For many people these days, life seems F*cked. While your life may in fact be f*cked, I know without ever meeting you that your words are compounding the problem. How you TALK about life makes all the difference in how you EXPERIENCE life.
Here’s some self-talk that blew through my brain recently: “I am stuck. Nothing really bad has happened, I am proud of the good things in life, but then one day it all got stuck somehow. I should try to not regret what is or was, yet I regret so much. I need to make some progress. I can’t go on like this. I must get going again, but can’t figure out how. What now?”
What am I supposed to do with that tornado of shit? Some words drive the action forward. Some words make us total lethargic couch potatoes. When life seems F*cked and you are stuck, your language is likely full of these couch potato words (like that last paragraph) that f*ck up your life even more.
A couple years ago, my friend, Dave Asprey, the father of Biohacking, introduced me to the concept of Weasel Words. Weasel because they are noncommittal. I was surprised to discover that some of my own seemingly harmless words were, at times, imprisoning me in a Cul De Sac of inaction and indecision. I am not talking about the stuff that the asshole in my head spews. I am talking about deviously ordinary words many of us mindlessly slip in every day. Especially when we believe we are in a positive mindset and making progress, these little devils can sap the life out of everything. They are insidious because we are unconscious of their negative power. By becoming conscious of these words and minimizing their use, I got out of the Cul De Sac of inaction and you can too.
Here are nine everyday words to minimize, especially when you feel F*cked. These words sabotage your life by destroying your agency. Your rational ability to choose which actions will make up your path through life. As you become conscious of these culprits and start to weed them out of your life, you will notice a visible change in your ability to get going again. Action will become Effortless. You will also notice a change in how you feel about yourself as your confidence for action grows. After describing how they impede action, I will suggest some replacement words and share a couple of hacks I have used to exorcise these villains from my life. Here are the culprits:
- Was / Is / Are / Am
- Need / Have To / Must
- Good / Bad
- Regret, could have
Becoming aware of my own use of these words has been an important part of my waking up and becoming conscious. When I find myself using some of the worst offenders, I endeavor to observe rather than indulge the judgemental thoughts (I just had to rewrite that from “try not to be judgemental”). The words are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. The issue is in the context and the intention behind their use as opposed to other words that could be used. In the political sphere, a person is usually trying to dodge a direct question purposefully with misdirection. We have all seen that. On a personal basis and between people, we tend to use weasel words to achieve what seem like very valid goals including:
- Avoidance of pain to self or others. The ego doesn’t like to fail and is unsure of outcomes. So it says things like “I will try.” Success is then the trying not the doing. Lowering the bar. This is basically a natural defense mechanism. So it is when we beat around the bush with bad news to a friend. We are “trying” to spare them pain. But many times the pain just gets elongated, delayed, or suppressed.
- Avoidance of responsibility. Again, ego doesn’t like to fail or be responsible for anything that it could fail at. So it shirks responsibility at every chance. “I” will do something is hard, “we” will do something shares the responsibility around and gets off my shoulders alone. So do politicians. They want to please as many voters of different stripes as possible so saying platitudes keeps them out of hot water. We are so used to this behavior from politicians that in many ways an in your face guy like Trump is a refreshing alternative to many people.
- Narrowing of alternatives. The ego also doesn’t like the paradox of choice. Too many choices means hard work will be required to decide between the alternatives. Not only could you choose incorrectly leading to pain and failure (see above), but the work to make the decision is difficult in an of itself. So we say we “can’t” or “Have to” or “Need to” do something. That means it is an imperative with no other alternatives. The only way. The narrow path can seem attractive versus the hard brain work of sifting through alternatives.
Recognition that the ego is just doing its job to protect me from pain and increase the chances of success has enabled me to be much less judgemental of my own use of these words. When encountering my own use of a weasel word I ask myself
- Is this word phrasing serving my higher values (or just my ego/fear)?
- Is there an underlying issue which my ego is trying to avoid here?
- Is there a way to reframe the sentence which is more in line with my higher values?
My personal reason for becoming aware of these words and working to get them out of my vocabulary is because they typically are impediments to action, destroy motivation, debilitate and discourage me from moving forward in life. I have decided that brain energy spent on them is generally wasted and I would rather spend that energy on actually accomplishing something rather than the avoidance.
