On the Powers of Internal Language

Much is written about the powers of what I call external language, or language that is used to have an effect on external reality, mainly on other people.

This has left me wanting for a resource that explores the powers of what I call internal language, or language that is used to have an effect on our own internal realities.

After all, what is the point of being able to use language to have an effect on others if we don’t know how to use it to have an effect on ourselves?

Since I couldn’t find said resource, I decided to write it.

Here are six powers of internal language and how to use them:

1. Description
2. Imagination
3. Meditation
4. Motivation
5. Precision
6. Reinvention

Internal language has the power to describe your experiences, thus changing your experiences.

Notice the words you use to describe your experiences.

Not too long ago, whenever something seemingly negative would happen, I’d always use the same words to describe it: “This objectively sucks.”

Not me at my most eloquent. However, despite the fact that whatever was happening didn’t necessarily “objectively suck,” by describing it as if it did, I would make it so.

In my studies of the Alexander Technique, I learned that if you assume how hard a task is to accomplish, you will unconsciously brace yourself to prepare for that task, which will have the effect of actually making it harder to accomplish.¹

A classic self-fulfilling prophecy, driven by internal language.

The same principle is at work here.

If you describe a situation in a negative way, you will be conspiring against yourself to make it so.

So, be intentional in how you describe your experiences to yourself:

  • Does this objectively suck? Or is it somewhat inconvenient?
  • Are you a bad person? Or did you just make a mistake?
  • Is this a horrible tragedy? Or is this, you know…kind of funny?

You have the power to describe your experiences, which gives you the power to change your experiences.

Hey, what’s that? Former emperor of Rome and philosopher king Marcus Aurelius is here? Take it away, Marc:

When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgement of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.²

Thanks, Marc.

Remember: Internal language has the power to describe your experiences, thus changing your experiences.

Internal language has the power to unlock your imagination.

We know that imagination is critical to the quality of our lives, and that the consequences of losing our imagination can be dire.³

To unlock your imagination through internal language, you can use words and phrases like “if,” “if only,” and “what if?”

These words and phrases allow us to imagine realities beyond our present reality, which in turn allows us into rich human experiences such as creativity, goal-setting, eroticism, planning, idealism, preparation, dreaming, empathy, hope, and more.

…but beware!

Use your imagination; just don’t let it use you. Words and phrases like “if,” “if only,” and “what if?” can also allow us into unpleasant human experiences such as catastrophizing, fanaticism, delusion, paranoia, anxiety about an unknown future, rumination about a painful past, and more.

“What if the main character in this play I’m writing is a colorblind painter?” is an awesome imaginative question, whereas, “What if some day I become a painter, and then I develop color blindness, and then I can’t make a living because I’m confusing colors on my commissioned paintings, and then my wife leaves me because, in her words, ‘love is blind but not colorblind,’ and then I have a heart attack and die alone in front of a red (or is it green?) canvas?” is a useless imaginative question.

Use your internal language to imagine. Just don’t let it use you.

Internal language has the power to help you enter meditative states.

For example, mindfulness meditation uses internal language in various ways to help one become fully present:⁴

  • Encouraging kindness in how one speaks to oneself.
  • Noting sensations that arise as “Thinking” or “Feeling” to help create space in the mind and to teach one about one’s mental habits.
  • Using the pronoun “You” instead of “I” when addressing one’s self to create some distance from one’s experience and to discourage one’s intellectual mind from jumping in.

As another example, the aforementioned Alexander Technique (see Lesson 2) uses verbal directions such as “let the neck be free” to help one use one’s self well.⁵

In time, these directions are internalized as meditative mantras, which I can attest to, since I say them to myself countless times each day. I just did. I just did it again.

As a final example, transcribing your internal language onto a journal or notebook can be a meditative experience. Simply listening to your internal language and writing it down as you hear it connects you with yourself and puts you in a meditative state.

I’m sure there are countless more examples of the use of the power of Meditation; the more I learn, the more I notice how different philosophies, disciplines, religions, cultures, and art forms all use internal language in their own way to achieve meditative states.

You can choose whatever works best for you.

Either way, it’s clear that internal language has the power to help you enter meditative states.

Internal language has the power to motivate you.

I have a Bachelor of Science in Accounting, which means I studied accounting, which means I had to take many accounting classes.

Before you and your loved ones gather to shed tears and mourn for me, I should share that I loved all of my accounting classes, in large part thanks to this power of internal language.

You see, I’ve always been interested in the Creative Industries. So, to motivate myself to engage with my accounting classes…I changed their names:

  • I renamed my Federal Tax Accounting class as Entertainment Tax Accounting.
  • I renamed my Financial Accounting & Reporting class as Entertainment Financial Accounting.
  • I renamed my Cost Accounting class as How to Be a Piano, but realized it was a stretch, so I settled for Creative Business Cost Accounting.

Just like that, I was engaged, and I was happy to do my homework and study for my exams. After all, I wasn’t studying accounting…I was studying the business of the Creative Industries!

If you’re lacking motivation to do something, remember: You can use your internal language to change your perception of what it is you have to do, to the point where you can actually be excited that it’s something you get to do.

As philosophies like Stoicism can teach us, there’s a big difference between having to do something and getting to do something.⁶

Here’s one other way to use the power of Motivation: Motivate yourself!

That sounds like an obvious directive, but it’s surprising how ready we can be to cheer on others and berate ourselves.

Motivate yourself to do whatever you want to do in the same way that you would motivate your best friend to do whatever they want to do.

