Csikszentmihalyi says in his classic book Flow:
The simplest ordering system is to give names to things; the words we invent transform discrete events into universal categories. The power of the word is immense.
Simply put: words breathe meaning into inert things. Sometimes we forget that we are in control of that — each one of us. Now let’s use this power to our advantage instead of to our detriment.
Aimee Mullins is a world-record-breaking runner who doesn’t have legs. Amy's famous TED speech can apply to everyone, not just those who we call “disabled.” Aimee says:
It’s not just about the words, it’s about what we believe about people when we name them with these words. It’s about the value behind the words and how we construct those values. Our language affects our thinking, and how we view the world, and how we view other people. In fact, many ancient societies — including the Greeks and the Romans — believed that to utter a curse verbally was so powerful because to say the thing out loud brought it into existence. So what reality do we want to call into existence? A person who is limited, or a person who is empowered?
Many people in the herpes community use self-defeating words such as dangerous, problem, the dreaded talk, disease, infected, affliction … even the common phrase of having an “outbreak” brings to mind some hardened criminal trying to get loose. If these are the types of words that are used even within the herpes community, then imagine the words and phrases they use in their own heads? Probably a lot worse. This kind of foul language just keeps glomming on to the idea of “herpes” layer upon greasy layer until herpes itself becomes synonymous with these foul feelings.
The empowering news? We can start becoming more conscious of the words we use and how these words affect our own perspective. That perspective can directly shift our direct experience.
For example, when you talk about herpes (to other people and especially yourself), try substituting the following words to put things in a more realistic perspective:
- outbreak instead, try occurrence/episode
- disease/affliction instead, try condition
- dreaded talk instead, try real talk
- infect/contaminate instead, try spread/pass
- I am dirty instead, try I have herpes or I'm a carrier of HSV
Now keep in mind, using these phrases isn’t to minimize the herpes condition or "spin" it; this is not meant to dilute it to make it less important to disclose or pay attention to. Nor is it a sly tactic of denying reality. Remember, the kind of language we use compounds on itself. So using these less charged words simply puts herpes back on a level playing field so it’s not the foul beast that a lot of people make it out to be. Take some of the undeserved power away from herpes just by the kind of language you use.
Exercises for you to do right now:
- Read the following phrases aloud and see the difference in the feelings they produce. “I don’t want to infect others with my disease” versus “It's important to me that I keep my partners herpes-free.” Both of these phrases say, in effect, the same thing, but they feel completely different. One strengthens the victim perspective while the other is empowering.
- Read the word silently to yourself “herpes” … what feelings come up? Do you feel sad? Do you feel like punching a wall? Now say the word out loud: “HERPES” … what do you feel now? For the longest time, I wasn’t able to even say or hear the word without feeling deep shame and sadness throbbing in my gut. But over time, the more I say “herpes” from a place of okayness, the less negative impact it would have on me. Remember, it’s not the word itself or even the virus itself; it’s the meaning we attach to it that causes the bulk of our suffering. Words are like vessels … we can fill them with whatever meaning we want.
P.S. — You will notice I still use words like "outbreak" and "infected" on this very website. This is not to reinforce the negative perspectives, but instead to use them as a starting point to help shift an old engrained perspective into a more empowered one. And it helps SEO. (Real talk.)