Speak with Truth, Kindness & Necessity: Our Words Literally Restructure Our Brain


Path at Park

Say what is true and kind and necessary.

The words we use change us in the moment they are spoken, and, over time, change our brain.

Positive words engage the brain region responsible for understanding the big picture, active listening, respect, problem solving and empathy. Negative words engage the fear center. After many years of working with clients in high conflict situations on how to communicate without escalating, I agree the researchers have a point.

Recently, a client called with a typical communication challenge many experience. This woman was challenged by how to decline an invite from her mother-in-law. She was stuck in how to explain her decline; how the marital difficulties were in the way of accepting the invitation. Nothing felt quite right.

‘Explaining why’ is generally not recommended. It often compels the receiver to take offense, or to defend against the ‘why’. Marital difficulties, especially involving a personality-disordered partner, often present conflicted feelings about interacting with in-laws. Many want to preserve the connection and relationship, yet face interference from their spouse, or ex-spouse.

Instead of creating explanations, I asked this woman to listen to ‘What her heart wanted to say?’ What is True? Kind? Necessary?

Freed up from old thinking patterns, she formed this response: “At another time and under other circumstances, I would love to join you, but it is not possible at this time. You are dear to me.” By setting aside her fear, and the need to explain, she could speak from the heart. The task was easy, heartfelt, kind.

There is no kind way to tell a mother-in-law her child/your spouse is narcissistic, borderline, sociopathic, or using again, and is unsafe to be around. The obstacle: “I can’t think of what to say and nothing feels right,” was replaced with feelings of ease, warmth, and “this is lovely”.

The brain forms strong neuropathways in patterns where our thoughts most often go. A useful analogy for neuropathways in the brain would be our roads, highways and super highways. Most traffic uses the biggest highways and relatively little traffic uses the dirt and grass driveway to the cabin. A person in relationship with a personality-disordered individual is very accustomed to defending themselves by explaining why. Over time and with much practice, the brain is very wired to automatically transport via this Explain Why superhighway.

Driving 500 miles on gravel back roads is more challenging than doing so on an interstate highway. We generally take the easier, and efficient, way. Human nature chooses what is familiar, even if it is not in our best interest. Superhighways have their place, as does strong brain wiring. Mastering any skill automatically wires in superhighways. Mastering the art of defensiveness and explaining why is also a superhighway. Sometimes our journey calls for a slower pace to enjoy the natural beauty along the way to the same destination. The end result is that no matter how kind your intentions, explanations come from the fear region of the brain and do you little good. The habit forms when trying to defend your self over and over. Explanations do not work with a personality-disordered partner with narcissism (NPD) or borderline (BPD). Contrary to what you intend, your explanation backfires. It gives your partner more information to use against you in the future. It tells them their tactics (blame you, derail the focus away from them) are working. If explanations were truly effective, they would have worked a long time ago.

Releasing the destructive need to explain why, the brain needs to rewire new pathways. A new traveler of the back roads may not realize such beauty exists. Once traveled, the ease and joy brings motivation to repeat the behavior. Over time, different parts of the brain engage where attitudes and beliefs are reshaped to be more positive, and life affirming. Leading with a higher vibration from the heart, repeating until it is habit, the brain re-wires to suit a more empowered, centered, and balanced better self.

The bottom line is that we want to listen carefully to what we are thinking. Some negative and self-limiting thoughts formed pathways fraught with potholes, which will throw our ‘wheels’ out of alignment.

What do the researchers say? Here is an excerpt from the research noted in Spirit Science, “Speak with Kindness: How Your Words Literally Restructure Your Brain”. The article explains the merits of positive word choice and the downfall of negative words from the perspective of brain research.

“Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, and Mark Robert Waldman, a communications expert, collaborated on the book, “Words Can Change Your Brain.” In it, they write, “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.

When we use words filled with positivity, like “love” and “peace”, we can alter how our brain functions by increasing cognitive reasoning and strengthening areas in our frontal lobes. Using positive words more often than negative ones can kick-start the motivational centers of the brain, propelling them into action.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when we use negative words, we are preventing certain neuro-chemicals from being produced, which contribute to stress management. Each and every one of us is initially hardwired to worry; it’s how our primal brain protects us from dangerous situations for survival.

So, when we allow negative words and concepts into our thoughts, we are increasing the activity in our brain’s fear center (the amygdala), and causing stress-producing hormones to flood our system. These hormones and neurotransmitters interrupt the logic and reasoning processes in the brain and inhibit normal functionality. Newberg and Waldman write, “Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes.” 1

1 Spirit Science. http://thespiritscience.net/2016/05/18/your-words-can-change-your-brain/


If you read to this point, bravo! You are already on a path to communication ease and freedom. You are already on a new thinking pathway. Give yourself permission to learn more effective ways to communicate, while also realistically seeing your partner for who he/she is, not who you want him/her to be. Difficult personality disorders cannot empathize. They only know how to attack and blame and derail focus away from themselves. If you are partnered in such an environment, you have rehearsed how to defend yourself. When attacked, it is natural to defend. You have wasted countless hours second-guessing yourself, doubting your decisions. There are more effective ways to navigate difficult conflicts. Your fully alive life awaits you.


