Your Words are Powerful

Your Words Have the Power to Build up or to Destroy


John J. Teng, P.E.

I remember a phrase from my childhood that goes “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”  Well, I'm writing this article at this time, decades after I first learned that phrase, to say that words might not literally be able to break a bone, but they can potentially be used figuratively to “break and destroy” other important aspects of our bodies and minds. When I was a child my father was very critical of what he considered to be poor performance regarding my academic performance. I remember showing him my overall report card every Summer and he would scowl at me for an hour and tell me that I was as “slow as a turtle” and then repeatedly tell me how disappointed he was with me. This conversation did not take into account that my father was not really part of my life for 10 months out of every year since my parents had some years earlier gone through a messy divorce, and I actually lived far from my father in another state with my mother. As part of their divorce settlement, I was ordered by the court system to spend my 2 month Summers with my dad where he would start off most of those visitations by yelling at me for 1-2 hours and tell me in effect that I was stupid. I grew up most of my formative years living with the idea that my father imprinted upon me that I truly was stupid and that I would never become successful.

But here’s the reality. I beat all of the odds that an almost economically-impoverished and fatherless young man could have easily fallen prey to. I avoided drugs and I didn’t drink alcohol or take up smoking.  And although I did date during high school, I didn’t get involved in premarital sex.  Instead, I chose to channel all of my energies towards things I felt could help me rise above the setback circumstances that I was given as a child.  I focused my study habits and I become an Academic Honor Roll student in High School, I lettered in three high school varsity sports (football, wrestling, and track), I took violin lessons and I eventually sat in the First Violin position in my high school orchestra, and I earned The Boy Scouts of America’s highest rank of Eagle Scout before I was 18 years old.  After High School, I went on to college and earned a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering and started an exciting new professional life as an engineer working from a luxury high-rise office building in Southern California. I speak three languages (English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese), the last two languages I learned mostly by speak-as-you-go self-study.  After college, I aggressively worked to pay off my student loans after about one year, and soon thereafter I was able to secure a bank loan for my first home as a happy bachelor. And somehow all along the way I continued to hold off from having sex until I was 31 years old, when I eventually met and married my beautiful wife, and we now have four wonderful children.

And before you get the impression that all I’m trying to do here is to brag about myself, I now want to make an important point regarding how the power your words can have on yourself and on your fellow human beings. I mentioned to you earlier how during my early childhood years my father started out each of my Summer visitations by reading my report card and spending 1-2 hours basically telling me how stupid I was. So to this very day, despite all of the high achievements that I’ve attained, all the awards that I’ve received, and all of the amazing experiences that I have had, and still get to have, I still wake up almost every morning with the first words that come to my mind that I am a failure.

This notion that I am a “failure” is so embedded into my consciousness from my childhood days that I still get out of bed and start most every beautiful new morning with the first thought in my mind being that I have already failed.   And what has saved me from giving in to that false notion, is a conscious commitment on my part to wage a constant full-scale mental "battle" on that thought process, knowing that my very life could be on the line if I were to ever allow myself to succumb to that destructive lie.

Now contrast my own childhood with that of my wife who was raised by hardworking and successful parents who reinforced in her from a very young age two very important concepts: 1) that she was smart and 2) that she also had to work hard in order to put her smarts to good use. In other words, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean that you can use your math book as a pillow at night and the next morning expect to get an A on your calculus test. My wife was raised to understand that she was expected to work hard in order to put her innate intelligence to good use. And my wife never once ever thought of herself as a failure, even if she didn’t achieve something as ambitious as she had hoped to accomplish. Her parents set her straight from the beginning of who she inherently was, and those words sunk deep into her automatic thinking processes, regardless of a particular disappointing situation or circumstance.

Words truly have enormous power to either build up or to destroy. And to reinforce my point, Jack Schafer Ph.D., a retired FBI Special Agent and professor at Western Illinois University in the Law Enforcement and Justice Administration (LEJA) Department, discusses the concept of the “primacy effect” which he explains as a form of perception filter that shades the image that we have of someone or something based on initial information that we are given on that subject.[1] And I believe that this concept is equally valid, not only in terms of the “outbound” impressions that we form of other people but equally as powerful in terms of the “inbound” descriptions and labels that others place upon us, regardless of whether those descriptions are accurate or not.

Fortunately, my own daily habit of constant positive self-affirmations has helped me to battle back at the continuous onslaught of negative thinking that is so ingrained into my own thought processes. But think about how much more powerful a person can be if they are given the gift of a clearly understood positive personal perception from the very beginning, which I believe gives them a much higher advantage to be able to manage the stressors and disappointments that are an inevitable part of living life!

So the takeaway that I want to leave with you here is to be very mindful of what you say to others, and be equally as mindful as to what you allow others to say around you!  Be mindful to share uplifting words of encouragement and constructive feedback to all that you speak with (they are struggling to navigate through this difficult life just as much as you are).  And make no apologies for intentionally avoiding people who carelessly fill your mind with negative thoughts and who are not positively contributing to your happiness and well-being!


John Teng  Founder/CEO Midlife Magazine


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