I read the book 1984 in 1994. At the time I was a typical 14 year old boy; concerned mainly with things most 14 year old boys are; music, social status, girls. Not necessarily in that order. Yet I also remember even then being shocked at how shrewd this book was. As if Orwell had just gotten the date wrong by 10 years.
Back then Big Brother the TV show was still just a twinkle in the black, sharks-eye of John De Mol, but yet I still saw in those pages, not just a work of fiction but a grim foreshadowing of what was actually starting to become a reality. Orwell, writing across the decades was speaking to me of a future that was approaching at a lightning speed.
However, I’m not here to tackle the current plight of our culture or indeed our civilisation. There are far, far better political and strategical minds than mine available to comment on these matters. Rather I am interested here in exploring the semantics of language used in Orwell’s seminal work– and more so, what we can take from this to help us gain more confidence in ourselves and our abilities.
You see, what I found most compelling while reading 1984 was the controlled deconstruction of language imposed by the totalitarian state Oceania. The premise is simple but profound; if we don’t have the language to describe something, then we can’t experience it. If Winston Smith cannot articulate his anger at the system then it cannot be so, if the proles don’t have the word for revolution they cannot believe in it.
The idea that language and thoughts are intrinsically entwined is by no means a new notion. Indeed the concept can be traced back all the way to Plato and indeed thinkers throughout the ages, from St Augustine to Immanuel Kant all realised the power of language to experience and define our world.
In 1984 the prescribed language; ‘Newspeak’ reframes negative concepts with their more affable counterparts to keep the civilians calm and subservient. The idea a devious switcheroo; create new positive associations with once terrifying administrations. In this vein then the Ministry of War becomes the Ministry of Peace; the Ministry of Plenty deals with starvation, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love, torture. As the novel goes on we realise just how much the populace of Oceania are manipulated through the alteration of everyday thought and language. It would be brilliant if it wasn’t so chilling.
There is a positive message however in all of this, we too have power over our language which in turn is power over our thoughts. When we change the language we use to describe ourselves and our experiences we can influence our thoughts. By doing so we can alter the way we see our world.
Thoughts are brought on by lots of different factors; ego, past experiences, fears, ingrained beliefs. All these things are designed to protect us, to keep us from harm, which of course is important, it’s our survival instinct at work. But what happens when these instincts become too over protective and begin to have a detrimental effect on our lives? It’s natural to have moments of doubt of course, but when these moments grow into days, or weeks then we can find ourselves in a negative tailspin, focusing too much on unhelpful thoughts, begetting even more unhelpful thoughts.
Thankfully we do have some power over this if we focus our attention elsewhere. By consciously and habitually changing the language we use to talk to ourselves we can free ourselves from the downward spiral of limiting beliefs. By actively using positive language we in turn change how we experience ourselves. We begin to see our world differently, things that once seemed impossible suddenly feel possible. As we believe, so we act. As we act, so we become.
Just like in 1984, the awareness of the semantics in language is what counts and in In personal development terms it’s this distinction which separates the idea of conscious thought from more esoteric ideas such as the Law of Attraction. If we are to accept as true – that what we focus on creates our reality – we must understand that this isn’t simply because wanting something enough magically ‘manifests’ it into existence. But rather, when we actively use positive language and learn to rid ourselves of negative self-talk we start to focus on what is possible. We don’t so much conjure it up as start to expect it, when we expect it to happen then our subconscious spends all its time trying to support this ‘reality’.
The structure of our language can strongly influence or determine the way we interact with and experience this reality. For instance the oft-quoted fact that Inuit people have 50 words for snow means that they can think more intelligently about it. Whereas people in hotter climes are happy with just the one word Inuit communities need to paint a broader picture, their language contains more sophisticated and subtle words to help them distinguish different forms with different effects and uses. When we actively use language that supports our goals and fuels our self-belief it helps us believe in our abilities to achieve these goals all the more.
This is summed up nicely with the story of Roger Bannister and his amazing achievements. Before Bannister ran a mile in 3 minute 59.3 seconds in 1954 no one in the world thought it was possible. In fact up until the moment he completed his run in under 4 minutes people actually thought a human might die or burst into flames if they ran that fast. It was a truly remarkable feat made possible by training and self-belief. Yet, what makes the story even more remarkable is that this record was beaten just 46 days later and after this people from all over the world began running their own 4 minute miles, achieving something that just a few years earlier everyone thought was physically impossible to do. And the difference? They now believed it was possible.