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking “I am a badass! I never get stuck!” or “I like those words, they make me feel all safe and comfortable (on the couch).” Or my favorite: “Those words accurately describe my reality! Are you telling me to deny my feelings?”
When I was a kid, every time I came within 3 feet of a cupcake I wanted to eat it. It was usually my mother slapping my hand away. “You can’t have that!” I hated my mother then. Of course, I COULD eat the cupcake. My mouth and stomach are working just fine, thank you. SHE was the only one stopping me. It was her fault my life was f*cked.
Today it is my own brain slapping my own hand. Do I hate myself? When I used to say to myself “you can’t eat the cupcake,” yea, I did hate myself on some level. My nervous system channeled my mother’s voice along with the related rage. Today, I have changed the words and the experience is completely different. The words I now say to myself are: “you CAN eat the cupcake if you want AND there will be consequences. Would you rather have the cupcake or the consequences?” This slight change of wording changes the experience completely. My mother is no longer involved. It is not about the past, but the present. From “my life is f*cked”, to “I have the agency to choose how I experience life.”
My personal goal is to reduce the use of these words by 50% next year. As with “Do This” posts, your personal mileage may vary. Your goals may vary. Everyone though can benefit from a little more consciousness in relation to our vocabulary and how it reflects the stories in our heads. Be aware. Be precise. Be awake.
Let’s look at each Weasel Word in more detail.
Was / Is / Are / Am
“Steering perception? I am! Inviting contradiction? I am! So this is the way the game is played. I am I!” Queensryche
The other day my 5 year old said,
“Daddy, I am hungry.”
“Hello hungry, I am daddy.”
“No, daddy, I am really, really hungry!”
“Oh, I understand. You are Harper and you FEEL hungry.”
A scowl was on Harper’s face.
Check that. Harper scowled.
When we say “I AM” we raise the stakes to the existential level. What AM I without the thing I just said I AM? The core question is, does this particular event really need the stakes raised so high? Do you really have a gun to your head? 99.9% of the time the answer is no and raising the stakes creates additional stress that servers very little purpose.
All forms of “To Be” can sabotage us in two very different ways: Limiting Options and Giving Up Agency.
- Limiting Options. When we say “I am X”, we are limiting the universe that is ourselves to one thing, “X”. The subject, “I”, is at that moment only ONE THING, “X”. Regardless of if we judge “X” to be a good or bad thing (more on that later), by attaching it deeply to our identity, we ignore all other aspects of our identity at that moment. We make ourselves smaller. We are also constraining the universe of possible actions to “X”. Life becomes smaller still. Life can begin to feel like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. I am hungry. Eat. I am tired. Sleep. I am bored. Open Facebook. Change becomes possible when we become conscious of options, lots of options. “I am” limits options.
- Giving Up Agency. When we assign part of ourselves to something or some else, we can unconsciously give up. Give up responsibility. Transfer agency from ourselves to the thing or another person. When Harper said, “Daddy, I am hungry.” The explicit implication was, “and you need to solve my hunger problem.” There she stood, in a kitchen full of food within arm’s reach, expecting some else to feed her. Of course, I fed my 5-year-old. When I tried it with my wife, she pointed to the refrigerator with “I just got some more turkey that you like.” Despite my best puppy-dog eyes, she was having none of the transfer of agency.
- Agency is also transferred by the passive voice. The passive voice is evasive and changes the subject of the sentence from ourselves to someone or something else. The passive voice can let us off the hook, direct attention elsewhere, avoid responsibility for action. In “A scowl was on Harper’s face”, the “scowl” is the subject and “Harper’s face” is the passive object being acted upon. In “Harper scowled,” Harper is the active subject engaged in the action of the verb “scowled.”
When you find yourself sabotaged by some form of “To Be”, try these two hacks
- Use “Experienced” instead. “I experience hunger” has much less existential dread than “I am hungry”. Both are correct. Choosing the one which embraces more options, invites more possibilities will unF*ck your life.
- Switch to active voice. “Harper scowled,” allows her the freedom to stop scowling or continue. It is her choice. She has agency.
If “To Be” was a family member, it would be your alcoholic uncle who lost his job, divorced your aunt, got addicted to opiates, rode his motorcycle across Africa, and made $10M in the stock market last year. “Hello, my name is Ned, I am an alcoholic.” Yes, and so much more.
