When my daughter was quite young, she took up guitar. I helped her understand her lessons, and in the process, I learned three chords along with her. I was blown away to find that knowing how to play A, D and E chords suddenly enabled me to play dozens of songs: rock, country, spirituals. “Let it Be”, “Amazing Grace”, and “La Bamba” were instantly part of my repertoire. A hundred songs were now within my grasp. Certainly, more developed skills would allow more sophisticated and more beautiful songs, but this first step opened a new world to me.
Similarly, learn how to use a few key words, and you’ll feel that you are suddenly playing a new tune. Do a ‘global replace’ on some tired phrases that don’t fit you anymore. With little effort, you’ll feel that you have a newfound ability to sing the song you came here to sing.
Petty thinking that holds us back relies on specific thought patterns, and thus specific words. The shallower aspects of our culture are imprinted in our thinking through sayings, expressions and songs. It’s natural to adopt them as our own, and continue repeating them ourselves, even if they don’t feel true at a deeper level. Changing as little as one word can break decades-long habits and allow us to live and love the life we’re striving for.
Some may think that choosing words so carefully is a form of watering down truth to be politically correct. But that analysis is off the mark. Gentle, encouraging words support people to rise to their fullest potential, yourself included. A wise counselor knows that using strong judgmental words holds people down.
This chapter presents some suggestions for improving your own thoughts and speaking, to allow expressing your highest good easily. With a few minor edits, your words can move from harsh to gentle, from oppressive to uplifting. Even if you don’t feel comfortable eliminating a phrase completely, allow yourself to pause before you use it, then decide.
When you scan the list below, you may think, but everyone says that! We’ve said it all our lives! While it’s common to say such things, it doesn’t mean it’s a healthy way to live! We live in a world with hunger, poverty and war. Obviously, what we’ve been doing all along is not a reason to stop here. We can evolve. Carefully choosing how we express ourselves is an effective way to get on this path.
1. Use ‘could’ instead of ‘should’
The problem with ‘should’s is that they pile up on each other without any reality check. Should is guilt’s best friend! Shoulds can make us feel like you’ve failed before you’ve even gotten started. Lists of shoulds are wildly optimistic, and usually unrealistic:
What should I do Saturday? I should sleep in and get some rest. Oh, actually, I should get up early. I should clean the entire house. Hmm, but I really should exercise too. I should spend time outdoors and explore something new. I should spend some time alone. I should meet up with my family. I should balance my checkbook. I should relax and watch a few movies. I should go to bed early. I should go out dancing!
Try this same Saturday list with ‘could’, and suddenly it becomes realistic. Ah yes, I could sleep in or I could get up early! I could stay home all day and relax or I could go out and explore. I could go to bed early or stay up late! The vibe changes from one of guilt and failure, to one of choices, excitement and possibilities.
2. Eliminate “I need”
To say I need something implies that I am lacking something now. It requires a judgment that what I have now is not good enough. Not good enough for what? ‘Need’ also has a hidden threat that something very bad might happen if the need is unfulfilled. There’s a dramatic, urgent “, or else!” implied in every statement with need.
- “I need chocolate” …or I’ll be depressed all day!
- “I need to find a different job” …or I’ll go crazy!
- “I need to find a girlfriend” …or I’ll be a lonely, loser for the rest of my life!
- “I need a vacation” …or what? I’ll go postal! Wither away at my desk?!
In order to live, we need very little. If you’ve traveled to a country with less material wealth than your own, you quickly realize that maybe you don’t ‘need’ everything you thought you did. People live full lives without a lot of stuff we view as necessities.
For me, it was most striking in Ghana. I have friends there that don’t have jobs, have little food or money. Some did not have any schooling. And yet, they were very loving and enjoyed their lives. What do we really need to live? Not much!
For some statements, we can just flip or eliminate the statement completely. “I need chocolate” becomes “I don’t need chocolate” or maybe better, just silence.
For changes you’d like to make in your life, try:
- I have…
- Wouldn’t it be cool if…
- I wonder what it would be like…
There is an ever-so-slight but marked change from a negative feeling to a positive feeling when you switch from ‘need’ to ‘want’. It changes it from a feeling of lack and unfulfilled desire to a world of engaging possibilities:
- Wouldn’t it be cool to find a job that was near my house that was inspiring and fun!
- I’d like to find a girlfriend that is honest, fun and creative.
- I wonder what it would be like to go travel for a month.
