Do words bring change? I’ve heard all my life that words are powerful, but do some have more power than others?

I think it’s easy for most of us to see the difference between different phrases and tones. Often, even the one speaking to us makes a difference in how we take their meaning. Some people can say something negative that doesn’t affect me much at all, while others can crush me with a simple look.

In my book Igniting Embers, the heroine is worried about the incoming hurricane. She repeats phrases from Scripture to remind herself Who she belongs to and Who watches over her: The Lord is my Shepherd, my Rock and my Fortress.

Other than a quick pick-me-up or feel good moment, does this practice of repeating Scripture do any good? What about other, non-biblical positive self-talk? Do the words you think or say bring change or affect your behavior?

The Building Consensus

Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another. ~Napoleon Hill, American author

Various pastors over the last several years have made a big deal out of God’s spoken word. God spoke — not thought — the world into existence, they say. And they’re right. Often, this leads them to encourage us to pray out loud, to speak our prayers rather than just think them.

I’ve found speaking to God to be more concrete than thinking. When I use my mouth, I must choose words and phrases that communicate rather than just thinking about general feelings about whatever topic is circling in my head. When my prayers never leave my mind, I don’t always get around to actually asking anything. And I tend to allow my thoughts to ramble, never stopping long enough to allow God time to say anything back to me.

Self Talk’s Growing Acceptance

Ever heard of Zig Ziglar? I first heard him speak in the mid-1990’s and was captivated. Entertaining and lively, he had a way of communicating that grabbed hold of people and spoke undeniable truth. He promoted positive self talk, believing that what you think molds who you are, can actually bring change to your life.

Research is not only proving him right, it’s stating it in concrete terms: What we say affects what we believe.

The Most Powerful Words

I once read a study done by Vanessa Patrick, professor of marketing at the University of Houston C. T. Bauer College of Business. You can read the full report for yourself here.

1. The words “I can’t” are effective.

Most of us have tried to limit unhealthy habits at some point in our lives. It turns out that when our focus is related to an external cause, say losing a couple of pounds, using the words “I can’t” is pretty effective. As the study notes, those words signal “commitment and accountability to the cause and emphasizes the value of the goal, which one simply must not forsake.”

So you can temporarily curb a sugar addiction to lose a couple pounds and fit into that new dress. Termporarily. That’s not the long-term effects most of us want to see.

2. Accountability can be three times more powerful.

In a very small study based on her other research, Professor Patrick found that control subjects (those who weren’t coached to say anything to themselves) were three times more successful than those who said, “I can’t” when they were part of an accountability group.

Just knowing they were supposed to report to someone, admit what they’d done and how successful they were carried great mental power. It’s the success behind many great programs to lose weight or alter bad habits.

But that technique still limits long-term success rates because many people become dependent on the support rather than the changes. And if they leave the group for any reason (move, the group dissolves, leadership change, etc.), their motivation ebbs away.

3. The words “I don’t” reign supreme if you want to bring change.

When it comes to making internal changes that affect our thought processes and behaviors, the words we need to use are “I don’t.”

The study authors state that these words suggest “a stable and unchanging stance that invokes the self (‘this is who I am’).” Scientific American quotes Professor Patrick: “Saying ‘I can’t’ connotes deprivation, while saying ‘I don’t’ makes us feel empowered and better able to resist temptation.”

For example, if health or financial choices lead us to say, “I don’t eat fast food,” that statement becomes part of who we are. It ingrains itself into our thought processes, stiffens our resolve, and changes our behavior. It doesn’t matter why any more than it matters why we go to church or why we thank our waitress. We do this because it is who we are.


What we say with our mouth, our mind takes as fact whether we believe it or not.  ~Havilah Cunnington, American author and speaker

Most of my life, I was taught to be careful with my words. Often, the adult admonishing the reminder meant to protect those around me that would be hurt with my thoughtless words, but it turns out that what I say also matters for my own health and well-being.

Self talk matters, as do the words we each choose to use about our beliefs and actions.


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The Embers Series

Inspector Cassandra McCarthy never thought she’d be raising her two daughters alone, but her husband’s unexpected death forced her to find a career. Now working beside a retired Special Operations soldier and veteran fireman, she serves her small North Carolina town, protecting them from hazards they don’t understand. She loves what she does and trusts God to provide—until a hurricane and a series of unexplained fires hit too close to home. What will it cost Cassandra to protect the citizens of Silver Heights?

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