Need / Have To / Must
“Don’t believe everything you think.”Byron Katie
Beware of “inordinate attachments,” St. Ignatius of Loyola
“I need something to eat.”
“I have to eat lunch right now!”
“I must have a yogurt and a sandwich, or I will die!”
I started to say “I bet you…”, but caved and made her lunch.
I have fasted a couple times for a week or more. I have 100% confidence that my daughter would not die from starvation in the next six hours. Saying “have to” raises the existential stakes on the trival. Makes the trivial existential. Is that what you really want to do?
These words sabotage us by removing agency, proposing only a single solution and making the temporary existential.
- Removing agency. When we say we “need” or “have to” do something, do you really have any choice? Someone or something has made the choice for us. For Harper it was the feeling of hunger. Hunger removed Harper’s agency to make any other choice than to eat. I could think of a million things to do in the next hour, Harper could only think of one, she had given up agency.
- “Must do” is a similar cousin. There are very few things you “must do”. Breathing. Beating your heart. the truly existential stuff. When you tell yourself you “must do” something, you are removing agency, removing choice. It seems like there are no choices. But there are always choices. Even on eating. You could fast. And breathing. You could hold your breath. Don’t let your language steal your agency.
- Single solution. The verb in these sentences becomes the one and only solution to the problem. It becomes an “inordinate attachment”. Of all the options in the world, saying you have to do X limits them to a single solution.
- Make it existential when it likely is not. Our minds pay special attention to anything that might kill us. While this was very helpful when we were being chased by lions, there are very few truly existential threats in our world today. Yet we create them every time we use Need, Have To, or Must. These words raise the stakes to the existential level. Do you really want to raise so many things to the existential level so often? Why? Do you really need that extra level of vigilance for an afternoon snack?
When you find yourself sabotaged by Need/Have To/Must, try these words instead:
- Pause. Whenever you find yourself ramping up the existential stakes, pause. Ask yourself in that moment if that is really what you want to do. Is this really a moment of crisis? If it is, fine. 99.9% of the time it likely will not be life or death.
- Replace with “want to”. “I must eat,” is false and disempowering. “I want to eat,” is true and empowering. I am experiencing hunger and want to eat. I can eat now or later, yogurt, a sandwich, anything. I am in no danger of dying and my nervous system is not on high alert. I have not shot my body full of stress hormones that are not necessary.
- Replace with “get to”. I Need To eat implies an existential crisis. I Get To eat is an open opportunity. Opportunities are experienced differently by the nervous system than threats. Make your experience and opportunity not a threat.
If “Need / Have To / Must” were a family member, it would be your 30-year-old cousin with a dozen failed relationships. “I must have the perfect man.”
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare
My college daughter came through the door with her suitcases and dropped them with a huff. Home or the summer.
“Hi Finn! How are you?”
“I am great. Watched a movie on the plane. But I am really tired and hungry. You have anything to eat?”
Great, another hungry one.
“I am glad your trip went well and I hear you are hungry. I make a mean yogurt and sandwich plate. How does that sound?”
“Oh, that sounds good. But I was really in the mood for pasta with butter sauce.”
Frowning a bit I said, “Ok, i will make you pasta with butter sauce.”
While I knew that Finn liked the sandwich plate AND wanted pasta instead now, my nervous system felt the rejection when she said “but.” The nervous system feels the disregard for everything before the “but”. In order to not tilt myself, I had to so some mental karate to reframe the conversation myself. A situation that could have been avoided if Finn had not used the “but” in the first place.
“But” sabotages your life by completely negating whatever was just said before it. We often want to agree with people to “be nice” while using the “but” to express our true feelings.
- Hides a negative emotion to “be nice”. When someone says something we disagree with, we will often start out the reply by agreeing with them to be nice. And then we throw in the “but.” When I heard Finn’s “but”, i frowned. My nervous system took it for exactly what it was, a total repudiation of everything else that was just said. Everything before the “but” is discounted when you say it. While Finn was trying to be nice, the “but” sabatoged her whole objective.
- Denies that BOTH are often true. I know Finn likes yogurt and a sandwich. Yet that day she was feeling like pasta. That is fine. I can handle that. I want to make her what she is in the mood for. I am 100% certain that my suggestion “sounds good” AND she wanted something else. Why say “But” which triggered my frown when BOTH were true?
I have tried this for the last three years whenever I feel a “but” coming on and it works miracles.
