An Important Piece of The Puzzle: The Words Matter, Inside and Out.

Posted on September 1, 2011


The words we use affect us, whether we are describing our own behaviour or the behaviour of others, whether we are using our inside voice or outside voice.

I learned this important insight in New Zealand, thanks to a short introductory seminar to the methodology of the Virtues Project, taught by two of its founders.

The explicit aim of the seminar was to teach parents and teachers how to teach their children and students to be virtuous; however, whether the instructors intended it or not, it seemed to me, in actual fact, the aim of the seminar was to provide the parents and teachers with the kind of moral education they should have received as children.

It makes sense: a person can’t teach what s/he has not herself learnt and, unfortunately, most people are never taught how to lead virtuous lives or how to teach children to live virtuous lives.

Although many of the seminar’s group exercises made my introverted nature cringe, the main teaching point stuck: we help promote virtuous behaviour in children when we use a rich, expressive, and positive vocabulary to reward and promote that behaviour, instead of calling attention to the bad behaviour. E.g. “Be generous” vs. “don’t be greedy”.

Conceptually, the claim makes a lot of sense: being generous is not the same as not being greedy. Empirically, it also seems to be the case that we are better able to reproduce specific behaviours when they are shown to us and we are encouraged to visualize ourselves doing them. In other words, helping children identify and mimic virtuous behaviour is much more likely to promote it than calling attention to the bad behaviour they should not mimic.

I can’t remember when or why I decided to adopt something like this approach for my inner monologue but, at some point, I realized that it constantly and consistently assessed my behaviour (and the behaviour of others) in a fashion that was wholly negative. Easily, 95% of the critical evaluations offered by my inner monologue were negative: “How could you be so stupid? Don’t be an asshole! Don’t fuck up?! Why are you such a loser? Don’t be a coward!” Etc, etc.

Realizing this, I decided to retrain my inner monologue in the spirit of what I had learned from the Virtues Project. Accordingly, I carefully scrutinized it and whenever I caught myself using negative language to describe my behaviour (or the behaviour of others), I stopped the train of thought in its tracks and took a moment to figure out a way to rephrase the critical observation in language more consistent with the approach of the Virtues Project. “Don’t be stupid”, for example, could become any number of positive expressions depending on the context: “be conscientious; be patient; be thoughtful; be open-minded;” etc.

Before long — and in much less time than I expected — my inner monologue adopted and employed the richer, positive language without any further reflective prompting on my part. Now, it is quite exceptional when I employ the old negative language and long gone are the days when I would ruthlessly attack myself over and over again for the most minor of errors. The overall consequence, I think, is that I’m a lot happier.

Upon reflection, this makes a lot of sense. It’s easy (I hope) to recognize that a constant barrage of negative language, however well intentioned, will interfere with a person’s ability to be happy when it comes from someone else. It was hard — for me at least — to make the connection to the constant barrage of negative language used by my inner monologue. Fortunately, I eventually learned that my inner monologue could be retrained to employ thoughtful, insightful, and positive language instead.

I encourage you to spend some time monitoring your inner monologue and tracking the kind of language it employs — particularly when you make an error. I’m hopeful that your inner voice is positive most of the time. If isn’t, I also want to assure you that it can be retrained.

Posted in: Identity