WORDS CREATE WORLDS:
The Power of What We Say About Others
and What We Hear About Ourselves
By Hailey Hechtman
Twitter: @HaileyHechtmanIG: @hh.healthyliving
Hailey Hechtman is a social impact leader, mental health advocate and Executive Director of Causeway Work Centre. She is passionate about inspiring positive change through community collaboration, constant learning and self reflection. Watch her interview on 'Life Outside the Box' here.
"There is immense untapped potential in every person, whether they know it or not, and our interactions with each other can be a springboard for helping one another discover facets of ourselves that we did not previously see."
Let’s rewind. I’m 19 years old, a university student taking a degree in psychology. I am someone who has spent my entire life up until this point thinking about how I can fulfill the needs of others. I have been engrossed completely down a path of being there for everyone else, and have taken little time to reflect on who I am and what place I have in the world beyond my friends circle and my tiny apartment in Kingston.
One day, before classes start, I head to a campus club event. I walk around aimlessly, making casual chit chat with people excitedly promoting their booths. I have a tote bag filled with brochures, with swag from groups across campus looking to recruit fresh faces to their cause.
When I get home, I pour the contents out onto my coffee table, scattering stickers, pens, pamphlets and one little magnet. The magnet is for a distress line. I put it on my fridge and forget about it. Weeks later, I am up late at night, pondering my future and thinking “how can I get a degree that is meant to understand people and their motivations, yet am never expected to interact outside of class or my textbook?” I go into the kitchen to make myself a snack and see that magnet. I read it closely. There is a number and a website on it to inquire about volunteering. It dawns on me that this phone number on a fridge magnet could be the answer to my question and so I reach out. This little moment set me down an unexpected path. Not only did I end up spending 5 years with that organization but it led to a love of mental health services, to a role in leadership, to a discovery of a passion for program design and to a career spent working in the non-profit sector, first as a volunteer and now as an Executive Director. That magnet opened a door to possibilities I didn’t even know about.
This story is not a unique one, we all have hundreds of moments throughout our lives that lead to new beginnings and yet the idea that instances that feel fleeting can be ones with the power to ignite or erode is a powerful one. If something like an innocuous fridge magnet mixed among pens and postcards can lend itself to a lifetime of challenges and excitement, what about the way we interact with one another?
"All of these examples, the deep conversations sitting on a beach with our best friend watching the sunrise, or the short reel of an Influencer on a sleepy Saturday morning, carry a tremendous weight because we often look to others as a barometer for how we see the world and how we see ourselves."
What about those encounters in an auditorium where we are awkwardly asked by a professor during an ice breaker activity to introduce ourselves to the person to our left who becomes a lifelong friend? What about that time we were in elementary school and a teacher told us that we had a natural affinity towards writing and gave us an A on that paper, leading to years of writing articles on topics that send us down Wikipedia rabbit holes for hours on end? What about that time when we went to speak to a teaching assistant right after a statistics exam, shakily handing them our failed assignment, asking for help and they told us that math just wasn’t our strong suit? Do these little moments change how we see ourselves? Do they shape what we feel we are good at and therefore lead us to pursue what other people identified as our talents? Do they discourage us from ever trying to tackle the areas that someone else self-described as a weakness?
It is in thinking back on these times in our lives, these intersection points with another person whether they were close to us or were someone we met that one time in a poorly lit office in the back of a campus building, that we can recognize the sheer power that split-second opinions can have on us. Through our words, through our reactions, through our silence, we have the power to excite and empower someone into exploring new aspects of themselves. qually, we have the ability to discourage, dismiss and leave them with lifelong questioning, an insecurity that they didn’t even know they needed to have.
This may sound so dramatic, I mean did that stranger that you once told had a beautiful singing voice after you heard them jam out at a karaoke bar at 2am quit grad school to pursue a newfound dream of becoming a musician? Probably not. Yet that shouldn’t lead us to discount how our voice can impact the people we encounter.
This isn’t just true of our direct exchanges, like the chat we had on a friend’s couch on a lazy Sunday morning encouraging us to ask that guy out on second date, or that positive comment left on our paper encouraging us to keep writing, it is also in our indirect observations of one another.
Have you ever watched an Instagram story of a person that you have never met, yet something they say completely resonates with you? Have you ever watched a day in the life YouTube video where someone on the other side of the world was brave enough to say that they were struggling with someone that has been keeping you up at night? Have ever scrolled by a quote that stops you in your tracks and makes you rethink your perspective on a problem that you have been mulling over in your head for months? These too are instances that can have undeniable impact. Other people sharing themselves vulnerably, being honest, open, and real can give us a sense of knowing them and can even reinforce a better knowledge of ourselves. These sneak peeks into their reality can be a window into our own life and can inspire action that we may be a little braver to take now that we know someone else tried and lived through it.
"Armed with the view that how we see others can be a difference maker in how they see themselves, we can also turn the flashlight around and point it at ourselves. We can use this understanding as source material for self-reflection, an acknowledgment that maybe what other people say about us isn’t true."
All of these examples, the deep conversations sitting on a beach with our best friend watching the sunrise, or the short reel of an Influencer on a sleepy Saturday morning, carry a tremendous weight because we often look to others as a barometer for how we see the world and how we see ourselves. Reminding ourselves of this on a daily basis can lead us not only to be more inquisitive into our own reasons for things (is it my voice or someone else’s that has led to this thought, behaviour, opinion), but can encourage us to be intentional in the ways we speak to others. We can use this knowledge as a gift, as a tool to help us in inspiring those around us to see themselves from a different angle.
There is immense untapped potential in every person, whether they know it or not, and our interactions with each other can be a springboard for helping one another discover facets of ourselves that we did not previously see. We can notice excitement, we can be attentive to that twinkle in their eye, we can influence others to see the magic in their strengths. We can encourage them to pursue avenues less travelled and amplify boldness towards something that lights them up.
Equally, what comes with this understanding of our words is an awareness that the things that we say can also have the opposite effect. Telling someone that they are not good at something can lead to years of them believing that it is true. Remember that stats teaching assistant? Did they consider that I am an auditory learner? Did they recognize that talking through a problem and having a rationale behind why I am using a formula could be the difference maker in that class? Being curious about the areas that someone is struggling in can enlighten new ways of learning and therefore can move us from “I suck at this” to “Maybe it just hasn’t clicked for me yet. Are there other ways that I can learn and approach the content?”
Armed with the view that how we see others can be a difference maker in how they see themselves, we can also turn the flashlight around and point it at ourselves. We can use this understanding as source material for self-reflection, an acknowledgment that maybe what other people say about us isn’t true. When we have areas of self-consciousness, instead of taking all of those comments as an anthology of data proving that we are not good enough, we can ask ourselves “whose voice is it that I am hearing?” Is it my own voice, reflecting on my own personal experiences, or is it my dad’s voice telling me that I did a half-assed job? Is it my experiences of trial and error, or is it the write-off from a teacher who made me practice writing in cursive over and over again because how I curved my V's just wasn’t proper enough to write in the real world? Are the words said by others meant from a place of love? Would they be able to defend them with facts and figures? Do they believe them at their core? If not, who cares. If yes, then take a moment, reflect for yourself, take what feels true to you, dive deeper into the questions left unanswered and walk away from anything that doesn’t serve you. Because in the wise words of Morgan Harper Nichols, “One day you will look back and see that all along you were blooming”.