Call to Action

  1. On your own, pay attention to your thoughts when you are afraid, or feeling the need to defend.
  2. I urge you to seek the help of a professional, trained specifically to understand the nuances of a relationship involving a personality-disordered partner. Those Explain and Defend superhighways are compellingly deceptive. Years of habituation can be undone in relatively short time with a guide to coach you to freedom from doubt, guilt, and second guessing your self.


© 2016 Maren Beckman & Associates. All rights reserved.

“How do we communicate better?”

The most common request I hear as a relationship coach is

“How do I/we communicate better?”

and the single most expressed complaint is the lack of good communication. Requests to improve communication move me to curiosity.

Questions I ask couples include:

  • What are you saying, and how are you saying it, when you best communicate? Is it physical expression? Are you stellar at storytelling and communicating stories of your friends’ experiences, or your children’s? Do you sometimes know what your partner is thinking without having spoken a word? Do you excel at seeing your partner’s heart through their eyes? How do you best communicate?
  • What situations, or topics, are difficult to talk about?
  • When do you notice trouble communicating? Is it all the time? Sometimes? When? 
  • How does your partner answer these questions? Where are your perspectives aligned?

Everyone is challenged to be their best communicator when overly stressed, under tight deadlines, fatigued, hungry, exhausted, or ill. Cut yourself some slack if you occasionally bomb the talk under these circumstances. If you consistently seem to fall short of your objectives in communication, realize that unless you have a natural ability to communicate well (in which case you probably are not reading this article), or you seriously studied speech, writing, communication, debate, etc, you picked up what you know of communication from your home and social environment. Give yourself, and others, permission to be beginner communication students.

Talking is easy. Saying what you want to say so that you get the results you want to get is more complex than simply talking.  One couple, Mary and Joe, come to me with a request, to learn how to communicate better. As they sit in my office, Joe is looking down at the floor, obviously distressed, while Mary shares a painful event from earlier in her day at work. Each is caught up in their own story and not connecting with the other. I wonder how often their communication looks like this? To feel heard and acknowledged, Mary needs her partner, Joe, to make eye contact and move his body closer to hers. These she needs to feel heard and valued in this moment. All of this IS communication, though it is not so much about the words spoken as the unspoken actions. It is critical that partners be aware of the physicality of each person. Highly important elements of communication include eye contact, moving closer to partner, touching (holding a hand, or putting an arm around the partner’s shoulder, etc.), and turning towards a partner. Mary’s caught up in her own hurt and the emotional challenge to share and risk her vulnerability. Joe may be listening, or may be off in his own world. In either case, Joe misses a key opportunity to validate Mary’s hurt by making eye contact with her.  If he is having his own challenge listening or supporting, Joe has a responsibility to voice what’s going on for him. In the absence of his sharing, Mary makes something up, probably something negative, and the couple misses a point of connection. Communication takes a hit. Their relationship is dinged.

Everyone needs “Three A’s”: Acceptance, Appreciation, and Acknowledgment, from partners, family, parents, employer, friends; basically from everyone who counts in a person’s life. It is most important for couples to exchange these three A’s regularly and consistently. When communicating, we seek acceptance, acknowledgment and appreciation. Mary had a troubling work experience and needed her partner, Joe, to look at her as acknowledgment of her hurt, and accept her by physically turning toward her, demonstrating his care for her well being. Failing to communicate Acceptance, Appreciation and Acknowledgment is still a communication.

When we validate, we demonstrate our support, acceptance, or recognition of our partner. Such recognition is like depositing "emotional currency” into a relationship bank account. Oh, you didn’t know your relationship had such an account? I invite you to think of your relationship in banking analogies, as an account ready for deposits and withdrawals. Your actions and words fall into one of the two activities. I challenge you to think in these terms, pausing before you respond to your partner. How about setting a goal of building a robust relationship account? Whatever we do in relationship falls into one of two categories: deposit or withdrawal. Listening, really listening, by making eye contact and being curious about what is going on for your partner, are wonderful ways to contribute emotional currency deposits.


Questions for reflection and personal/relational growth:

  • What can you do or say to communicate your acknowledgment of your partner?
  • How do you demonstrate your appreciation? If you say you appreciate, how genuine and heartfelt are your words? What could boost them up a level?
  • How does your partner acknowledge you? Is it enough? Is it genuine?  Is there a withholding? 
  • Are you and your partner different in your communication styles, yet able to be balanced in your differences? 
  • Where and how do you communicate well? Pause and reflect on this. Write down everything about your communication that you do well. Once you have captured this, go to part two: how can you take what you do well and apply it to other situations? 

© 2015 Maren Beckman