Avoiding Word Choices That Kill Possibilities for Change

060As a writer, I worry about word choice. Even the smallest of these can open up possibilities for behavior change in our readers and listeners—or keep them locked in the status quo. 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 or writing based on this phrase, 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 the language of resignation.

In this post, Michael Hyatt offers a useful 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.”

Yes, this is totally corny. But just try it. At the very least, you’ll disrupt a chain of negative thinking. And sometimes the change in wording actually becomes useful.

You can reinforce the change by looking for supporting evidence:

  • The fact that you get to exercise means that you’re still alive, still able-bodied, and still capable of aerobic movement. This is nothing to take 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 can make it easier to get your next job.
  • 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—and greater happiness. This is a useful strategy to offer our audiences.

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 fuse with the sadness.

If you ever choose to practice mindfulness meditation, you’ll gain access to another subtle but significant word choice. This happens because as a meditator, you simply witness what arises in your mind or body. Eventually you discover that thoughts and bodily sensations are constantly changing. And as Buddhists often remind us, anything that constantly changes is not “you.”

Let’s speak and write in a way that acknowledges this fact. For example:

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

Tweaking those sentences puts a little space between you and the emotions. These word choices remind you that a thought or sensation is present but not permanent—something that arises but does not define us. This creates another possibility for change.

If we are not our thoughts or our sensations, then what are we? That’s another post. For now, some small shifts in word choice will do.

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