Csikszentmihalyi says in his 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 give stuff meaning. 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.

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Aimee Mullins is a world-record-breaking runner who doesn’t have legs. She gave a speech at TED in February 2010 that 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?”

Here is the entire beautiful speech from Aimee Mullins and TED on the immense power of words:

Many people in the herpes community use self-defeating words such as “dangerous” … “problem” … “dreaded talk” … “disease” … “infected” … 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 I’d be interested to see what kind of words they use in their own heads. I’d sadly imagine they’re a lot worse. This kind of foul language just keeps glomming on to the word and concept of “herpes” layer upon greasy layer until herpes itself becomes synonymous with these foul ideas and feelings. The enlivening news is that we can start becoming more conscious of the words we use and how these words affect our own feelings.
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 instead, try condition
  • dreaded talk instead, try intimate discussion
  • infect/contaminate instead, try spread/pass on
  • I am dirty/I have a disease instead, try I have herpes

Now keep in mind, using these phrases isn’t to minimize the herpes condition; this is not meant to dilute it in our minds so it’s any less important so that we can be more flippant about spreading it to others. Nor is it a sly tactic of denying reality. Remember, the kind of language we use compounds on itself. So using this terminology 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.
Exercise: 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 “I don’t want to pass on this virus.” Both of these phrases say, in effect, the same thing, but they feel completely different.
Exercise: Read the word silently to yourself “herpes” … what feelings come up? Do you feel sad, or do you feel like you want to punch 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” in the context of less negative ideas, the less power it has over me and my mood/outlook on life. Remember, it’s not the word itself or even the virus itself; it’s the meaning we attach to it that causes us suffering. Words are like vessels … we can fill them with whatever feelings we want.