Words have weight. There is a certain gravity to a word. Some words are neutral, but the words we are most interested in are the words that carry power or denote strong, and often negative meaning. We tend to use words carelessly, especially the words we use to describe people or situations that cause us unhappiness. But the main problem with many of these strong words is that they are not very descriptive. “Asshole” describes the person who just cut you off in traffic, but it also describes your boss, and the next-door neighbor who plays his music too loud. It may even describe the teacher you had who just went to jail for pedophilia. Right? So, what exactly does “asshole” mean? When I have this discussion with my patients (often in the group therapy setting) they insist that there are “different levels of asshole.” I remain skeptical.

We (and I use this word universally) are raised with concepts like “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.” Unfortunately, along with this, we are also taught erroneous belief systems from childhood such as the “Just World Belief.” This is the belief that the world is just and fair: Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This is a fairly easy and rigid belief system that a 10-year-old can really grab a hold of, but then life continues and as we grow, we realize that the true statement is that “shit happens.” However, my patients who are experiencing depression, anxiety, or trauma, often regress back to their child brain that believes in the Just World Belief. They think, “Something bad happened to me, so I must have done something wrong.” This very thought process, which feeds on rigid words and categories, is the culprit for why they remain sick.

Since you cannot take something away without replacing it, I provide an alternative set of words to replace the socialized inflexible ones (to follow). Remember, the use of broad-stroke words such as good/bad, and right/wrong keep us prisoner to dichotomous thought-processing. In therapy, it is often called “All-or-Nothing Thinking.” My goal is to help patients bring their thinking back into the gray zone. After all, the ideas of good and bad are totally subjective and related to socialization to a great extent. Most of us (in the Western world) believe that it is bad to cheat and wrong to marry a girl and two of her sisters. However, these lifestyles exist even IN our own society and we do not have to go too far to find a myriad of intriguing alternate lifestyles, e.g., polygamy, that challenge our ideas of right/wrong. What is so right to us may be wrong to another. What we consider bad may be totally acceptable somewhere else in the world. And would it not be arrogant and presumptuous for us to conclude that our way is the best and only way?

This, I suggest, is why we have so much difficulty in life. We use rigid words, which are the visible (audible) manifestations of our deeper thought-processing. Rigid thought-processing inhibits our ability to foster compassion. And compassion for self- and others live on two sides of the same coin; you cannot have one without the other. Learning how to think more flexibly allows us to live mindfully. [Mindfulness can be summed up as learning how to pay attention, on purpose, in the moment, without judgment.]

The alternative words I teach my patients to use in place of good/bad and right/wrong are these: Healthy and Unhealthy. Just changing the words we use to describe other peoples’ actions (when we don’t like them) can help us have more compassion. Why does this matter? Well, having more compassion means we probably end up feeling less angry (frustrated, irritated, annoyed) by others.

So, for example, if you go to work and someone is yelling, then understanding this event in a new way can be helpful (and we’ll use a few tools and tips, some previously introduced in my Bucket Rules).

(1) First of all, nothing is personal. If your coworker is yelling at you, drop off the “at you” part and see the event for what it is. (S)he is yelling, period.

An angry panda taking his frustrations out on co-workers

(2) Second, understanding the process is helpful, i.e., your coworker is having angry thoughts that are creating angry feelings, and these together are leading to angry behaviors such as yelling. When you understand this well, you realize it’s just not about you (despite feeling like it is if you’re the unfortunate recipient or witness).

(3) Third, remember your Bucket Rules: You have no control over this coworker’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, so stay out of his/her bucket! And try not to let him/her in yours. Also, try not to “should” on them….yes we already know, (s)he should not be yelling at you, etc., etc., etc., but alas it’s happening.

(4) Now, let’s choose our words carefully…is this coworker an asshole? Are they wrong in yelling? Are they a bad friend? Let’s replace asshole with “unhealthy.” Isn’t that more accurate? Doesn’t that actually describe him/her better? After all, (s)he is unable to manage his/her bucket (i.e., thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) very well probably because of low resources, a lack of insight, or other internal processes unrelated to anyone else. The ability to perceive and experience this person as unhealthy is also the ultimate gift of compassion to our coworker and to ourselves. We allow other people the freedom to think, feel, and behave as they wish or can, and we understand that it may be the best they can do today. He or she is not me, and thus to expect that (s)he behave like me would be unrealistic. This is also a perspective that allows self-compassion. Understanding that this is not in our control (Bucket Rule #2) also relieves us of responsibility and thus we stop blaming ourselves in our effort to have control over the situation.

The word “healthy” can be viewed as those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that move you towards your desired outcome. I will be presumptuous in assuming that your desired outcome is to be healthy, happy, wealthy (however you choose to define this), successful, etc. I will assume that your desired outcome does NOT include avoidance, isolation, drinking until you’ve reached a state of oblivion, and ending relationships (despite the fact that this may, indeed, be the current state of your life and behaviors). Thus, by default “unhealthy” is defined as those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that move you away from your desired outcome. Notice we did not judge, we used a neutral but accurate definition to draw a distinction between what we would typically call good/bad, or right/wrong.

Start paying attention to the words you use, especially those words that are vague, judgment-oriented, or labeling. Challenge yourself by replacing these words with new, more accurate and descriptive words. Language truly is the “eyes to the soul” of our inner thought-processing. Learning the power of words is actually learning the power of your thoughts.

Here’s to the power of language!

DR. G ☺

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