- Replace “but” with “and.” I have yet to come up with a situation where “and” is not a better word. “Oh, that sounds good AND I was really in the mood for pasta for pasta with butter sauce.” No trigger. My suggestion was affirmed, she does like yogurt and sandwich, AND she wants something else. No problem, off to the kitchen.
If “But” was a family member, it would be your well meaning grandmother at Thanksgiving. “The turkey is nice, but a bit dry for my taste.”
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Yoda
My kids found some videos online of other kids having fun on huge tire swings hung from massive trees. We have some big trees in our yard, so they asked me
“Can we try a tire swing in our yard?”
“Yes, I will build us a tire swing.” I replied.
When it was all put together strung between two massive pine trees in the side yard, they asked “Can we try it?”
“There is no try, only Swing or No swing.” I replied.
“Try” can feel like a safe word. “Trying” can feel like taking action, But it is not. It is the opposite of action.
My 10 year old, Madison asked, “Dad, why is “try” a bad word?”
“I didn’t say it was a bad word. It is just often the wrong word to use. It is imprecise. It doesn’t answer the question at hand.”
“But sometimes I say “try” when I am scared to do something.”
“Yes, I understand and yet you still have to decide later about what scares you right?”
“Oh yea, I get it now.”
Score one for Dad.
Many times when we say “try” we are actually uncertain of the outcome, or our ability to succeed, so our brains want to hedge. While this can feel like a “safe” strategy to avoid pain, it does not move us forward in any meaningful way.
“Try” sabotages us and fails to move action forward in two ways:
- “Try” gives your brain a pass on the real action. All actions have potential consequences. The ego wants accomplishments without consequences. To tick off tasks. To have “wins”. Your brain gives the ego these “wins” by confirming that your life is moving in the directions of your beliefs and values. When we make commitments to do something our ego registers the “win.” A commitment “to try” can FEEL like a win, when no actual action is being committed to nor consequences risks. “Trying” has no consequences. It is 100% inaction. It is a liminal state. In between. Not forward or backward. “Try” is simply another loop around the Cul de Sac of inaction.
- “Try” presupposes failure. “If you tell yourself that you’re going to try staying on diet or try to read the book, you’ve subconsciously already planned to fail.” my friend Dave Asprey points out. With failure imminent, the action is effectively prohibited. Who wants to take action with failure all but assured?
When you find yourself using “try”, take one of these three concrete actions instead.
- Decide immediately. When my kids asked could we “try” a tire swing in the yard, my answer was “Yes I will build one.” What if I said I would “try to build one”. The kids might have liked that answer, but I was not committing to ANYTHING. If you are ready to “try” something say exactly what action you will or will not take. Instead of “try” say “I will” or “I won’t.”
- Break it down into small steps. If the thing you are thinking about “trying” is big, hard, expensive or somehow you need more information to decide, break it down into small steps which you are able to accomplish with an “I will.” With most decisions, there are small steps that can be taken to make progress toward the big “I will or I won’t.” If I was unsure about the tire swing, I would have said “I will research tire swings.” After collecting the research information I would be in a better position to decide on the larger project. Commit to the small steps you can.
- Postpone the decision. Sometimes you are not ready to make a decision and there are no small steps that make sense to take immediately. Rather than say you will “try” something when you plan to do nothing, just say you will postpone the decision. For example if my kids had asked me for a tire swing in the dead of winter, I might have said, “Let’s decide in the spring.” A delay with a concrete timeline is always better than the open ended “try.”
If “Try” was a family member, it would be your 30-year-old bachelor nephew with a college degree working for minimum wage at a call center. He has been “trying” to get his life together since graduation.
I mentioned the tire swing project to my wife.
“Yea, you should do that.” said she.
“I am going to hang it up next week,” said I.
“Ok, well I get to do the laundry now.” she continued.
“I am jealous that you get to do the laundry today, I get to mow the lawn.”
There are “shoulds” around us all the time. From ourselves and others. When my wife said I “should do” something, I had the opportunity to agree with the “should” and continue the inaction, or decide immediately. I decided immediately and told her when I would be doing the swing. Our lives moved forward. If I had agreed to the “should” we would have been stuck in the cul de sac. It sounds like we “should” do something, but when will we decide? Why prolong the inaction?
