The Word Association Exercise is a discovery exercise. It is designed to help you explore and uncover your unconscious connections between certain concepts. It is especially useful if you find yourself resistant to a task you know will help you achieve a goal or procrastinating on an idea you believe will make your life better in some way. It can also be used when you feel compelled to do something that you believe would have a negative impact on your life. It can also be useful as a journaling prompt or writing exercise.

Exercise Preparation

It helps to do the Word Association exercise in a quiet space without distractions. If, however, you must do the exercise in a noisy environment, try using headphones and playing music without words at a level that just blurs or blocks most of the distracting audio around you.

  • Get a piece of paper and a pen, or open a clean digital screen for writing.
  • Take a few moments to concentrate on the issue or concept you want to explore.
    For example, perhaps you are dissatisfied with your job and want to look for a new one, and you believe you should update your LinkedIn profile before you apply for another job, but you just keep putting it off.

Exercise Steps

  1. Write down your initial trigger word or phrase.
    In our example issue, you can either start with “new job” or “LinkedIn” to start your association. Choose the word or phrase that seems the right trigger to you.
  2. Without pausing to think, write down the next word or phrases that come to mind, as fast as you can, when you think of the initial word or phrase. Keep going until you finally have to pause to think of the next word or phrase.
    Example, “LinkedIn” might trigger “networking, marketing, imposter, dull, fake, fraud, pushy, greedy, show off” or “LinkedIn” might trigger “connection, outreach, professional, influence, power, success.”
  3. Study your list of words or phrases that you automatically associate with the initial trigger words or phrase.
    Are they positive or negative?If they are negative, you may have uncovered the source of your resistance. Is this negativity legitimate or do you need to reframe your association with the trigger word or phrase? Or is the negativity your unconscious identifying a genuine concern? For example, perhaps you are resisting accepting a new job offer that seems “perfect.” The Word Association Exercise might uncover issues with the company such as work environment, corporate mission, or even ethical conflicts that you have, or unrecognized fulfillment that you are getting from your present position.

    If your word associations with the initial trigger are positive,
    then you may need to explore another, related word or phrase that is causing the resistance. For example, if the results for “LinkedIn” were positive, then perhaps we should try the exercise on “new job” to see if the larger concept is our internal obstacle.

The Word Association Exercise can also be used to explore what appears to be a neutral or larger concept, too. For example, an artist or designer might use it to explore a subject o theme such as “Childhood,” “Home,” “West,” or “Space.” “It can even be used to explore our automatic response to larger concepts such as “Justice” or “Art.”

Exercise Tip

Your initial word association responses are likely to be the ones programmed into us by our culture and society. Try to keep going deeper. If your initial response is nothing but stereotypes or the standard associations, take the last word in your association and repeat the process until you feel satisfied you are truly getting your own connections and responses. Not everyone genuinely finds clowns “happy” — or “scary.”


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