Transformational Vocabulary: The Power of Words

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What is Transformational Vocabulary? How can changing the words you use change your life for the better?

Transformational Vocabulary is Tony Robbins’ theory that the words you use determine your emotional state and behavior. The Transformational Vocabulary method uses positive language to change how you feel about certain situations. In doing so, you can change how you respond to life’s difficulties.  

Read on to find out more about Transformational Vocabulary, and how you can use it to change your life.

Using Transformational Vocabulary

Just as your questions have the power to determine your state, beliefs, and behavior, so do your words and metaphors—and, like questions, you have a pool of habitual words and metaphors that you use heavily in your daily conversations and internal monologues. According to Tony Robbins, language is one of the most important things to consider when changing your mindset. 

Make sure your habitual vocabulary is full of empowering words and metaphors to promote empowering thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

In this article, we’ll discuss: 

  • How using empowering words and “Transformational Vocabulary” alters your experiences
  • How the size of your vocabulary determines the range of emotions you experience
  • How your words shape your interactions and influence the way other people respond to you
  • How to make your habitual vocabulary more empowering
  • How empowering and disempowering metaphors impact you
  • How metaphors’ meaning and influence depend on context
  • How you can change your habitual metaphors to improve your outlook and your life 

Use Empowering Words to Shape Your Experiences

For Tony Robbins, the language you choose to describe an event influences how you experience that event. For example, is your vacation fun or is it magical? Is the conference bustling or chaotic? The words you use determine the lens through which you view that experience.

Expanding on that, the words you habitually use—those that you use heavily in your daily conversations and internal monologues—influence how you experience life day after day. Think of it this way: Your body constantly relays sensations to your brain—through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. When your brain receives these sensations, it has to assign a label (a word) to each feeling in order to make sense of them. Rather than taking the time and mental energy to find the right word to precisely describe each sensation, your brain develops a habitual vocabulary to pull from quickly. If your habitual vocabulary is full of empowering words, you’ll constantly use words that color your experiences in a positive way. You’ll promote empowering thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Use Transformational Vocabulary to Alter Your Experiences

One way to use words to shape your experiences in a positive way is to use Transformational Vocabulary. This involves strategically replacing certain words that you use to change your emotional reaction to situations and events. There are two ways to use Transformational Vocabulary: 

  1. Use words that dull negative emotions and intensify positive ones. Replace your negative adjectives with milder or more positive ones (such as “peeved” instead of “livid”) and use softeners (such as “a bit” and “a tad”) and intensifiers (such as “extremely” and “unbelievably”). For example, think of something that recently infuriated you. Now imagine that, in that moment, instead of saying that you were furious or livid, you said that you were “a bit peeved.” 
  2. When you’re upset, use words that disrupt your emotional pattern to stop you from feeling upset (Step 3 of Neuro-Associative Conditioning). For example, replace the word “jealous” with “overloving,” which is a funny enough word that it might snap you out of jealousy and divert your thoughts to the reasons you love the person who’s making you jealous. 

Expand Your Vocabulary to Enrich Your Emotional Life

In addition to populating your habitual vocabulary with empowering words, aim to expand your vocabulary. Since the words you use shape your experiences, having only a limited vocabulary to describe your feelings narrows the scope and richness of your emotions and life, restricting your ability to feel and express emotions. In fact, one study noted that prison inmates often expressed their pain through physical violence because they lacked the vocabulary to describe their emotions. 

Change Your Words to Change Your Interactions

The words you use shape not only your own experience, but also the experiences of the people around you; therefore, being mindful of the words you use when speaking to others can make your interactions more positive and productive. Imagine that you run into a problem at home and approach your spouse to come up with a solution. If you start by saying, “I’m worried about this,” your spouse is more likely to have a heightened emotional response, and she may even get defensive about the situation, which is counterproductive to finding a resolution. By contrast, if you say, “I’m a little bit concerned about this and want to talk about how we can fix it,” this brings down your emotional intensity and allows your spouse to react from a position of empowerment, which helps you both reach a resolution. 

