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The Language of Failure

The Language of Failure

In the 1930s, linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf argued that language shapes thought. Language, wrote Sapir, can be considered “the mold of thought.” Languages doesn’t simply latch on to pre-existing concepts. The words themselves define the concepts available to us and provide the raw building material for our thoughts. There can be no thoughts without the words to define them.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as this argument became known, itself went on to influence social theories and, perhaps most famously, the ‘newspeak’ in George Orwell’s 1984.

I’m no linguist and I won’t try to argue over the correctness of linguistic relativity. What I find interesting is the premise that words can influence our thoughts, if not outright shaping them.

Cognitive therapy, a form of psychoanalysis, works by training a patient to recognize so-called “disordered thoughts” or cognitive distortions. Cognitive therapists suggest that, while emotional and stress disorders certainly have biological causes, we also fall into our own set of habits in our emotional and behavioral responses. These responses happen automatically, involuntary reactions to events in our lives. A car cuts you off in traffic; you get mad. You get an offer to present a paper at a prestigious conference; you get so nervous about speaking in public that you don’t sleep until the date.

Doctors Aaron Beck and David Burns suggests that these cognitive distortions don’t have to be automatic. From the viewpoint that mental disorders reflect an underlying biological cause, it would seem that we’re a slave to the chaos, unable to do anything but suffer through the misery caused by our brains.

This doesn’t appear to be the case. Cognitive therapy shows that the reverse applies: by changing our thought patterns, we can affect the underlying biology in turn.

Cognitive therapy argues that the depressed and the anxious and the angry do have the neural wiring to act this way, but they’ve trained themselves to respond to situations out of habit. When the distorted thinking appears, these people encourage it and reinforce it. It’s the thoughts — the words — that drive the emotional responses.

By intervening in the process, training themselves to intercept the automatic response and then replace it with a less-irrational narrative, patients can show a remarkable recovery — and better yet, these patients are less likely to experience a recurrence (likely because they’ve picked up new coping skills).

How we think about our selves and our circumstances can affect our biology and, in turn, our life.


Listening to motivational quotes from athletes and coaches and personal trainers, you’d think that effective exercise and good diets are battles against the demons of Hell. All the posturing, all the hardcore affirmations, all the cheap slogans. Does anyone treat a workout as an opportunity to cultivate growth, both physical and mental? Does anyone consider a healthy relationship with food?

Be strong. Be tough. Fight the cravings. Beat the pain. It’s about willpower and mental toughness, wrapped up in the language of violence. The entire fitness industry revolves around the adversarial relationship between you, comfortable and fat and sitting at your desk all day, and the healthy practices of regular exercise and eating right.

Look at the word “hardgainer”. A word with the best of intentions, meant to point out those poor souls who can’t get strong and add substantial muscle, and which has become one of the most poisonous mentalities in fitness. The hardgainers are only being honest and objective about their biological limits, of course — and in the process they internalize that negativity. That genetic limits exist is not in doubt; yet you have to wonder how effective it is to dwell on limits, to orient your training around the idea that you’ve failed before you’ve even started.

What’s this language doing to us? How does it shape our expectations and our automatic thoughts in regards to training and eating?

Here in the West, we see our minds (or souls if you prefer) as separate from the body, intangible and indestructible. Flesh inhabits the material world, the land of empirical, objective reality. The mind lives off somewhere else, free of those limitations.

Neuro-imaging studies tell a different story. Thoughts and feelings arise in the brain, as products of neurological activity. The brain convinces us that we’re inviolable spirits free of matter, and then works overtime to keep up that illusion. The brain is so good at this that some cognitive scientists call consciousness as a ‘hallucination of a hallucination of awareness’.

This includes ‘feelings about feelings’ and ‘thoughts about thoughts’. The disordered thoughts identified by cognitive therapy ‘feel right’ because of neurological behavior. Our feelings of knowing and correctness, which are feelings about thoughts, are generated by the brain. Your grocery list, being happy after a good day at the lake, and the experience of tasting ice cream are no different from your heart beat or the growth of fingernails, in that these are all biological functions.

Eastern thinking ‘uncenters’ the self. The individual ‘you’ isn’t a separate being. The self is part of the natural order, another function of the body. The self doesn’t fight the body because there is no self independent of the body. As the Zen proverb says, no snowflake ever falls in the wrong place. Things happen and the world turns and we have no bearing on that. All we can do is all we can do.

If you understand, things are just as they are;
If you do not understand, things are just as they are.

Do you really need to do battle with chocolate cake?

Is it war with pizza and Coke?

Do you really need to treat your body as the enemy to get in shape?

Research by Roy Baumeister at Florida State has shown that willpower is a scarce resource. Called ego depletion, we can actually exhaust our self-control. Force yourself to do that workout, and you can’t turn down the ice cream later. We’re encouraged, even told it’s a virtue, to shape the world according to our wants.

War with food and exercise is wasted energy. How much of your needs for “bad” things come from simple habit? Invoking “willpower” demands that you fight impulses on their terms — as giving in or not giving in. You struggle against your vices because you still want them. You beat yourself up in the gym. And you burn out because every workout, every meal, is a willpower-sapping fight.

That’s unnecessary. That’s the wrong point of view.

Te-shan was sitting outside doing zazen.
Lung-t’an asked him why he didn’t go back home.
Te-shan answered, “Because it is dark.”
Lung-t’an then lit a candle and handed it to him.
As Te-shan was about to take it, Lung-t’an blew it out.
Te-shan had a sudden realization, and bowed.

How many of your failures come from framing the situation in terms of battle and conflict? How many failures happen because you “understand your limits” and act accordingly? How many because you’re dead-set on being iron-willed and rigid in your thinking and doing?

Conflict comes from the language. You need willpower to succeed because you were told that diet and exercise are hard. You need to fight against cravings and work to stay motivated because the rest of your life is built around easy solutions. Chances are your entire viewpoint sees the world as obstacles to be overcome and reshaped to suit your needs.

Change your words and you change your thoughts.