I’m endlessly fascinated by words. Why are some words powerful enough to lift our spirits, while others can deflate us in a single breath? Words can fill us with confidence and life energy, while others tire us and cloud us with doubt.
Even among synonyms, there’s often a significant difference. Take the words ‘motive’ and ‘purpose’. Ostensibly they mean the same thing – a person’s reason for doing something – but semantically, they’re a universe apart. Wouldn’t you agree that one conjures a different set of mental images to the other?
Word choice is so influential that it can even affect our physical health, for better or worse, through the ‘placebo’ and ‘nocebo’ effects respectively.
I saw this play out many times as a junior doctor. Oblivious to the importance of selecting reassuring words, certain seniors would overuse cold, mechanical terms like ‘dysfunction’ and ‘failure’. More than once I found myself looking on in frustration as expressions of fear and dismay sprawled across the patient’s face.
But this is the quantum leap I believe we all need to make: the same logic applies to our manner of communicating with ourselves. Words can be our medicine, or they can be our poison. They can promote stress, anger and violence, or they can heal, uplift and pacify. The quality of our energy is greatly influenced by the language we choose to employ. The more purposeful we can be about it, the better.
Here are 4 words and phrases I’ve been actively eliminating from my vocabulary where possible. For each, I also propose a more empowering alternative. Making these subtle shifts has been a useful tool in taking more ownership of my life and feeling more at peace with myself each day.
The idea of “perfection” is just that – an idea; an abstract human construct. Perfection simply isn’t found anywhere in our natural world. Whether we’re referring to a flower, a beach, or our new haircut, there’s no objective truth to describing those things as ‘perfect’.
By labelling these things as ‘perfect’, we’re taking a linguistic shortcut, and bypassing the nuances of how we truly feel. When I describe a sunset as perfect, I often mean something like, “right now I’m looking at this sunset, and feeling waves of peace and appreciation.” Choosing words like ‘awesome’, ‘unreal’ or ‘perfect’ can never fully express those feelings.
This is usually benign in the case of a sunset, but things get messier when we start applying the same shortcut to the realm of human activities (and even human beings themselves).
For instance, if I describe my violin performance as ‘perfect’, I’m really just making a black-or-white evaluative judgement. Instead, I might make an observation – “this piece came out just how I wanted it to, and I’m feeling so pleased”. Not only is the latter more accurate, but it would also probably feel more satisfying to express.
The thing is, ‘perfect’ sounds like praise. However, in trying to capture the essence of something, we’re performing an act of subtle aggression against it. We’re seeing it through a limited lens, according to our snap judgement. I might write an article for this blog which goes on to be highly praised, then come to think of myself as a ‘good writer’. But this reductiveness actually frustrates further growth, hampers self-reflection, and probably feeds my complacency.
Words like ‘perfect’ and ‘good’ also imply that more menacing judgements might be right around the corner – judgements like ‘imperfect’ or ‘bad’. I believe this is why many of us contract slightly when we’re described as ‘good’, ‘amazing’ or ‘perfect’ in some way. In all likelihood, the speaker means well. But these words are empty judgements, devoid of meaning, and we can sense that.
As I’ve hinted, the more empowering option is to make an objective observation, and then express our feelings on that observation using the formula “when x, I feel y”.
Here are a few ways this might play out:
- “Life is just perfect right now” becomes “when I woke up today, I felt so grateful to have a family and a job.”
- “That was the best article I’ve ever read” becomes “when I read your article, I felt moved to tears.”
- “I had a rubbish, terrible upbringing” becomes “when I was a child, some of the things I experienced greatly upset me.”
This formula helps us take a step back, observe things as they are, and then release the truth. The alternative is to keep deluding ourselves (and others) with some final judgement based on veiled feelings.
I don’t think the word “should” can be traced back to an authentic emotional state most of the time – it’s often a cloak for fear, guilt, self-loathing, or some other unresourceful way of being. These states aren’t born from who we really are, but from roles we’ve been conditioned to uphold.
“Should” statements can be dangerous, eliminating our connection to choice and personal responsibility at the core of everything we do. “Should” makes everything a matter of cold, mechanical duty. We feel it’s our duty to impose certain behaviours upon ourselves and others, not in light of our authentic nature, but in light of tribal/herd mentality. Left unchecked, “shoulditis” insidiously paints our life with a tragic quality, because we’re not consciously living it based on our values.
Actually, “should” is the natural cousin of “perfect” – based on our judgements of perfection or imperfection, it’s common to invite into our lives artificial standards that rob us of joy and vitality. We “should” do better because we’re not “perfect” enough. We’re not doing things right. We’re failures.
Not to mention the perils of inflicting “should” on other people, which can end up sucking them into that same vortex of criticism, comparison and conformity we may have ensconced ourselves in.
Here’s the more empowering alternative: I choose to.
When you find yourself tempted to say “I should”, try substituting in “I choose to”… “because…” You could also try “I want to”. If the statement holds, then you’re probably acting in accordance with your values. But if you can’t make it work, you might have some questions to ask.