It’s simple, but it’s effective.

Internal language has the power to motivate you.

Internal language has the power to give you a precise reading of your experiences.

One of my favorite ways to use the power of Precision comes from writer and cognitive-behavioral therapist Walter Riso: Separate probability from possibility.⁷

Here’s an example: Is it possible that an atomic bomb will explode in my house?

Possible? Well…I guess.

Now, if you stop there and don’t separate probability from possibility, you might become anxious about not owning a bunker.

The key is to not stop there, and actively separate probability from possibility: Is it probable that an atomic bomb will explode in my house?

Probable? Well…not at all.

You can now take a deep breath. For now…

Separating probability from possibility can help you in many realms of life:

  • It’s possible that your partner doesn’t love you, but given the years of passion, friendship, support, and affection…how probable is it?
  • It’s possible that you will never learn that foreign language, but given that you’re working and improving every day…how probable is it?
  • It’s possible that I will never defeat Roger Federer in a tennis match, but given that — ignore this one; you get the point.

Here’s one other way to use the power of Precision: Choose precise language to define your inner experiences.

For example, it doesn’t help you much to know that you feel “really bad.”

What does that mean?

Do you feel angry? Sad? Betrayed? Jealous? Confused? Insecure? Nauseous? Disappointed in humanity because Galileo was persecuted for being right about heliocentrism? All of the above?

What do you mean by “really bad”? Be precise.

The more precise you are in how you define your experiences, the more you’ll be able to know what to do about them, if anything.

Internal language has the power to reinvent how you perceive your life.

Much of our perception of our own lives is invented through our language.

Saying things like “I’m shy” or “I was a loser when I was a kid” have way more power than one might be consciously aware of.

Instead, it’s better to use this power consciously. Who are you? Who do you want to be? What’s your story? You have the power to answer these questions for yourself.

One of my favorite expressions of the power of Reinvention comes from the narrative voice of Isabel Allende in her brilliant novel, Largo pétalo de mar:

Embellecía los hechos, porque era consciente de que la vida es como uno la cuenta, así que para qué iba a anotar lo trivial.⁸

I would translate this into English as: “She embellished the facts, because she knew that life is how you tell it, so why jot down trivialities.”

La vida es como uno la cuenta. “Life is how you tell it.”

Think about that. Life is how you tell it.

If you tell yourself that you’re struggling because you’re no good and will never amount to anything, then that’s your life.

If you tell yourself that you’re struggling because everyone faces challenges and this is your opportunity to show how resilient you are and be better for it, then that’s your life.

If you tell yourself that you’re only fully confident as a cook when you’re cooking chicken because you simply haven’t invested the time to practice your cooking skills, then that’s my life, and you shouldn’t worry about it.

Life is how you tell it. You tell it. So, be intentional in how you tell it.

Internal language has the power to reinvent how you perceive your life.

BONUS

Internal language has the power to reframe a feeling, thus changing your experience of it.

I first learned this when I started doing stand-up comedy. As showtime approached, I would feel what I then labeled as nerves. So it was, until a stand-up mentor advised me to “reframe” what I was feeling.

He said that instead of framing what I felt as nerves by saying to myself, “I’m nervous,” I could frame it as excitement and say to myself, “I’m excited.”

It seems so simple, even as I write it, but it changed my life. I still frame as excitement the feeling I used to frame as nerves, and it’s made an enormous difference, onstage and beyond.

I learned one other use of the power of Reframing from a colleague I worked with at Sony Music, who advised me to reframe worry as curiosity.

He said that instead of saying something like, “I’m worried…I don’t know if I’ll get that job,” it would do me well to say, “I’m curious…I wonder whether I’ll get that job.”

Again, life-changing. Any time I notice some worry creeping up, I immediately reframe it as curiosity.

Like in music, where you can change the harmonies under the same melody to alter its effect on the listener, you can change your internal language under the same feeling to alter its effect on you.

Internal language has the power to reframe a feeling, thus changing your experience of it.

To recap, here are six + one = seven powers of internal language:

1. Description
2. Imagination
3. Meditation
4. Motivation
5. Precision
6. Reinvention
7. Reframing

If there is a through-line that connects these seven powers of internal language, it is this: Your internal language matters, and it matters that you listen to it.

Once you can listen to language inside yourself as clearly as you can listen to language outside yourself, then you will have the power to change your internal language and use its powers for the better.

Happy listening!

When I look at a portrait, I like to play a game where I try to listen to the subject’s internal language. In this portrait, I can hear van Gogh saying to himself, “I think I forgot my wallet.”⁹
  1. Pedro de Alcantara, “Sensory Awareness and Conception,” in Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 40.
  2. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.47
  3. Bessel van der Kolk, “Lessons from Vietnam Veterans,” in The Body Keeps the Score (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2015), p. 17.
  4. “The Science-Backed Benefits of Mindfulness,” Headspace, https://www.headspace.com/mindfulness.
  5. Pedro de Alcantara, “Directing and Words,” in Indirect Procedures, p. 61.
  6. Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, “Duty,” in The Daily Stoic (New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin, 2016), p. 200.
  7. Walter Riso, “Conferencia: “Me cuido para cuidarte: psicología en tiempos de confinamiento”,” YouTube video, 1:42:13, April 4, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gZ-NCcGr_4.
  8. Isabel Allende, “IX,” in Largo pétalo de mar, 1ra ed. (Barcelona, España: Vintage Español, 2019), p. 244.
  9. Vincent van Gogh, Portrait de l’artiste, 1889, Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

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