Your words have a particularly powerful impact on your children. Your words communicate to your children whether you attribute their successes and failures to how they’re acting or who they are. When your child makes a mistake or misbehaves, calling her clumsy or disobedient frames the child’s behavior as a character trait, which can damage her sense of identity and self-worth. Instead, tell your child that you’re getting “a little” (softener) “peeved” (less intense word) with her behavior, and ask to talk it over together.  

A final word of caution on the way words impact interactions and relationships: People are inclined to adopt the words—and accompanying behaviors—that people around them frequently use. As such, be cautious not to pick up negative words from others. 

Apply It: Change Your Habitual Vocabulary

Use the information we’ve discussed to begin reforming your habitual vocabulary to optimize your life. First, let’s work toward eliminating disempowering words:

  1. Write down three disempowering words in your habitual vocabulary. If you can’t think of them, ask yourself what negative emotions you regularly feel. The words you frequently use to describe these emotions are likely to be disempowering.
  2. Brainstorm words to replace these disempowering words. For example, replace “angry” with “disenchanted,” “failure” with “learning opportunity,” and “overwhelmed” with “in demand.” To support this change, your new words should be ones you’ll want to use. 
  3. Use NAC (from Chapter 3) to condition this change. 
  4. Enlist your friends and family to help you. Tell them the words you want to replace and the new words you want to incorporate. When you start to express one of your old, disempowering emotions, have them ask you kindly whether you’re feeling your old word or your new word. This will serve as a reminder to replace your old vocabulary. 

Next, repeat the process by writing down three words in your habitual vocabulary that describe feeling mediocre (such as “I’m fine” and “Everything is alright”) and then brainstorm more emphatic, positive words to use instead. For example, replace “alright” with “spectacular” and “content” with “serene.” Again, use NAC to condition the change and ask your friends and family to keep you accountable.  

Empower Yourself With Positive Metaphors

A final strategy to use language to direct your focus is to use empowering metaphors: As powerful as words are on their own, they’re even more potent tools for empowerment or disempowerment as metaphors. 

When you use a metaphor to liken your experience to something, you create an image that amplifies the power of your description. For example, when people are stressed at work they often say that they’re “struggling to stay above water.” Consider the image this metaphor evokes: gasping for air as continually rising water threatens to drown you. This imagery associates immense pain with your work. However, instead of using that disempowering metaphor, you could instead say that you’re “climbing the ladder of success,” which puts you in a more empowered position to tackle the tasks in front of you. 

Recognize That a Metaphor’s Effect Depends Upon Context

While there’s no question that metaphors influence how you experience life, the way that metaphors impact your outlook can depend on the context of a situation and your individual interpretation of it. As you evaluate and work to change your habitual metaphors, it’s important to understand several nuances so that you can use metaphors to their maximum positive effect.

First, many metaphors carry implicit, limiting beliefs—even those that don’t appear to be disempowering on the surface. For example, physicists used to use the solar system as a metaphor for atoms, but the metaphor turned out to be limiting because it didn’t represent the full reality of how atoms behave. The planets’ orbits around the sun represented the way that electrons revolve around the atom’s nucleus, but while planets remain nearly equidistant to the sun throughout their orbits, electrons get closer and farther as they revolve around the nucleus. The analogy had caused scientists to subconsciously assume that electrons behaved like planets, and they didn’t discover that electrons move closer and farther in their orbits until they stopped using the solar system metaphor.  

The good news is that you can help safeguard against implicit, limiting beliefs by using multiple metaphors to describe the same thing. Just as expanding your habitual vocabulary broadens your emotional experiences, using multiple metaphors expands your understanding of the thing you’re using the metaphor to describe. Those additional metaphors dilute the effect of one metaphor’s limiting belief. For instance, if the scientists had multiple metaphors for atoms, then the limiting beliefs of this one metaphor wouldn’t have had such a powerful effect.  

Second, a metaphor’s meaning depends on your interpretation. For example, two people can use the metaphor that “Life is a game,” and the way each one interprets the word “game” will dictate how they approach life: One may take it to mean that life is fun while the other thinks that life is competitive. 

