What's in a Word?

by Elaine Bellenoit


The words we use matter. Whether we define them or not and how we define them matters. But we tend to use words or phrases without giving them context or properly defining them. Take the phrase “self-care.”


Self-care is one of the latest phrases that you hear everywhere. But what does it mean for you? Self-care can vary widely from person to person. When a word gets used so much in different contexts, without ever being truly defined within that context, we lose our authentic connection with it. It is covered with the thoughts, feelings, and vague definitions of those using it and then filtered through the connotations (from past experiences) of the person hearing it.


To make things worse, our minds have no objection to this most of the time. Our minds are happy to let that word come in, and file it where it deems fit, often unconsciously. The mind does this in a split second, usually without question. So if we hear a word or phrase we’ve heard before and we think we know what it means, our minds don’t stop to question its meaning or the context it’s being used in.


If we have a bad association with a word, we will have a negative reaction to it. If the word has been used in a positive context, we might heighten its importance. For instance, we may have heard that “self-care” means getting a manicure, and if we don’t value spending money on that type of service, we might dismiss the idea of self-care. But if we question this definition, we find our personal idea of self-care is taking some time alone to read a book or go for a hike and we might want to explore it more.


Let’s take the word “work.” Now think about how many layers and meanings that word can have to different people. I might hate my job and the word “work” brings a flood of unconscious feelings such as my discomfort around my boss, my feeling of being taken for granted, and my anger at the customers who yell at me when I try to enforce a policy that I didn’t put in place.


Another person might have a mixed connotation with the word “work.” Their grandfather used to talk about the value of working for his money, about the benefits of doing something with purpose and coming home tired but fulfilled. This person may have a generally positive view of work because they admire their grandfather but may not be fulfilled in their own job. Therefore, they might feel confused or conflicted.


We are often not pushed to define words or phrases we use. You’ve probably heard politicians with different philosophies talk about “freedoms” or “what the American people want” when in reality those words mean very different things to many different Americans. And yet many times we just assume their words match the associations we have with those words. We have either a positive or negative response, and never get the specifics. Speeches by politicians are often meant to stir emotions one way or another and can be vague enough that if questioned, they can claim it was taken out of context.


How do words relate to values?


I believe words are worth defining. If we can’t define what self-care is, how do we know how to prioritize it and incorporate it into our lives?


Many of us redefined our definitions of “work” during the pandemic. We may have believed the only way we could be productive was behind our desk, never missing a day at the office, but then realized we could adapt, and actually can get more work done without the distractions of the office. The beliefs and values about work that we hadn’t questioned before kept us going to work each day without a thought to structure or how things could be done differently.


Maybe we thought we were happy with our lives, and were working towards a degree that would make us more money (because that’s what the people around us thought was a good idea). But by asking deeper questions, we discovered that being debt-free or changing careers entirely might be more fulfilling.


We get ideas from others about what’s good for us, and what we “should” value. One generation may value a college education, while others might balk at the prospect of a load of student debt with no promise of a job.


What can we do about it?


We can take the time to define our relationship with certain words and the beliefs behind them. We can ask ourselves where this belief about work came from. When we know what “work” means to us and how it fits into our lives, we can make tweaks and prioritize things differently.


We might discover that we do value earning our money, but that "earning" means the quality, not the quantity of effort we put in. We might find that "earning" doesn't have to mean 80-hour work weeks in a job that doesn't fulfill us and allows for no life balance.


Simply put, possibilities open up when we are clear about what we value and why.

It is only by questioning our beliefs and how we define words, that we can truly learn what we want and need. And we can start to prioritize our life around our particular belief system, considering the ones closest to us, and what we value as a community.