A Self-Storied Life: How to Choose Words to Build the ‘House’ in Which You Live

The words we choose build the 'house' in which we live. In this 10-question process, you'll use your imagination and awareness to select words to represent your intentions, moving forward.
July 7, 2021

A Self-Storied Life: How to Choose Words to Build the ‘House’ in Which You Live

About twice every year, I carefully select a few words to represent my intentions and goals for how I want to live and “be” in the months ahead. It usually happens at the start of a New Year and right now, at the halfway-is point of the calendar year.

You can think of this exercise as intention-setting, but really, it’s much more than that.

Rather than existing as a run-of-the-mill New Year’s Resolution or a commitment to a “thing” that I might want to do, the words I choose represent the internal, inner-worldly place from which I want to live, moving forward.

The words I choose are those with which I wish to build my “house,” a sentiment based upon one of my favorite poems from 14th century Sufi Muslim poet, Hafiz, who wrote, “The words we speak become the house we live in.”

According to Hafiz, our words and stories build a proverbial “house” — an invisible, personal space that we inhabit within ourselves. It is from this place that we depart to engage with the world, invite in our loved ones and friends, and return home from venturing out to work, and so on.

In less poetic terms, what Hafiz means to say is that our words are representations of our perceptions as human beings. Our perceptions largely (but not entirely) shape our realities.

The words that we use are not just tools for communicating; they represent the narrative fabric of how we understand anything, at all. Words aren’t only a means for sharing ideas, they create our understandings of who we are and why we do what we do. Our words craft stories of meaning, significance, and relevance. Our words represent our felt experiences, our reasons for being, our values and beliefs, and our motivations for dreaming and striving and trying to live well.

Altogether, the words we think, speak and share create a sort of “home” in which we dwell.

My questions for you today my friend, are:

— How aware are you of the words that you have been using lately to build the “house” in which you’ve been living?

— What words and stories have been building the “house” of your perceptions of reality?

— What, in turn, has the “house” in which you’ve been living come to feel like? What has the figurative place from which you’ve been living out your days become, for you? Is that where you want to live? What words and stories might you like to replace if you were to rebuild that house, from the bottom, up?

Today, I’m sharing a 10-part creative process for using your imagination to shed light on the so-called “house” in which you’ve been living lately.

This is a playful, creative exercise in which you’ll describe the figurative home that your words and stories have built so far this year, and then, you’ll do some metaphorical “DIY” demolition and reconstruction, HGTV style(!), to support the life you want to live using your words and stories.

Ready to dive in? Let’s go!

How to Rebuild the “House” in Which You’ve Been Living Lately

Part 1. Craft an image of your “house.”

If it’s true that “the words we speak build the house we live in,” what is the proverbial “house” in which you have been living, so far this year? We begin with an honest and personal reflection on your feeling states to cast some conscious awareness and intentionality around the oftentimes subtle, subconscious, or unspoken reality of your experiences of late. Awareness is power!

1a) What words, do you suppose, have built the “foundation” of your house, so far this year? What words have you spoken most often, heard yourself say a lot, or been thinking quite a bit? Try to come up with 5-10.

Think of core feeling states, felt experiences, things you’ve been thinking a lot about, and so on.  For example: Pandemic, finding childcare, getting back to the gym, working out more, dealing with burnout, feeling stressed, trying hard to make things work, budgeting my expenses, wanting a vacation, needing to explore

1b) What stories have those words come to represent in your lived experience of life, lately? Write a sentence or two per word and assign it a “storied” meaning, some significance, or its relevance/importance to you right now. What stories have built up the house in which you’re “living” lately?

For example: A word like “burnout” might be storied with, “After the last 18 months of solo child care, I’m completely burned out and feeling empty.” A word like “creative” might become, “After following the rules and feeling unfulfilled in my career for far too long, I feel ready to get creative and begin writing my first novel!”

1c) Next, describe your figurative “house” as if it were a real place. Based on these words and stories, what has the “house you live in” come to look like, feel like, sound like? Get as creative as you like in your descriptions of it! Aim for a few sentences to a paragraph, but always take more room to expand into your writing if you are called to do so!

For example: “My house has come to look a bit dilapidated. I imagine it as a quaint, seaside colonial that has been beaten by a few too many winters and unforgiving but sweet salty air. She is in desperate need of some loving care. The yard blue siding is faded and her white trim is peeling. The garden in need of weeding. But the window placements on left and right are still perfectly symmetrical, as they always have been, creating a semblance of order and offering a sense of deep and enduring confidence. The brick chimney overhead, offset to the left, artfully breaks the symmetry; it is appealing to the eye. The trees in the yard are still thick, healthy, and strong as ever. This place feels ready for surface love to represent the love within it, that’s all.

1d) How does it feel to “live” there, in this house that your words and stories have been building lately? Are you comfortable there, or resentful of the place? Is there room for loved ones, your passions, your interests, your callings? Or is it sparse, empty, austere, unforgiving? Are you eager or reluctant to leave there to venture into the world? Do you resist going back to it, or find solace and peace in returning to your home, every evening?

