5 Ways to Choose Empowering Language

tip of an iceberg with lots of ice below the water line, representing our beliefs and the greater depths our language usage points to

If you’re feeling held back from the reality you want to experience, take a look at the words you’re using. Disempowering language may be shaping a reality that’s the opposite of the life you’d like to have.

Why does empowering language matter? Language tends to be the tip of a belief iceberg. It points to the model of reality that you’re holding and shapes your concepts about the world. Being selective about the words you use will give you more possibility and choice in your existence.

It’s okay to use whatever language you’re currently using. Even still, it’s worth paying attention to the words that you use so that you can see whether you’ve got stuff going on beneath the surface that you might not have been aware of.

Take a look at these five disempowering phrases that you may be ready to replace.

Empowering Language Tip #1): Swap Out ‘I Can’t’

Closing Your Possibilities

You have the capacity to explore possibilities. You have the freedom to express yourself in any way that you want to in the world — to show up however you want.

But the word “can’t” implies a permanent state. Maybe you’re not able to do that thing right now, but perhaps you ultimately will be at some point. The word “can’t” might be true-ish at this very moment, but it’s not the whole truth.

Perhaps you’ve heard this famous quote: “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” Some people ascribe this line to Henry Ford, and others dispute that. No matter who said it, there’s truth to its message.

With the words “I can” or “I can’t,” you’re telling a story about the world. And when your story says that something is not possible, then you’re going to stop looking for how to do it.

If you want to express as much freedom in the world as you possibly can, then you’ll want to leave your possibilities open. You can do this by choosing the wording “I can’t yet.”

Creating Your World

Not only does “I can’t” close you off from certain possibilities, but it can also create a world that’s the exact opposite of the experiences you’d like to have.

Pretend, for instance, that there’s someone you’d love to learn from. You see that person out in the world, but you say, “I can’t just walk up to them and ask that question. I could never.”

Sure you can! You’ve got a mouth and two legs, haven’t you? You have all the tools and functional things that you need for completing that task. You’re under-resourcing yourself when you say “I can’t.”

This is a clear example of creating your reality with the language that you choose. Because you said that you can’t do it, you choose not to do it. You stand in the way of something that you really want in your reality.

In these situations, replace “I can’t” with “I’m unwilling to.” See how that lands with you. You might choose to move forward, or you might decide that it’s not worth it to you to take whatever that action is. Either way, this phrasing puts you in charge of your life and places the power in your hands.

Empowering Language Tip #2) Replace ‘I Don’t Know’

Your brain is a meaning-making machine. Perhaps you think of your brain as a source of information, but that’s only partially true. More than a source of info, it’s a source for answering questions. It makes connections and finds what you’re looking for.

So when you give your brain a question, if you then say, “I don’t know,” your brain will stop querying its database. You’ve returned an answer — “I don’t know” — and that’s that.

A more resourceful approach involves giving yourself space to keep thinking.

Ask yourself the question again and see what happens. See what kind of thoughts come up for you and what maybe could be the answer. Even if you don’t latch onto a full answer, maybe you’ll find a breadcrumb or a clue that could help you get there in the future.

You can also replace “I don’t know” with “That’s a useful question.” Instead of shutting down your thought process, that approach will keep you digging for answers.

Or do this: When someone says, “I don’t know,” ask, “But if you did know, what would the answer be?” Often, people will magically surprise you with an answer once you rephrase the question like that. You can use this trick on yourself too.

Empowering Language Tip #3): Cut Out ‘I’m Trying’

Most of the time, when people say, “I’m trying,” what they’re really meaning is “I’m not intending to be able to do this right now.” It indicates that they’re planning to fail at whatever the thing is.

Imagine that you have a piece of crumpled paper in your hand. You say, “I’m going to try to throw this in the garbage.” That implies that you don’t have very much confidence in yourself to actually get it in the basket. If you did, you’d say, “I’m going to throw this away.”

“I’m trying” acknowledges that you’re making an attempt, but it does it in a way that undercuts your efforts. It suggests that you’re not going to succeed.

Those words can imply that your task is insurmountable. They may even deny the progress that you’ve already made.

Instead, think about one of these alternatives:

  • I’m learning.
  • I’m figuring this out.
  • I’m in the act of improvement.
  • I’m eventually gonna get there.
  • I’m developing my skill at this.
  • I’m practicing this.

These phrases are more resourceful and empowering. They give you credit for what you’ve already been able to accomplish.

Empowering Language Tip #4) Reword ‘Hard’ and ‘Difficult’

Is it hard to dig a hole? Well, that depends on your perspective.

person digging a hole outside

What about climbing a mountain — is that hard? That is a way that somebody could describe climbing a mountain. But it could also be a really fun experience or a playful one. Some people see mountain climbing as an enjoyable activity for recreation. For that matter, there are people who might even consider climbing a mountain easy.

“Hard” is an opinion word. So is “difficult.” When you use opinion words like these, it’s as if you’re coloring your experience with whatever crayon it is you just pulled out of the box. 

What version of the world do you want to see? What sort of experiences do you want to have?

If you’re going to use opinion words, then choose ones that are resourceful to you. Useful opinion words are ones that encourage you to go and do that thing. They’re motivating. They allow you to see what’s possible.

Marie Forleo wrote a book called Anything Is Figureoutable. I love that phraseology. Because when you tell yourself something’s easy, then you might start moving in that direction. You begin taking action, you get feedback from that action, and you take some more refined action. If you keep doing that, eventually you’ll get there.

When you think of things that way, it’s not really that hard. It’s easy, in fact. It might take a while, but it’s not hard.

So instead of lamenting that things are hard or difficult, tell yourself that they’re easy or fun. Perhaps you’ll feel like you’re lying to yourself, but saying it’s hard could be just as much of a lie. If you’re gonna lie to yourself anyway, you might as well make it a lie that’s useful to you.

Another alternative I like is the word “unfamiliar.” Something might be unfamiliar to you now, but you can move toward familiarity. It just takes showing up at it again and again. You can set yourself on the step-by-step journey of familiarizing yourself with that thing.

Empowering Language Tip #5) Rethink ‘Failure’

Culturally, the word “failure” has a very negative connotation. People don’t want to be failures. They don’t want to experience failure.

I think that’s a really tricky position to hold. Every skill you could possibly have is necessarily on the other side of failure.

Here’s a definition of failure that I love: Failure is the absence of necessary or expected results.

All that means is that those results aren’t there yet.

The thing about failure is that it only works when you use the word “failure.” It only happens when you name something “failure” and quit trying. Otherwise, you’re just learning, practicing, and working on the skill. You’re becoming familiar with the thing.

Surely you’re familiar with children’s author Dr. Seuss, but you may not know that he was rejected countless times before having his first book picked up. If you’re not familiar with this story, hear it for yourself in this YouTube Short: https://youtube.com/shorts/Uu_pHJpvRcw?feature=share

Dr. Seuss didn’t quit; he kept going until he started selling books. So instead of saying “I’ve failed,” say:

  • It was an attempt that I’ve learned from.
  • I’m not failing; I’m learning.

If you’re willing to keep going with a thing, then you haven’t failed yet.

Did you notice how many of these rephrases include the word “yet”? Using this empowering word can open up so many possibilities for you.

For additional tips, head over to “3 Empowering Language Patterns That Can Change Your Reality”.

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