The Power Of Words
Really? Do words have power? Are we empowered by words?
For today’s piece I have to share some of my life experience.
“No. I can’t, I can’t” said the nurse to me. “I can’t cannulate this patient. She has had too many Chemotherapy treatments and her veins are all very thin and damaged. I can’t find a vein for her treatment,” and without saying another word, she turned around and left. Not without being noticed by the patient who was profoundly upset. I wondered where she went. I did try to see where she went, but when I put my head around the curtains, she had disappeared. At that moment, I couldn’t go after her. I had a patient under my responsibility. A patient who was waiting to be cannulated and to have her treatment started. I did want to go after my colleague, to comfort her and say “it’s ok. Don’t worry, I will do it for you and you can start the treatment.” But I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave the patient behind. She was already late for the treatment and the clock, that day, wasn’t particularly friendly. I turned to the patient and asked: “what happened? It’s not like her. She’s normally very good at finding veins and even if she can’t find one, this type of reaction is not one I have witnessed before; at least not coming from her” – I explained to the patient. “I apologise on her behalf. I will do it, so we can start the treatment.” The patient shrugged her shoulders. After a moment in silence, she turned her head towards me and said “I told her she wouldn’t be able to find one. No one can anymore. They are all dry. I told her, but she didn’t want to listen. This was her third attempt.” I couldn’t help noticing the tears wanting to burst from her eyes. She was tired, fragile and anyone could see she had enough. “Let’s do this together. You are going to help me” I said, with the most confident voice I could find inside me. At this point I wasn’t sure who I was trying to convince, the patient or myself. Then I carried on - “whilst I prepare everything, why don’t you go to the toilet and freshen up? When you’re back I will have a hot drink ready for you.” Meanwhile, I told myself a hundred times “I can do it. This is what I do. I can do it.” A few minutes later, the patient was sat on her chair, eyes closed, in silence, not a whisper. “How is she?” asked me one of my other colleagues, rushing away in direction to another patient. “She’s fine, fell asleep as soon I got the cannula in and the treatment started.”
Above is a brief description of one of the daily episodes any health professional gets confronted with, sooner or later, along their career. I experienced first-hand, in my clinical practice in Harley Street, London. There are many other scenarios I could have chosen but, for the purpose of the title of today’s piece, this one fits like a glove.
What was the difference between my colleague and me? Why did she end up with an unsuccessful event after all? It wasn’t lack of knowledge or skills. She worked in that facility for longer than me and she was qualified for longer than me too. On top of that, she had known the patient for longer than I had. Their relationship had stronger bonds than between me and the patient. Maybe because of those same bonds she believed in the patient’s words. She made them part of her own reality and they became part of it. I was no better than anyone else cannulating or in any other clinical procedure. Actually, I had in my mind the perception that I was one of the team members with the least impressive backgrounds. Cannulation was (in my mind) one of my Achilles heel, whilst in university. A few years later, I came to realise I was one of the most successful members of the team and cannulation had become one of my teaching subjects. What was the difference between us?
I always stepped forward when confronted with an obstacle and I always told myself “I can do this. This is what I do. Today, I am the best version of myself.” I truly believed it and every time I said it to myself, I felt it and it became stronger.
Sure, it wasn’t always like this. Like everything in life, this process had to be born inside of me, to be fed, grow up and become stronger. Also, it had to be acknowledged and developed. The next step was to start practising and noticing results. After a first few little results, growing ambitions and practising harder was the goal. From there on, as I realised it wasn’t only coincidence or luck, I practised harder and harder and the more results I had the more I practised. For sure it wasn’t every day that I felt up to it and some days were easier than others, but it is the regularity that makes the difference and not so much the intensity – never giving up, never feel that you are defeated. After all, “it’s not about how many times you fall down, but how many times you get back up.”(1)
This is the path I followed; everyone has their own.
Nowadays, the sky is the limit. And as far as I know, no limit is known.
A few decades ago in the early 70’s, living with my family in Germany, I started learning the power of words. Not being born in Germany, I spent my early years trying to integrate into the different groups at school. Not knowing the language in the way that was expected by any of the groups, it is needless to say, I wasn’t accepted into any of them. A few years later, due to be a slow reader and apparently a daydreamer, my mother was called by the head-of-year three to be informed I wouldn’t make it to year four. I had to stay in year three for another year. Academically, I was told I wouldn’t go far. From there on, to be labelled as not very intelligent and a slow learner was only a matter of time.