“Should” sabotages us in a similar way that “try” does. It delays action, removes agency, implies guilt and provides false confidence.
- Delays action. It sounds like action, but it is not, similar to ‘Try.” Saying you “should” do something is not committing to any action at all. Only to the intent of some future action.
- Removes agency. Personal agency is when you make your own decisions. By saying you “should” do something, you give up your own decision ability. Who will decide then? It is purposefully unclear. You have removed your responsibility to decide (agency) by stating the obvious, that you “should” decide at some point.
- Implies guilt, shame. There are heaps of guilt and shame when I don’t do things I feel I “should” do. Why set yourself up for that pain? Why compound the inaction with guilt and shame?
- Gives false confidence. Should can come with a huge helping of self righteous superiority, without having actually done anything. I said I “should” do it, and that feels like action, so I am better than you because I “should” do something. Should can feel like action while letting you off the hook for any actual action. This false confidence will blow up further down the line when the action must be decided. It is a short term salve.
- Reveals a Value Gap. “Shoulds” are not about the events or actions being contemplated. They are about the stories in your head about what you value in life, your fears of a moral gap between what you believe and your fear of the uncomfortable truth that what you “should” do may not turn out, may be hard, may have unforeseen consequences. My values tell me I “should” do something, yet my fear tells me to be scared. Who wins? Should opens up the gap. Notice it. Resolve the gap by deciding between the value and the fear. One will win even if you are unconscious of it.
When you find yourself wanting to say “should”, try these tactics instead:
- Approach like with “try”
- Decide immediately. Do or not do. There is no should.
- Break down into small steps. If the big thing is too much to commit to, break it down and do or not do the small steps along the way.
- Postpone. Inaction is an action. When it is conscious. If you need more information or simply are not ready to decide, admit that and put it off.
- I often find myself wanting to say “should” when I fundamentally want to hedge. If you want to hedge, hedge. Delay. Say you will decide next week. Be honest that you can’t commit now. Don’t should.
- Replace “should” with “Want to”, “Choose to”, “going to” or “get to” to move the action forward or be more honest about the action. i “should do” something vs “I Want to” do something. The want to is a factual statement, it does not imply guilt or give up agency. It is 100% accurate and allows action to follow.
If should was a family member, it would be your goth highschool pothead cousin. She says she “should” get her life together at some point. And yet she has not.
We have a ice bath at our house, basically a cattle trough with cold water and ice in it. I like to jump in for three minutes after a work out to reduce inflammation and speed up recovery. I have been dropping hints to my wife about it.
“I can’t. Too cold.”
“I understand you don’t like being cold. Neither do I. And I blast through that fear because I know it is good for me. You can do it.”
“Stop being such an asshole. Don’t push me. I can’t.”
“If one of our daughters were at the bottom drowning, could you jump in and save her?”
“Of course I could.”
“So you Can, you just don’t want to. Isn’t that more correct?”
“Yea, I just don’t want to.”
“Can’t” is one of those words that can ramp up a small fear into the existential category unnecessarily. It is absolutist. No way, no how. That is often not true. My wife had done the cold plunge before. She could do it. She just didn’t want to at that time (I had lowered the temp). Growth comes when we push ourselves outside our comfort zone. Can’t keeps us in our comfort zone and hinders growth.
“Can’t” sabotages us by making the ordinary existential, limiting our options and is often a lie – a denial of reality.
- Make the ordinary, existential. Few people “like” being cold. Yet our ancestors without fire or clothes were cold and hungry most of the time. Today most of us have become habituated to being a comfortable temperature and well fed most of the time. So we tell ourselves we “can’t” leave our comfort zone. What if the power fails? What if we become homeless? Would you immediately die, or would you adapt? We can leave our comfort zones. We are unlikely to die outside them. Ordinary stress doesn’t need to be ramped up to the existential level.
- Limiting our options. Can’t is absolute. All options are off the table. You have removed all agency. When I mentioned a drowning kid, my wife agreed she “could.” So could she under other circumstances? Of course. Why limit your options with your choice of words?
- It is often a lie. One of the primary reasons to pay attention to the words you use is to avoid telling yourself lies. To avoid escaping reality unconsciously. If there are circumstances under which you “can” do something, even if extreme, then “can’t” is a lie. Why lie to yourself?
When you find yourself wanting to say you “can’t” do something, try these words instead.
