As a writer, I have a tendency to believe that words are everything. I’m not always wrong. One of the most important things I’ve learned over time is this: everything starts with a sentence. Seriously. Everything you do in life, your achievements, failures, fears, joys… they’re all shaped by thoughts in your mind, that is, by words and sentences.
The equation looks like this: Words → Feelings → Actions → Results.
If you’re not happy about the results you have in your life, you have the power to change at least some of them by changing the story you’re telling yourself. When you change the words that frame your thoughts, your feelings, then the way you take action will follow.
They’re all tied together.
There are a lot of people offended by the idea that we “create our reality,” which they see as a version of blaming the victim. Of course, nobody asks for bad things to happen. Thinking positively alone isn’t going to lift anyone out of tragedy. But we can (and do) create much of our reality by writing it first in our minds.
My psychologist friends tell me there are three buckets in life — things we control, things we influence, and things over which we have no control.
- What we can’t control: Random events of life — the families we were born into, hurricanes, pandemics, job layoffs, car crashes… the list goes on. There are many circumstances — both positive and negative — over which we have no control at all. Thinking good thoughts isn’t keeping the avalanche from coming down the mountain or the truck from careening out of control on the highway.
- What we influence: If you walk into a room, see a stranger sitting there, and slap them in the face, that person will surely respond differently than if you had smiled and greeted them politely. You’ve influenced how that person will respond, but you don’t determine their response. There are a myriad of ways that person might respond to you — your aggression upon meeting them will be, however, a strong influencer!
- What we can control: How we perceive/interpret/think about the events in our life generates our feelings about those events, as well as how we subsequently respond with our behavior. You choose what the story will be. Your opening sentence can be, “I’m strong and competent and I’m finishing writing that article today,” or it can be, “Oh, no! I have to finish that article today! I don’t know if I can!” Big difference.
Thinking pretty thoughts will never make the world a pretty place. Wars are fought, famine exists, people do unspeakably terrible things to each other. Giving yourself empowering sentences to start your day isn’t going to change any of that.
But sometimes it can change your perspective enough to make your life a little easier, a little better. George Lakoff has famously written about how framing a situation puts the power in the hands of the framer. “This gives us a basic principle of framing for when you are arguing against the other side: Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame — and it won’t be the frame you want.” So you can start by framing situations the way you want them framed, using the words and sentences you choose.
Try this example. Your significant other breaks up with you. Your sentence is, “No one will ever love me again,” then chances are good you’ll feel terrible — and find it easier to engage in negative behaviors. If on the other hand the sentence you attach to the event is, “I’m glad this loser is out of my life,” then you’re likely to feel and act quite differently. You choose which sentence defines your experience.
This is where the creating part gets serious. When you think the same thing over and over again, it becomes a belief. Beliefs create a cognitive lens through which you filter and interpret the events of your world, checking the environment for evidence that matches up with what you believe to be true. That causes a physical reaction. Your brain, primed by belief, shuts competing neural networks down, making it difficult for you to see evidence of something contrary to your belief. I won’t underline the examples of this process taken from the political world; they’re probably obvious. But let’s use a personal example: If you complain all the time, you’ll find more things about which to complain, and fewer things that will satisfy you.
You write the story of what you think is likely and/or possible based on what you believe is true, and then you take actions consistent with those expectations. When you act on what you expect will happen before it actually happens, you participate in creating the experience… what some people call a self-fulfilling prophecy. We act in ways likely to bring about what we believe is true.
That’s the very definition of creating your reality.
Will there always be things that happen that are outside of your control? Absolutely. But what you do to frame your sense of yourself and your agency, and how you react to the world — the words and sentences you use — is how you shape and create your life.
Whatever direction your words lead, your mind, body, and environment will follow. So… everything starts with a sentence.