The destructive language that kills self-worth


A blue sleeping bag is on the floor, next to a brick wall. A flattened carboard box is underneath.
Share this article

In this blog post, our Kirklees Outreach Worker talks about the language often used by officials to describe the people we support.

"It is often said that the word is mightier than the sword. Everyday language can certainly land a heavy blow. When used inappropriately, insensitively or without thinking, words can have an impact far beyond their literal meaning and usage. 


I have seen this happen time and time again towards some of the people I work with. This can result in profound negative effects on those already at a low point in their lives. The wrong words can be the biggest killer of self-esteem.   

Most of the people I support often have low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. They have also usually experienced extreme difficulties in their lives. They have been told in their personal lives that they are a failure, no one cares about them and no one will provide for them. 

Negative language 

Imagine how it must feel to anyone in such a situation to then be told by authorities they are “failed”, “illegal”, “ineligible” and “have no right to reside”. Or that they are “not a priority” and are “not owed a duty of care”. People I support hear this negative and rejecting language on a regular basis from the officials they encounter.

The face of bureaucracy is often impersonal and indifferent to those on the receiving end. It's important to recognise how devastating it can be to be rebuffed each time someone asks for help. If people are constantly exposed to such negative language this can increase their feelings of worthlessness and erode someone’s self-esteem. When these words are continually reinforced then over time people start to believe it

Destructive to constructive

I am forced to wonder why it is still acceptable to use such objectifying language. How has it become the norm to the extent that it is not ever questioned? 

I wish that instead of using stock bureaucratic phrases that are so de-humanising that services aim to engage in a more empathic and compassionate approach. I wish for a kinder world where we no longer use negative and de-moralising terms to people who are in need, but work towards a more humane and supportive language to ensure the wellbeing of everyone. 

We need to move away from an unfeeling and automatic official response to one which is more personal, uses gentler language and recognises someone’s humanity. Let us aim to change the destructive words to constructive words."

Share this article