For example: “The words and stories that have built up my home, lately, have felt scarce, protective, and functional over beautiful. Like I have been fighting to survive, and let the face of my being take the neglect. Stories like ‘Just keep your head above water’ have boarded up the windows to keep threats away, but also, shut out the light of day. I want to break those boards down and receive the light again. I don’t want to knock this place down and start over: I know that all the essential elements are there. I know that my foundation is strong; but, on the surface, I want this place to better represent my health, my wholeness, my abundance. I want it to feel inviting for others to visit, and step inside.”

Part 2. Plan for demolition!

Get your sledgehammer ready: it’s time to start swinging for the words and stories that no longer serve you so you can begin to knock them out of your vocabulary, moving forward!

2a) Reference your most frequently used words or stories that you have been using and reusing to build your proverbial house, so far this year. Out of that list, which words and stories are you the most tired, frustrated, bored, or exhausted from hearing yourself use, think, write, speak, and share? Identify 3-5 words that you’re tired of having used to build your “house”.

For example, you might pinpoint “Pandemic, stressed, trying” as words that need replacing in your house, the most, these days.

2b) Next, reflect: why do these words need to go? As you look at them together, what combined story, cumulative experience, or big picture outlook/perception have they been reinforcing for you, that no longer serves you? Why are you ready to “knock them out” of the house you’re building for yourself, moving forward?

For example: Together, the words ‘pandemic’, ‘stressed’, and ‘trying’ have come to represent a story of scarcity from which I feel ready to move on. I understand why this story — shaped by circumstances and events beyond my control — has come to build my house. But I’m ready now to replace them, moving forward.

Part 3. Gather some new words for your rebuild.

If words build the internal “house” of your perceptions and outlook, it’s time to visit the proverbial hardware store to stock up on some good, juicy, strong, important, meaningful, invigorating words that you’ll use to renovate your inner-worldly space, moving forward. How would you like to redesign or renovate or refresh your “house,” looking ahead?

3a) Brainstorm a new list of 10 to 15 enticing words that represent new feeling states, values, intentions, and desires for your “house” remodel! List the words as they come to mind, and aim to make your list full of things and ideas (nouns), descriptive words (adjectives), and even some action words (verbs) to stock up in prep for your demolition job.

HINT: Something I like to do is to type words into Thesaurus.com or a related synonym dictionary and peruse the suggested words there that may not be in my natural vernacular, but feel like great representations of what words might represent my “house” moving forward!

For example: Abundance, Plentitude, Ample, Fortune, Strength, Well-Being, Invitation, Vigor, Community, Convivial, Gathering, Cherish

3b) Out of the new list of aspirational words that you’ve selected, narrow your list down to your top 3-5: the words that you want to use to replace the old, outdated, words and stories of your last half-year and will prioritize to build into “your house” for the remainder of the year. What are your top 3-5 new words to build with? If you swapped out those few old words and stories for new ones, which would you choose? Why?

For example: “The words with which I wish to rebuild my house, moving forward, are ‘Vigor’, ‘Convivial’ and ‘Cherish’: a suite of sentiments that represent strength and well-being in post-pandemic living, offer an invitation to friends and family to gather with me, and whose gatherings are governed by gratitude, appreciation, and honoring of life and one another.

Part 4. Begin your rebuild!

Although words and stories can’t magically recreate reality around us or alter circumstances, they can lead our minds and hearts to experience more of what we desire and less of what we do not desire. In this final part of the exercise, finish by assigning meaning, significance, and your “why” behind this word swap.

4a) What story would you like to be telling for the remainder of your year, regardless of the circumstances that unfold? What does that new story look like, feel like, sound like?

For example: “I would like to story the second half of my year with sentiments, feelings, and experiences that are rich and enriching; healthful and generous; expansive and resilient. There is growth and doing that I want to do, but not through stress or a need for control; rather, I want to feel abundant and strong, and seek out my passion, in-joyment, and loving-kindness along the way.”

4b) Make a plan. What are 1-3 ways that you can begin to practice “building” your new house? Can you display your new words visibly in your home or set a recurring reminder on your phone to use them in conversation? Can you share this exercise with a friend, and hold one another accountable for “rebuilding” your house using your new words and stories?

For example: I will hang Post-It notes with my new words, ‘Vigor’, ‘Convivial’ and ‘Cherish’, so that they are the first words I see when I wake up and the last I see when I go to bed. I will share my new words for the year when I catch up with my friends and family and invite them to consider their own words, moving forward. I will ask myself before I make any plans, ‘Could this bring me closer to feeling or experiencing ‘Vigor’, ‘Convivial[ity]’ or ‘Cherish[ed/ing]’?

In Summary: Words Build Our Houses

My words to start 2021 were “Lead Without Followers,” and represented my foray into a new coaching collective and thought leadership incubator that I have been running with a small cohort of creative clients since February. 2021 is also the 10th anniversary of the publication of my first book with that title, so it felt like a fitting “coming home.”

Now that getting that venture off the ground has happened, moving forward into the second half of 2021, my words feel quite different. They are:

“Expanding and Resilient.”

These words are, for the house in which I want to live, not just professionally but also personally, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. They reach (“expand”) into my continued desires for new learning and growth, while also honoring my self-care, my foundational needs, and my intention to consistently show up to honor my responsibilities and obligations with gratitude and confidence.

What are your words for the second half of 2021, my friend?

Sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t already. When you do, you can hit reply to any message that I send you to share your new words for the year with me — I’d love to know what you’ve come up with!

Happy house building, my friend,