Two Speech Habits That Kill Possibilities

As a writer, I worry about word choice. The ways that we speak can do more than  clarify or confuse. They can also open up possibilities—or put us on a path to needless suffering. Following are two examples and how to avoid them.

The language of resignation

Notice how many times you start a sentence with phrases such as:

  • I have to….
  • I’ve got to….
  • I really should….

These are all variations on the phrase I must. When speaking this way, we hypnotize ourselves into believing that we are victims—that we have no options in a given situation. Psychotherapist Albert Ellis called it “musterbation.” I call it resignation.

In a wonderful post, Michael Hyatt offers a simple and powerful alternative. In place of I must or any of its variations, substitute I get to. For instance:

  • “I have to exercise this morning” becomes “I get to exercise this morning.”
  • “I’ve got to go to work” becomes “I get to go to work.”
  • “I really should see my dentist” becomes “I get to go see my dentist.”

If you think this sounds a tad corny, just try it. The resulting shift in attitude is subtle but significant.

The fact that you get to exercise means that you’re still alive, still able-bodied, and still capable of aerobic movement. Can any of these things truly be taken for granted?

The fact that you get to go to work means that you’re still employed. Even if you hate your job, the fact that you’re working any job will make it easier to get your next job. (See Richard Bolle’s excellent book, The Job-Hunter’s Survival Guide: How to Find a Rewarding Job Even When “There Are No Jobs.”)

The fact that you get to see your dentist means that you have access to health care—and dental care that’s more gentle, overall, than at any time in human history.

I get to opens the door to expressing gratitude—a strategy for increasing happiness.

The language of identification

A second experiment: Notice what you say in response to the question How are you? Depending on the day, you might say:

  • I am exhausted.
  • I am angry.
  • I am sad.

The problem with such sentences is that they identify you with an unpleasant emotion. You become the exhaustion. You are the anger. You are fused with the sadness.

If you ever choose to practice mindfulness meditation, you’ll learn another subtle but significant shift. As a meditator, you simply witness what arises in your mind or body.  You also discover that thoughts and bodily sensations are constantly changing. And, as Steve Hagen explains in Buddhism Plain and Simple, anything that changes is not “you.”

Think about it: The notion of self implies something that is stable and unchanging—something that persists in the midst of change. From this perspective, the thoughts and sensations that make up emotions such as exhaustion, anger, and sadness are not your self.

So, let’s speak in a way that acknowledges this. Take a cue from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which recommends language for defusing from thoughts and sensations:

  • “I am exhausted” becomes “I’m noticing exhaustion.”
  • “I am angry” becomes “I’m having angry thoughts.”
  • “I am sad” becomes “There’s sadness again.”

Do you see how tweaking those sentences puts a little space between you and the emotions?

Defusing reminds you that a sensation is present but not forever—that a thought is present but that you are more than that thought (or any thought, for that matter).

But if we are not our thoughts or our sensations, then what are we? Damned if I know. That’s another post.