Words are just words, right? Does it really matter what you say or how you say it? You might think that your language is neutral, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the things you say can work to disempower you.
The language you select is important because it’s how you conceptualize the world. Through your words, you make a schema of what’s existing around you. When you choose empowering language, you can create the reality that you want to experience in the world.
Let’s explore three language patterns that may be influencing your reality and look at alternatives that could be more useful for you.
Empowering Language to Replace ‘Good’ and ‘Bad,’ ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’
The words “good,” “bad,” “right” and “wrong” all have an objective tone to them. They suggest that perhaps there’s some book or tablet out there that lists out all that’s good or bad or right or wrong with the world.
But we just don’t have access to a resource like that. Rather, we often rely on religious traditions, moral codes, and laws to tell us those things. But every human isn’t subscribing to the same set of such principles.
At the end of the day, you get to choose which ones you’re going to focus on. It’s up to you to decide what you’re going to give credence to. In other words, you are developing your own sense of good, bad, right, and wrong.
But that’s not always how things seem in society. Rather, society often wants to dictate what’s right and wrong. Voices clamoring for your attention suggest the right way to have a relationship or run a business, for instance.
When you listen to those voices, you may not take into consideration what is important to you. Other people’s voices don’t account for what is valuable to the world.
In your reality, though, you are the arbiter of what is important to you. Only you know your goals. Whether something is “good” or “bad” for you, therefore, depends on whether it contributes to your goals for your reality.
Let’s use the example of making your bed in the morning, something that people often claim is a “good” thing to do. Instead of viewing it through that frame, take a look at whether it’s in alignment with you. If you want an ordered life and an ordered bedroom, then making your bed might be in alignment with you.
Other wording might, then, be more useful for you than “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong.” What could you say instead? Explore these options:
- This thing is in alignment with me. / This thing is not in alignment with me.
- I want that thing. / I don’t want that thing.
- That’s toward my end. / That’s away from my end.
An Example: What to Do With Your Sleeping Bag?
Let me tell you a story about a guy and his wife who were going camping and talking about their gear.
The man said, “When you get back from camping, you unroll the sleeping bags so that they can last longer. If you keep them tightly packed together, they deteriorate faster. I know that I’m right.”
He was really digging his heels in about the fact that he was right on this matter. It was causing conflict in the conversation.
This man’s point of view assumed that the sleeping bags’ longevity was the most important thing. That didn’t take into account that some people don’t like to unpack when they get back from a long trip or that unrolled sleeping bags take up a lot of space.
When we hear language like “good,” “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” it’s an opportunity to stop and question, “What’s the important thing? What values are at stake? What is being compromised?” It’s useful to make those values explicit instead of taking them for granted.
With the sleeping bags, the first person valued longevity. Perhaps the other person had an early meeting in the morning and valued getting into bed as soon as possible. They might have had a difference of opinion about which value was more important at that moment, but that’s something that reasonable adults can have a conversation about.
When the situation gets defined in terms of “right” or “wrong,” it denies the opportunity for that conversation. It puts an objective label on the situation and shuts down productive dialogue.
Empowering Language to Rethink ‘Should’ and ‘Shouldn’t’
The word “should” is one example from a group of disempowering words that all go together. Others are “have to,” “need to,” “gotta,” “must” and “ought to.” They all serve a similar purpose.
Let’s start with an example of why this language might not be empowering. Someone might say, “You should breathe.” Well, that depends. Do you want to stay alive? If you don’t want to stay alive, then breathing is counterproductive to your goals. Whether to stay alive is a choice that you get to make about your life.
When you hear the word “should” (or one of its close associates), get curious. Probe into it with questions like:
- For the sake of what?
- To what end?
- What will I get out of it?
- According to what criteria?
So if someone says, “You should read this book,” take a look at why. Inquire about what that action will produce in your life.
Words like “should” are obligatory words. Their goal is to direct someone’s actions in the world — even our own actions. That burden of obligation takes away a person’s autonomy.
Perhaps you’re asking, “How could I possibly override my own autonomy through one little word?” But think about it this way:
You say to yourself, “Oh, I should be working out,” thinking that it’s going to motivate you to do so. Do you actually feel motivated to go and work out then? No, probably not. You’ve undermined your autonomy. In fact, you may end up less motivated than you would have been if you hadn’t said anything at all.
You have an infinite amount of possibilities in the world. Whenever you utter “should” or “shouldn’t,” your possibilities get smaller. You narrow the options that are before you.
So what can you do instead? One option is to replace your “should” language with “want to” language. Instead of “I should exercise now,” use “I want to exercise now.”
Another idea is to be specific about your purpose for doing things. Add “in order to _____” to the end of your statements. Finish the sentence with something that you want in the world. For example, “I should work out in order to have a body that is ready for long hikes through the woods.”
Empowering Language to Rework ‘Makes Me’
Passive language-isms may not be serving your purpose either. “Makes me” is a prime example of this.
In your reality, it’s useful to position yourself as the creator. You’re not the one things happen to. You are the source of the choice.
“That makes me angry!” is something you might find yourself saying often. You might then think things like, “That thing should stop,” or, “That thing should go somewhere else.” In your mind, the problem is with that thing, and you are a victim of it. Unless it gets out of your reality, you’re going to keep experiencing anger.
But what if you said, “I feel angry with that thing”? With “I feel” language, you are still acknowledging that the thing is happening and your feelings toward it. But you’re no longer labeling that thing as the cause of your feelings; your feelings come from your thinking about the event.
When you frame it this way, you have a choice. You can choose to be around that thing you don’t like, or you can choose not to be around it. If you move away, you do it for yourself because you are the creator of that emotion.
Since you are the creator of that emotion, you also have the power to choose a different emotion. You can choose the emotions that you want to experience — the ones that serve your purposes in the world.
That doesn’t mean always being positive and happy; sometimes sadness or anger might be most useful to you. But you can be deliberate with your thoughts and create the emotions that you want.
Passive language isn’t always in the form of “makes me.” It also happens when you put other people in the subject of your sentences and yourself as the object. This indicates that you’re out of control in your reality.
It’s like you’re driving a car, but you’re sitting in the passenger seat. All the while, you’re pretending you’re not. You’re reaching over to put your hands on the wheel and your foot on the gas pedal.
That’s what happens with passive language. You’re the one speaking, and yet things are happening to you. By flipping sentences around so that you are the subject, you can have more power in your world.
It is empowering to adopt language that trains your brain to notice that you are in control of your values, your motivation, and your emotions.
I’ve still got four more empowering language suggestions that I’d like to share with you. Next, read “5 Ways to Choose Empowering Language” to learn about them.