Because of a heuristic Daniel Kahneman labelled the Availability Bias we give extra weight to that which is most easily available to us. This mental shortcut operates on the notion that if we remember one outcome more clearly than another, it must be more important, it must be true. Often this can have negative effects on us – such as a recently reported plane crash giving us disproportionate fears about flying – yet used correctly this bias can also be tweaked to help us achieve better. With this bias in mind we can consciously engage in recalling our past successes so that when the time comes we are much more likely to believe we can do what is needed.
Indeed, studies have shown that when we make a point of only focusing on times in life when we’ve achieved good results, our subconscious aligns with the belief that we can and will achieve our goals. To the point where, over time, because we’re focusing on success we start to notice more opportunities for that success everywhere we go, re-tuning our minds to seek it out. Just like the person who focuses solely on their bad luck and, thus, always seems to have bad luck, we can start to actively use past experiences to fuel confidence. The way we make something possible is if we believe it is possible.
We think we can because the language we use and the thoughts we think tell us we can. As Shakespeare wrote so eloquently in Hamlet, over 400 years ago; ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. Everything that happens to us is filtered through our own perception of what is happening, by the frame we choose to experience it through and the language we use to describe it. What this means though of course is that if we can focus on bad stuff and make ourselves feel bad, we can also play our imagination at its own game.
Our thoughts are actual physical pathways in our brains, actual grooves in our grey matter. The more we think a particular thought the deeper we make the groove, the stronger and more pronounced we make the path. Thus the thought becomes easier to have again and again. That’s why negative thoughts need to be addressed immediately. The more we think bad things about ourselves we create a self-fulfilling prophecy that means it’s harder to shake those limiting beliefs.
Because of a cognitive dissonance our subconscious mind cannot hold two opposing thoughts at the same time, so when we use negative language to describe ourselves our brain seeks out information to back up what we’re saying. Yet on the flipside of this, if the language we use about ourselves is focused on positivity and success, because of this dissonance the brain will then find ways to prove we are indeed happy and successful and ignores any contrary evidence.
The quality of our thoughts and the language we use is highly connected to the quality of our life. When we use positive language and think great thoughts we cultivate a stronger self-image, which fuels our feelings and actions and interpretations of the world. So then for instance if we have two options presented to us; to try for a big win with the possibility of failure, or to not try and stay safe we are now likely to risk it if we are always focused on achievements. We have the confidence to succeed because our thoughts and language have created a reality where success is possible.
This semantics of language can be explored in even smaller ways too. When I began my personal development journey, doing deep work on myself I started by writing out a list of morning success rituals; things I knew I needed to do each day to propel me forward. These were activities such as going to the gym, scripting out my day, meditation, drinking green juice. Most likely the sort of things most people interested in self-growth would have on such a list. However for a long time I found it hard to stick to these rituals, sure I did them whenever I could, but I would err, some mornings I would fancy a lie in over jumping out of bed at 5.30am and hitting the gym.
Now we might say that the problem here was that I was yet to make these things habitual, that they were yet to become a part of my world. However I believe that the real reason why I now do all those things without fail every morning is simple, I started to refer to them not as rituals but as ‘disciplines’. It was this simple distinction in language that made all the difference for me. It was a word that resonated with me. Whereas for me ‘rituals’ meant an activity done often, perhaps even in a stuffy, religious context, ‘disciplines’ had more depth, more history behind it. For me it inspired feelings of control, of adhering to a superior code of behaviour. Self-mastery. It made me want to be more. It made me want to try.
The subconscious mind doesn’t judge thoughts as good or bad, or useful or not useful. It doesn’t know. It just goes where we tell it to go most-often. It doesn’t know if a thought came from some deep issues or past experiences or whether it simply came from our conscious self. It just hears the language we speak most often and then acts accordingly.
So next time you are having trouble finding the motivation to do something remember it might just have something to do with the words you are using to explain it to yourself. Words create your thoughts and your thoughts create your reality. Just like in 1984, if we actively take control over the language we use to define our world we can change it. But this time for the better. If there is no word for ‘cannot’ we only ‘can’.