"Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble."
I am a lover of words and the power they hold to heal or hurt. The stories we tell ourselves can change in an instant if we retell the narrative with different words. As a coach and counselor, I know how brains, and lives, change with the action of eradicating words from our internal language.
One of the words that is not allowed in my home is “fault”.
Like most words, on its own, the word fault is not a word that most people would think twice about. Saying that something is my fault sounds like I’m taking responsibility for my actions. But, when it’s combined with a negative narrative, there is really no room for growth, and it creates shame.
In my own journey of understanding my internal brain habits, for one day I kept a list of all the negative words that I was saying to myself. I wrote them down on a sheet of paper – it was a long list and a long day. I was shocked by how many times the word “fault” came into my brain in the internal chaos of my mind. Here are a few of the self-conversations that showed up on my list:
“Well, that was my fault because I should have known better.”
“I can’t believe I did that…totally my fault.”
“That was NOT my fault. It was <insert name>’s fault so not my bad decision.”
As my own child began using this word at the age of two when telling his own stories, I was forced to take a step back and take stock in the language I use on myself that was infecting my kid. After a kid-kind of mistake, my beautiful, two-year-old son said, “That’s my fault. I’m a bad kid”. I felt like my heart had been torn in two. More importantly, I knew that his language was coming from our household and had to stop and ask myself if it was coming from me and I didn’t like the answer.
So, I banned the word from my house and replaced it with the word “responsibility”. The results have been a family that unintentionally uses shame on us and others to a family that accepts responsibility and focuses on change.
How does it change the narrative?
“That’s my fault. I’m a bad kid.” → “I take responsibility for that action and here’s what I’m going to do next time.”
“I can’t believe I did that. Totally my fault.” → “I take responsibility for that action. My brain wasn’t working well so I’ll do ____ instead.”
“That was NOT my fault. It was <insert name>’s fault so not my bad decision.” → “My responsibility in this was_______.”
Changing the word fault to responsibility totally changes the self-blame game narrative and creates space for grace for ourselves and others. “Fault” feels like a big finger pointing at me, and that’s not usually something that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.
The change has been so good for our family, but it’s a process and a journey, just like all other change. Try these strategies to get started in changing your own family narrative:
What are you saying to yourself?
While we like to think our internal narratives are only internal, we bleed these thoughts into our family through reactions. A loud external sigh of frustration because of what you’re saying to yourself will be picked up by your kid and your kid will internalize it.
For just one day, write down the language you are saying to yourself. You will be shocked at that negative internal language.
What are you saying to your family?
If you aren’t acting, you’re reacting. In these reactionary moments, the stuff that comes out of our mouths, the tone and the body language speak volumes to the people around us, even if they don’t recognize it’s happening. Our brains are designed to pick up subtleties and interpret them. What my son was able to tell me as we worked on the emotional culture of our family was a “tone” he was picking up as I was attempting to correct behaviors.
A tone that I had no idea I was putting out and it was producing a level of shame in him that he was internalizing into his own negative narrative. I still have that tone sometimes, but he understands the tone is about me, and not him, and the internal language I’m responding to in these moments.
Create a new emotional family culture.
Ban the words – it’s that simple. Whatever words are coming up over and over and creating a shame-culture, ban them from the family conversations. Make it fun by requiring a payment to a “Fun” jar every time someone uses the word then use the money collected to do something fun as a family. As a family, come up with a replacement word that changes the narrative: bad to imperfect, fault to responsibility, failure to mistakes. You might be tempted to make the changes yourself (I did initially because control is what I do) but having your family’s buy-in will create the change.
While the change will take time, it will have lasting effects for generations to come.
Mattie is a counselor, coach and CEO of Cerebrations, LLC. With over 25 years of experience in understanding how the brain affects our emotions, reactions, and our experiences, she is passionate about empowering women to harness the power of their brain and body connection to create intentional action and deeper connections with their families. You can reach her at email@example.com or by scheduling a free consult chat.