3. Replace ‘have to’ with ‘choose to’
I was having tea with a friend and she brought a deck of inspirational cards with her. At the time, I was agonizing about how to fulfill a plan I’d made for myself. It followed the standard pattern: “I want to xxx, but first I have to xxx.”
I chose a card from the deck, which said,
“Whenever you begin a sentence with “I have to”, please stop!”
“I have to” implies that there is an obligation that must be fulfilled! That there is only one way to do it, and I must do it! Even if I don’t want to, I must! It presents a very closed-minded, dramatic view of your situation.
Little kids will tell you, “You’re not the boss of me!”
So, when did we forget this for ourselves? You are the ‘boss of you’! Unless you’re an indentured servant, you are making the decisions about your life, whether you realize it or not. In truth, there is little we ‘have’ to do. We always have options.
Instead of lamenting about obligations, switch to considering choices:
- I want to save money for a trip, so I choose to work overtime.
- Today I choose to stay home and clean, instead of going out with friends.
- I decided to take the bus today, so I’ll get up a bit earlier.
- I’m going to visit my family every other weekend, to balance family time and free time.
4. Eliminate ‘makes me’ when referring to emotions
It’s a real downer to be around someone who doesn’t take responsibility for their own emotions:
- It made me really depressed when it rained on my day off.
- He made me really angry when he said that.
- It makes me really happy when you call! (…would they be sad if you didn’t?)
Instead of ‘makes me’, find ways to express responsibility:
- When it started raining, I decided to change my plans for the day.
- I want to find a way to react with reason and compassionate, when he says stuff like that. Why do I hang out with him anyway?
- I always enjoy talking with you!
A goal for a fine life is to be able to feel joy, no matter what happens externally. If it rains, someone says something you don’t like, and no one calls, can you still feel joyful and content? That’s the challenge!
Happiness and sadness can wash over us in a few moments, rocking us up and down like a boat on the waves. Instead, know that there’s a deeper pool of joy accessible within. You’re not in the boat. You are the ocean.
5. Eliminate ‘hate’
Using the word ‘hate’ is guaranteed to give you a negative emotional charge. Even if you and spinach aren’t made for each other, what is the upside of saying, “I hate spinach!” There is none.
Whether you’re complaining about a song, an advertisement, a food, or some plague in the world, using ‘hate’ is a perfect way to launch into a rant. If you start with, “I hate that song!”, it’s natural to keep going. Next, you’ll be picking it apart defending your position. That may spur you and your listener to remember other songs you hate and then you’re really on a roll. In this frantic state, you are unlikely to take any positive action to actually fix or improve the situation.
- Instead of spinach, choose a different vegetable. Or find out why other people do like it. Try a recipe they suggest and see what you think.
- If you don’t appreciate a song, tell people about songs you do like. Or write your own!
- If you hate the fact that world hunger exists, work to alleviate it.
See ‘hate’ as an excuse for self-righteous ranting. Instead choose something that promotes understanding and/or action:
- I don’t understand…
- I’m not a big fan of…
- I’m not sure why people like…
- What can I do to improve the situation around…?
“Don’t be a hater!”
6. Eliminate the object and see if it improves the accuracy.
When we assign responsibility for action to the actor, the object becomes secondary. It can be helpful to limit the statement to the actor and the action, rather than focusing on the particular person or situation that evokes that action. It’s a bit complicated to describe, but it’s easy to do. Remove the object in a sentence. Does it give you a new perspective?
He always does that to me. He does that sometimes.
I’m in love with him. I’m being loving.
She’s angry with me. She’s angry.
I’m unhappy with him. I’m unhappy.
7. Replace “I can’t”
When we say “I can’t” it becomes a statement of a fixed condition that always was and always will be. Instead, try something precise. Note if it is a new development. Leave an opening for a solution that may come as the result of outside help or more time.
- I can’t control my eating.
Becomes: I haven’t been able to control my eating lately. What am I doing different? Maybe it’s my new work schedule. If I can’t get on track this month, I might join a weight loss program.
- I can’t stick to an exercise plan.
Becomes: I don’t know why I haven’t been able to stick to an exercise plan. I used to exercise daily and I felt a lot better. I’ll call my superfit friend and ask for help.
- I can’t lose weight.
Becomes: “I can!” or even better, “I am slim,” as an affirmation to pave the way to make it so.
Changing as little as one word can break decades-long habits and allow you to live the life you’re dreaming of.