Third, metaphors about the nature of life on the whole—called global metaphors—have potent effects. Global metaphors color how you interpret everything, and that makes them particularly powerful. For instance, if you use a metaphor like “Life is a battle,” then you’ll automatically adopt combative beliefs and behaviors to accompany such an outlook. By the same token, making a single change to a global metaphor can have life-changing effects. If you replace “battle” with “challenge,” it can shift your approach to life so that instead of fighting your way through, you’re rising to meet the challenge. 

Finally, some metaphors are helpful in some contexts and harmful in others. For example, a metaphor that serves you well at work could cause problems at home. Successful auditors know that the devil is in the details. However, when they come home, this mindset may cause them to nitpick their spouses and children, creating problems in their relationships. 

Change Your Metaphors to Change Your Life

According to Tony Robbins, language and metaphors can dramatically change your life. To improve the way you experience life, there are several strategies you can use to adjust your habitual metaphors: 

  1. Since metaphors evoke vivid mental images, overcome a disempowering metaphor by changing the imagery. It may sound simple, but this small act changes the image in your head, which is enough to shift your emotions and put you in a more empowered mindset. For example, if you feel like you’re holding the weight of the world on your shoulders, imagine yourself setting the world down. This will relieve you of the burden of that weight, which will make it more manageable for you to move forward with your life. 
  2. When you or someone you’re with uses a metaphor, stop and ask yourself whether that metaphor accurately represents the situation. If not, brainstorm a more empowering metaphor. For example, if you become frustrated with a project at work and exclaim that you’ve hit a dead end, consider whether there are truly no options left or if you need to think outside the box.
  3. Replace disempowering metaphors with positive ones. For example, instead of calling your spouse your “ball and chain” call her your “partner” or “better half.”

Apply It: Evaluate Your Habitual Metaphors

Now, take stock of your habitual metaphors:

  1. Write down all the metaphors you use for life, including those you use when you’re in a positive state and those you use when you’re in a negative state. 
  2. Review your metaphors and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each. How does each metaphor empower you under certain circumstances? How does each one limit you under other circumstances? For example, if you use the metaphor that “all the world’s a stage,” this may be empowering when you need to advocate for yourself or others because it implies that you always have a platform to speak up and make a difference. On the other hand, it can limit you in your personal relationships because it implies that you’re always performing instead of expressing your genuine self. 
  3. Brainstorm new metaphors about life that empower and liberate you. 
  4. Next, write down all the metaphors you use about relationships and marriage. 
  5. Review your list and notice which metaphors are empowering and which are disempowering. Evaluate whether you believe that these metaphors are true, or whether you’ve been reciting them merely out of habit. 
  6. Come up with new metaphors that empower you and support strong relationships. 
  7. Now, choose the next most significant area of your life—such work or  parenthood—and write down all of your habitual metaphors in this area of your life.
  8. Review these metaphors and evaluate their positive and negative effects.
  9. Brainstorm new, empowering metaphors to employ in this area of your life. 
  10. Commit to using your new metaphors for an entire month. As you do, notice the pleasure they bring, and the pain that you’ve eliminated by discarding your old, disempowering metaphors. 

Exercise: Tony Robbins, Language, and Empowerment

Evaluate and reform your habitual language to empower yourself. 

  • Think of the last problem you faced, big or small (this could even be discovering that you’re out of milk after pouring a bowl of cereal). What’s the first question that comes to mind when you think of that problem? (For example, “Why does my roommate never take the initiative to replace things when they run out?”)
  • What is a more empowering question you can ask yourself instead? (For instance, “How can my roommate and I work out a system to let each other know when things run out?”)
  • Still thinking about this recent problem, what word would you use to describe how it made you feel?
  • How could you use Transformational Vocabulary to rephrase that feeling and reduce its impact on you? (For example, instead of “irritated” you could say that you were “a bit ruffled.”)
Transformational Vocabulary: The Power of Words

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Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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