Here’s an example. I might say to myself, “I shouldn’t hit that man, because it’s against the law”. And here’s the alternative; “I choose not to hit that man, because I’ve chosen not to conduct my life based on violence, and I don’t want to go to prison.”
The difference is subtle but powerful. In the former, I’m ceding my behaviour and self-control to external forces – “should” is governing my life, and I become a passive agent. In the latter, I’m stepping up and taking ownership of my wants, values, needs, and ultimately my choice to live life on my own terms. I believe this awareness can only make us more fulfilled, more resourceful, and more at peace with our decisions.
When everything is a problem, we’re stuck. We’re bogged down by fear, frustration and impatience. The world seems to be against us – the people in my life are problems, my job is a problem, my bills are a problem. Maybe my own behaviour and personality are even problems.
People love problems. It’s fun trying to answer a riddle, solve a crossword, or master a Rubik’s cube. What’s less fun is when we apply this same problem-solving mindset to our lives. Our lives are infinitely dynamic, amorphous things with so many possibilities. Does that sound like a brain teaser? We need to stop seeing our circumstances as ‘problems’ to fix, because they rarely converge on singular right or wrong answers.
Here’s the more empowering option: opportunity.
Opportunities call for our creativity and ingenuity. They ask us to step up and be the best we can be. We move forward not just by looking to solve problems, but also by recognising opportunities in our suffering.
The problem of a boring commute to work becomes an opportunity to practice patience and presence. The problem of feeling jealous of my friend becomes an opportunity to celebrate their happiness and grow in emotional maturity. The problem of a crumbling relationship becomes an opportunity to reassess my values and forge new ties. These moments are all choice points, moments in which we can call forward the best in ourselves.
So if you’re stuck in problem mode, try reframing your suffering. Is it something to fix, ‘hack’, or manoeuvre around? Or is it actually a valuable source of acceptance, and a beautiful opportunity to become the kind of person you want to be?
4. “Just This Once”
This one comes from a favourite book of mine – “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton Christensen.
In it, he explains that the marginal cost of doing something “just this once” always seems to be negligible, but the full cost will often be much higher. And we end up paying the full cost of our decisions, not the marginal costs.
This is essentially the slippery slope argument (which I’ve written about here), articulated so well in this eerie quote by C.S. Lewis:
“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”– C.S. Lewis
As Christensen says, life doesn’t come with red warning signs. Most of us face a series of small, everyday decisions which rarely seem to have high stakes. But over time, those decisions compound. And a habit of saying “just this once” can send you on unexpected trajectories, carrying you far away from your intended life.
Studies estimate that maintaining a vegan diet spares 100 animals from death per person per year. That isn’t consistent with my values, and yet I used to love eating meat growing up.
If I were to break my vegan diet “just this once”, then I’ve crossed a personal moral line. In all likelihood, it would then happen again, because there’s no longer anything to stop me. If I escalate to the point of eating meat half the time, that’s 50 animals killed per year. Over the course of 30 years, that’s a shocking total of 1500 animals I could have spared, and a whole lot of blood on my hands.
I really resonate with Christensen’s belief that it’s easier to stick to our principles 100% of the time than it is to do so 98% of the time. I’ve found this to be absolutely true in my own experience.
Here’s the more empowering alternative to “just this once”-type thinking: no thanks.
When I feel pressure to break my principles, either from within or externally, I now strive to adopt an attitude of “no thanks”. Feeling the urge to lie in bed when I’ve made prior plans to go for a run? “No thanks”, I’ll now say to myself.
There are two levels to this simple response. The first part is obviously the “no” – no to having extra sugar in my tea, no to slacking off from my daily pushups, no to watching the latest Netflix show instead of working on my next article. Our lives are measured as much by what we say yes to, as by what we say “no” to with firm conviction.
The second aspect is “thanks”. We’re not looking to mire ourselves in issues of self-chastisement or duty or self-manipulation using “should” (see point 2 above). This is where the “thanks” part is crucial. We’re thanking ourselves (or the other person) for the suggestion, and then politely and respectfully declining. Maybe the suggestion came from a good place, but we’re more concerned with preserving internal peace than going to war with ourselves.
We can either be our own allies, coaches and healers, or we can breathe life into our inner critics and allow other personal demons to take the wheel. Language is an important conduit through which this decision plays out.
At this point you might be wondering about the best way to reliably implement these linguistic shifts into your everyday life. Personally, I like to maintain a running list of banned words/phrases and mindfully read that list once a week, to keep my intentions top of mind.
If you’re open to it, I’d invite you to check out my previous post about creating a “commitments document”, where you can implement such a list. I’ve also written about the importance of starting the day with positive affirmations based on your highest ideals.
Alright, that’s it for this article. Once again, here are those 4 words/alternatives for you to be with:
- Own your true feelings rather than enforcing ideas of perfection/imperfection
- Live from a place of authentic “I choose to” rather than dutiful “I should”
- Train yourself to reframe “problems” as “opportunities”
- Say “no thanks” when you’re tempted to say “just this once”