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Words are just words. But what you associate them with can change your life.

Go past the definition. Find the association.

Words are Just Words. But What You Associate Them with Can Change Your Life.

I’m not sure about you, but I’m the sort of person who needs to be productive to feel good about myself. I’m driven by tangible results, and always need to see work completed. It doesn’t matter how much effort I put into the process — if I don’t have something to show for it at the end of the day, I get frustrated and often beat myself up mentally. Not a good way to go, I know. But that is how I’m wired.

My Monkey Brain Scorns ‘Soft’ Affirmations

We all know that rest and sleep are necessary to sustain life. But it’s also vital for healing, to maintain optimal health, and to stimulate creativity. Despite knowing these wonderful benefits, I still struggle with giving myself a break every single day. My brain tells me there’s always more to do, that I should maximise my time.

Affirmations such as ‘I give myself permission to rest’ do not charm my brain; it scorns the softness of such words. This might have to do with the way I was brought up — a first child syndrome. My parents were always pushing me harder than my siblings. I always had to produce better results academically, musically, physically, and pave the way for them. It’s shaped my personality whether I like it or not, so the limitations of chronic illness frustrate me.

A Random Bolt of Insight

But just the other day I said to myself, ‘I give myself permission to be lazy’, and felt a huge wave of relief wash over me. My body and mind breathed a collective sigh of relief, and let themselves go. Just like that. I went to sloth around in bed, doing absolutely nothing. It felt good, with no trace of guilt to it. This excited me. I could use this method again in future! I could use it for anything I wanted to reframe! It felt like the perfect key to the shackles I had bound my mind to.

A Second Reinforcing Bolt of Insight

Let’s take a look at another epiphany I had the other day whilst I was swimming, that further enhances this concept. I hate to exercise. It’s boring, it’s such a chore, it hurts and I’m not even having fun.

I used to enjoy playing team sports such as basketball and football; these were exercises I liked because to me they were fun and games first, and exercise second. But now that I live with Antiphospholipid Syndrome — a blood clotting disorder — I can no longer play contact sports. The bruises they will cause can lead to deadly clots and bleeds. My body is decorated with enough bruises as it is, enough to look somewhat abused. So the only sports I’m left with now are individual ones, and I hate them with a passion.

So I told my brain as I slowly dipped my body into the pool, ‘I am not exercising today. I am just relaxing and learning how to meditate’. This thought sparked that same epiphanic feeling I had with the ‘lazy’ thought. You might be thinking to yourself by now, ‘Stop this Sheryl, you are lying to yourself. Maybe not a total lie, but still a white lie.’.

That was what I thought so too, and a brief moment of guilt washed over me. But as I swam and gave it further thought, I knew that that wasn’t true. Let’s find out why.

The Associations Behind Definitions

Here’s the definition of ‘exercise’ in the dictionary: ‘activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness’. And here’s the definition of ‘fitness’: ‘the condition of being physically fit and healthy’.

Those definitions bore, scare and demotivate me. My brain automatically associates them with athletes, yoga gurus, gym goers, cross fit enthusiasts and so on. I am nowhere near that level, and never will be. Partly because of my health conditions, and partly because I’m just not that into it.

Here’s what I associate ‘exercise and fitness’ with: goals, targets, numbers, ‘healthy’ (no fun), boring, a chore, an evil necessity. They’re all mentally exhausting. It’s no wonder I don’t exercise as much as I should! Who in the right mind is going to exercise regularly when these are the things they associate them with? It sounds almost traumatic and not something beneficial.

So that sunny Sunday afternoon, I let go of these associations I had whilst gliding through the water in solitude. I tend to count the number of laps I do, and then pressure myself to equal or surpass that number the next swim. Which of course, puts me off doing it again for weeks, even months. So this time I released those numbers, and just breathed, flowed, and enjoyed the smooth sensation of the thick, buoyant water. And you know what? It was the best swim I had in ages.

Words are Not Just ‘Words’

Yes, dictionary definitions are necessary to form the basis of language, and maintain coherence in communication. Yet, every single person holds different associations with the very same words. A large part of miscommunication has to do with associations instead of definitions, too.

‘See you soon’ might mean tomorrow to me, but next month to you. ‘I feel fine’might mean a four on my pain scale, but a zero on yours. My favourite colour may be ‘red’, but someone else might hate it for its association it with war, bloodshed and death. I may associate ‘exercise’ with drudgery, but I know plenty of people who would call it ‘refreshing, enjoyable, even enlightening’.

Forming New Habits and Reframing Our Thoughts

Moving forward, I will be using this method to try and make positive changes in my own life. Every time you’re unsure about something, stop for a few minutes, sit and ask yourself: ‘What do I really associate this word or action with?’. Then speak to these stressful thoughts using your right language. Rephrase it until it’s helpful. Then feel your heart glow with the excitement of truth, and watch yourself blossom.

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