The words we use when we talk to ourselves or others are important; they do directly influence us.
Changing just a few of the words we use can make a big difference in our mood, our feelings, our relationships and our actions.
When you change your words, you change your state of mind.
For example, saying “I don’t” instead of saying “I can’t” may make all the difference when you’re trying to give up an unhealthy habit.
If I said “I don’t eat ice cream,” instead of saying “I can’t eat ice cream,” the temptation to cheat and eat it anyway is less. Saying “I don’t” gives me more self-control and I don’t feel as deprived.
When I’m offered my favorite Oreo cookies, if I say, “Oh thanks, but I don’t eat cookies,” it feels like it’s my choice. If I say “I can’t eat cookies,” I feel deprived, different, left out. It’s better to feel that I am choosing to rule cookies out of what I eat than to feel deprived.
By saying “I don’t…,” it makes me feel stronger in my determination to avoid unhealthy foods. If I say “I can’t …,” it feels like “poor me” and makes me feel left out.
Or, if the boss asks me to stay late and finish a project when I know I won’t get paid overtime, if I say “I can’t,” then he’ll say “Why? Little hubby waiting for his dinner?” or something equally as demeaning. If I say “I don’t work when I’m not on the clock,” it’s a firm response about my choices and he’s not as likely to come back with a response to try to talk me into staying late.
Just replacing that one word, “can’t,” by the word “don’t,” goes a long way toward reinforcing what you want to accomplish. The words we use to others and to ourselves do make a big impact!
Some tips on others words to watch out for in that dialogue running in your head or when you talk with others:
• “Always” — If you say things like: “I always screw up on that report; I never get it right!” you might be doing “all-or-nothing thinking,” or black-and-white thinking. This is not accurate; life is rarely completely one way or another. You are setting yourself up to discredit yourself endlessly. Instead, be more accurate in what you say, for example: “Sometimes I get the numbers wrong on that report; I need to be careful and double check.”
Or, there’s a traffic light on my way to work; it’s a very long light, and I often run late. I sit there, fuming, saying, “This light is always red!” Instead, I should say “This light is often red; I need to leave a few minutes earlier.”
• “Should” — That is another word to avoid. I know you’ve heard that before. We try to motivate ourselves by saying “I should do this,” or “I shouldn’t do that.” That kind of statement makes us feel pressured and resentful. We usually aren’t motivated to do what we should do anyway.
When we direct a “should” statement toward another person, we feel frustrated. People sometime do what we think they should, but often they don’t. For example, if I say to myself “My doctor shouldn’t keep me waiting so long! He should do a better job of scheduling patients!”, I feel resentful and annoyed, even angry. It would be better for me if I said “He’s running behind because he spends so much time with each patient. That probably means he’ll spend more time with me.”
• “I’m sorry” — Some women say this far too often. We use “I’m sorry” far too often when we haven’t even done anything wrong; this makes us come across as a pushover. Apologizing for something when there is no need can undermine your credibility.
• “Can you help me?” — This is one thing you do want to say. Admitting when you need a hand — and saying yes to an offer of help — can be transformative. Whether you’re reluctant to ask for support a larger-than-you-can-chew work project or for some babysitting reinforcement during those bleary-eyed days of caring for young children, it’s natural to fear looking weak, needy, or incompetent. But not asking for help, or declining an offer of it, can sometimes let the problem spiral out of hand.
It’s definitely a fact that the words we use do shape our moods, our feelings, our actions and our relationships. Become aware of how you talk to yourself and others. Notice how often you use the above words and phrases; see if you can change your words.
You might be amazed to see what happens!
Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.