- Replace can’t with will or will not. If you don’t feel like doing something just say it. Don’t lie to yourself. “I can’t get into the cold plunge.” is a lie. “I won’t get into the cold plunge,” is true.
- Replace with “Can and don’t feel like”. This is also true. Both are true. You can get into the cold plunge AND you don’t feel like it right now. Stick to the truth.
- Pro tip: add a time frame to the statement to allow yourself the freedom to change you mind later. Leave the door to growth open. “I don’t feel like a cold plunge right now, ask me again next week.” Feelings are like the weather. The come and go, change over time. Leave the door open to decide you can do something later.
If “can’t” were a family member, it would also be your black-clad, pale-faced gothic pothead highschool cousin. “I just can’t deal with it all.” You can and you have decided to deal with it by becoming an outsider and smoking pot.
My daughter came home from 4th grade with an art project.
“Look Daddy, I got an A+! Aren’t you proud of me?”
“Let me see your project.”
She presented it with a proud smile, angling for a “proud”.
“Oh, this looks like it took a very long time to do. Tell me about it.”
She rambled on for quite a while.
“Madison, I am impressed with all the hard work you put in and how creative you are. I am grateful you teacher recognized that too with the good grade. I look forward to seeing more projects in this class.”
In today’s environment where kids get participation trophies for everything, “proud” has also become much overused. I consciously limit the use of it to increase the impact when I do use it. I also am very conscious of what to be “proud” of. Outcomes are outside our control. To be proud of an outcome puts the focus on the outcome, which is by nature beyond our control. I tend to reserve “proud” for the process, the effort. Those things are within our control and can be repeated, therefore are worthy of encouragement and pride. I am proud that my daughter works hard and has a positive work ethic, not that she got an “A.”
“Proud” sabotages life by its over use, focus on outcomes, and discouraging action.
- Over use. Too much use of “proud” can diminish it’s impact, like participation trophies do. If you get a trophy for being on a team, what is the reward for excelling? Why pursue excellence if you parents will be “proud” no matter what? Don’t give anyone a trophy for the trivial.
- A focus on outcomes. When we are “proud” of outcomes, we become more attached to them. Yet outcomes are outside our control. The process can be within our control. Be very conscious of what you are “proud” of.
- Discouraging action. Sometimes we avoid action unless it gets the “proud” moniker. If I get proud for some actions and the few times i don’t, i don’t want to do that “unproud” action anymore. Pride can turn into a drug we are addicted to. It can set the bar for action too high. Why set yourself up for inaction?
When someone is fishing for a “proud” try these two strategies
- Give 1 for every 10. When you have the impulse to express pride, deny it 90% of the time
- Compliment the process. Focus praise on the process not the outcome.
If “proud” were a family member it would be your grandparents. They are “proud” of even very trivial things. “Oh, you picked up your room. I am so proud of you.”
Good / Bad
A little miffed about not getting a “proud” out of me, my 4th grader continued.
“Did I do good?” “Some of my classmates art was really bad.”
“Do you like it? Are you happy with the effort and how it turned out?”
“Then it’s good!”
Earlier this year the same 4th grader and I got Covid.
“I have Covid, that’s bad right?”
“Why do you feel it’s bad? Covid is just doing what a virus does, it doesn’t know anything about you. It could even be good because we are going to build immunity. It is a fact that we have Covid, I don’t see any reason to pile on with judgements about it either way.”
“Yea, that makes sense, it’s just Covid.”
Our egos love judgements. Good and Bad are judgements. They are not facts. “I have Covid,” is a statement of fact. Many times these judgements don’t serve us well. You did an art project, put your heart into it and are happy with how it turned out. Why let your experience of that be clouded by someone else’s judgement of the outcome who had no part in it? I came down with Covid. That is a fact. Does placing a judgement on it change the fact of Covid? Judgements add emotion, many times unnecessarily. While this is a natural, we can choose to react differently, or not at all.
Judgements like “good” and “bad” can sabotage us by disabling action and pulling us out of reality into a Victim or Hero mentality.
- Disable action. Judgements can become a drug like outcomes. I want good. I don’t want bad. I avoid actions that lead to bad and want more action that leads to good. Once a judgement is in place, it becomes harder to deal with the facts, especially if that judgement is “bad.” Judging Covid as “bad” makes getting through it and doing the work to get better harder. Even the judgement of “good” can disable taking risks in the future. If I had said my daughter’s art was “good” how would she feel about the next art project? “What if it is “bad”?” she might think. I did “good” the last time, so maybe I will rest on that outcome.
