes hard-wired, how much negativity are we programming into our brains – and into our lives?  Additionally, in the article Travis Bradberry shows how focusing on this negativity does not only affect our quality of life but it affects how our brain functions – or doesn’t function – overall.

What is to be done?

stop complaining
Photo by Omar Prestwich on Unsplash

First, quit your bitching. Complaining to complain does not solve anything. As a society, we have made a ritual of sharing our negativity to bond, but it is not helping us as a society. Complaining makes us focus on lack, focusing on lack makes us feel hopeless, feeling hopeless makes us act as if we are powerless. Not a good downward cycle to be in. Instead, throughout your day, see if you can limit the time you spend talking about your woes or feeding the woes of others.

Second, choose who and how you share. Brené Brown discussed with Oprah who to share your shame story with and I think provides great guidelines about with whom we share our complaints. The six people she describes are those we should avoid since they dig us deeper into our bitch session. The description Brené provides of who is worthy of our shame, is also great advice for who to surround ourselves with and how to be when others share their complaints with us.

Third, fix it. The only time to get into your issues with another or to replay them in your mind, is when you are ready to look at them so you can resolve them. It is not to just bitch, wallow in the complaints, and hang on to the wrongs that have happened to you. Instead use the replay of your challenges to find a solution to make it right. Hopefully in replaying the issue with a trusted friend, you can sort through the pain and anger to the real issue and find a real resolution. Sometimes we find that the only solution available to us is to accept the situation as fact and move on.

One exception to the fixing, is when we need to complain so we can release the emotion and move forward. My husband and I recently had an issue with someone who was renting our house. A few times I complained to my husband about the situation. I didn’t do this to bad mouth the individual or get sympathy or to feed the mental wrongs which were happening. I did it to release the emotional pain I was having so I could move forward. Before I shared with my husband, I prefaced what I said with, “If I don’t share this, it is not going to leave my mind. Please let me release my negative thinking so I can move forward without it.”  And when I was finished, I was finished. I didn’t feed the story anymore.

What have you been complaining about lately? Are you sharing to resolve the issue or to wallow in the injustice? How can you share the issue with a trusted friend so you can explore solutions?

jet ski wake

Slow Down to Speed Up

This past year I have been hanging with a woman who reminds me so much of who I was ten or so years ago. Sometimes it drives me crazy. Sometimes it makes me sad. Much of the time it makes me joyous that I am no longer there myself.

As I used to do constantly, my friend recently had a situation where she made a bad choice because she was in a hurry. She wanted something to be finished and finished right now. She didn’t want the pain, anxiety, and discomfort to last. In her hurry to get things resolved, a mistake was made – and the mistake followed her. Instead of having the resolution she wanted, the ending she was longing for, now she had a new situation to deal with. When we make hurried decisions to get things done, we often open a Pandora’s box of other issues.

I remember that pain. I remember blindly flying through issue after issue, making quick decisions which lead to more problems. Instead of receiving the peace I wanted, I ended up making a parade of other issues, conflicts, and unhappy results. I heard it being described like the wake after a jet ski. If we are driving quickly and making sharp turns this way and that, we leave a horrible wake in our path. Do you know this feeling? Do you ever feel behind the eight-ball, allowing panic to come in, then reacting quickly and without thinking? What are the results?

Photo by Brandon Nelson on Unsplash

I can’t say I am a pro now, but I am so much better than I had been. I try to keep the water behind my jet ski as flat and calm as possible. I may not be moving as quickly as I used to, yet I find that I am getting more done and more done efficiently and effectively than I did when I was moving at light speed. Two tools have helped me slow down: The Pause Button and Afternoon Meditation.

The Pause Button

One action which can cause a large wake behind us is jumping on a problem as soon as it pops up. It is like the carnival game Whack-a-Mole, as soon as the problem rears its head, we are ready with our hammer to smash it. Problem is, smashing a problem does not usually make the problem go away and more often makes more problems. Taking a mental and physical pause before we act allows us to think clearly and make the right next choice not just a knee-jerk reaction.

Afternoon Meditation

When I can, I end my work day with meditation. I’d like to be doing 30-minutes, but right now doing the 11-minute Live Soundbath by Johnny Scifo on Insight Timer is enough to help me turn off the accumulated excitement and anxiety of the work day, clear my mind, which allows me to approach the rest of the day with more ease.

When you feel rushed and pressured to act and make things happen, slow down. Use the pause button to give your brain some breathing space. Meditate or pray for guidance before you act. Then see how slowing down can help you speed up to the best resolution without causing more issues in your wake.