Believing it, followed.
Fast forward a few years, my parents moved back home to Portugal. Again, the same ghosts walked with me, side by side. And again, I experienced a language barrier for a start and all its implications. I did have Portuguese extra-curricular classes, back in Germany, in a school led by nuns. That was only another way to confirm how slow I was in learning a new subject and in keeping up with the other ones. And of course, there was also some time spent with religious matters, which reduced the study hours available for Portuguese.
Basically, I wasn’t able to maintain a conversation with any of my school colleagues. Not that I even wanted to. Back in Germany, I was the immigrant and now in Portugal I was “Hitler” and as far as I was concerned, none of those were my name.
The funny thing was the conversations with my grandparents, mainly my grandfather. We both ended up going to speak to my mum, for a quick translation.
However, now in Portugal, something funny started to happen a few weeks after school had started. The teacher, very patiently started to support me. With extra language exercises, compliments about achievements, explaining the same subject in different ways and allowing me time to understand and encouraging me to trial and error, so I could find answers on my own.
After a few months she called my mother to update her and to share some feedback. “There it comes again” – I thought. The moment when I would be labelled as unable to learn. However, surprise surprise. She told my mum, in front of me, that she thought I was very intelligent but had a big lack of self- confidence. “Did Mario experience any difficulties in school before?” – she asked. My mum told her the full story. “No wonder he has low self-esteem and lack of confidence. I am going to do my best to help Mario to overcome his previous experience in school, but I will need help from both of you, mum’s and Mario’s” - the teacher concluded. From that day onwards my academic life changed forever. I started feeling more confident (I now had a teacher that actually believed in me and had my mum backstage supporting me), my language was improving by the day and results were starting to show. With better results came more confidence, with which came better results. It was definitely hard work but by the end of that year I was top of the class. Since then, in every school year, I was in the top 10.
Looking back, nothing really changed. My brain was the same, I was the same, the environment was the same, my colleagues were the same and the teacher was the same. The only thing that wasn’t the same was what I was telling myself. Since then, I started to believe that I could do it. I started to tell myself a different story; a story I told myself so many times, I ended up believing it was true. Actually, that was the only thing I changed – the story. I changed the words that defined my life. I started to define myself as someone who can, instead of someone who can’t.
Why did I mark my last paragraph? Because today I know I couldn’t be more mistaken. I wasn’t the same, my brain wasn’t the same, the environment wasn’t the same. Actually nothing was the same. Back then, I was the person I told myself I was and saw all my surrounding circumstances according to that person. Today I am the individual I tell myself I am and I see my life through that perspective. Is it better or is it worse? As far as I can tell, it serves me better and took me from where I was to where I am today. Is it the best perspective possible? If I believe this is the best I can do, then that’s what it becomes. If we don’t shape our life, life will shape us. One of the greatest truths in life is that everything is in permanent motion and consequently permanently changing, shaping and re-shaping. This way, either we have some influence on this process or the process takes over and shapes itself. We then need to adapt and conform. However, we can’t complain about the end result if we choose not to have any participation in the process.
Question: How can I change or influence the process to make it more beneficial for myself? Well, changing the story we tell ourselves, the words we use to define us, the meaning we give to our actions and results and the way we look at ourselves is a good start.
Dr. Maxwell Malz (1889-1975) back in 1960’s said that the greatest psychological discovery of his generation was on self-image. This could be interpreted as: we become whatever we tell ourselves.
Before I finish this piece, let me leave you with a challenge:
Tomorrow, as soon you get up and before you even think about checking your emails, social media, the news or even the weather, walk towards a mirror, look at yourself and stop for a moment. Stare at yourself for a couple of minutes and ask yourself: what is the one word that defines me today? Then, think about it for another few moments and looking at the mirror still, try to find yourself in that word. If you can’t, change the word to something different, more positive and more empowering. Once you have found the correct word, the one you see that can defines you, say it out loud a few times, memorise it, embody it. Own it.
Now that you have it in you, go out there and be it…