- Victim or Hero mentality. Either state is a fantasy, not reality. We are never just one or the other. They both take us out of reality. Yet reality remains and we eventually come crashing back into it. Covid is just Covid. I am not a victim nor a hero for getting it. Covid just is.
The reframe includes:
- Stick to the facts. Simply leave out the judgement. The nervous system recognizes the feelings of “good” and “Bad”. Just leave them out. Let yourself experience the facts of the situation without any critique. This happened, stick with that. “I have Covid.” Full stop.
- Turn it around. When you feel a strong judgement coming, stop and turn it around. “Covid is bad.” What if Covid is good?” What are the upsides of it? Could the opposite be true? Simply stopping to recognize the possibility of alternate reactions can keep us stable and better able to deal with the facts of the situation.
- Replace with “useful.” Everything that happens to us is an opportunity to learn and grow. This growth is stunted by judgement. Next time you find yourself wanting to judge, try replacing the judgement with useful. “I have Covid and it is useful.” I can learn more about health, I will develop antibodies, I will be able to tell others about my experience. I will grow.
If “Good/Bad” were a family member it would be the bloviating uncle with the Mercedes and too much debt, living way beyond his means. “I have a good car, a good house and very, very good shoes.” “Being out of fashion is bad.”
Regret, could have
About a week after my 4th grader’s art project, we were sitting eating a snack.
“I regret that art thing I did. I could have done it differently.”
“Madison, think about what you just said for a second. You told me you did the best you could. It seems to me that you couldn’t have done it differently because you didn’t. The question answers itself. Tell me what you learned and would do differently next time.”
Madison went on for about half an hour about how she would do things differently next time. Empowered to learn from the project she got very creative. Regret and could have’s are judgements, not reality, they hinder progress. By staying curious she could grow.
Regret and could have sabotages us by compounding negative emotions and judgments and confounding future action.
- Compounds negative emotions and judgements. Every time you bring up the past, especially negative emotions, your nervous system feels the pain again. Your nervous system has a very hard time differentiating between the memory and the real thing. In fact, reliving negative emotions just makes them stronger. If you in fact took an action or made a decision in the past that you have a negative experience of, why keep it alive?
- Confounds future action. Negative emotions are warning flags when similar situations come up again. Would Madison be excited about another art project if she regretted the last one or “could have” done better? This barrier is unnecessary and doesn’t serve any constructive purpose.
To exit the negative emotional spiral, focus on what you learned.
- Replace with “learned from.” When we learn something, we are empowered to grow and do things differently the next time. Many things, like art projects, are two way doors. We can open them again and go back through.
- **Pro tip, Regret minimization as a visualisation.** While I work to avoid offering regret for the past, I have found that for current decisions or future planning, regret visualization can be helpful. Scores have been written about how Jeff Bezos left a high paying career to start Amazon because he feared he would regret not doing so later in life. The idea is to visualize yourself 5 or 10 years in the future after making a major decision. Would you feel a tinge of regret for not taking the risk? Even if you failed? Knowing that you are likely to fail? For many of the big decisions, regret minimization can be a very useful visualization.
If “Regret” were a family member, it would be your 50 year old spinster aunt still pining for her highschool sweetheart. “I regret not marrying Chad.” Her whole life has been colored with that regret. Could she have? No because she did not.
Remember the self talk that blew through my head before?
“I am stuck. Nothing really bad has happened, I am proud of the good things in life, but then one day it all got stuck somehow. I should try to not regret what is or was, yet I regret so much. I need to make some progress. I can’t go on like this. I must get going again, but can’t figure out how. What now?”
Lets try that again with the recommended changes:
“I am experiencing some stuckness. Nothing really has happened, there are plenty of the good things in life and then one day it all got stuck somehow. I will not regret what is or was. I will make some progress by making a detailed projects list tomorrow. I can get through anything that doesn’t kill me. I will get going again and the project list is the next right action. Now I have a plan.”
In the first paragraph I was asleep, a passive victim of the world. Victimized by my own words. Same life. Second paragraph I accurately describe the feelings and come up with an action plan to move forward. I am awake. I have agency. This is a switch you have control over. Use it.