Changing language to change thoughts

Three verbal hacks that sound almost trivial, but which I’ve found to have a considerable impact on my thought:

1. Replace the word ‘should’ with either ‘I want’, or a good consequence of doing the thing.

Examples:

  • “I should answer that e-mail soon.” -> “If I answered that e-mail, it would make the other person happy and free me from having to stress it.”
  • “I should have left that party sooner.” -> “If I had left that party before midnight, I’d feel more rested now.”
  • “I should work on my story more at some point.” -> “I want to work on my story more at some point.”

Motivation: the more we think in terms of external obligations, the more we feel a lack of our own agency. Each thing that we “should” do is actually either something that we’d want to do because it would have some good consequences (avoiding bad consequences also counts as a good consequence), something that we have a reason for wanting to do differently the next time around, or something that we don’t actually have a good reason to do but just act out of a general feeling of obligation. If we only say “I should”, we will not only fail to distinguish between these cases, we will also be less motivated to do the things in cases where there is actually a good reason. The good reason will be less prominent in our thoughts, or possibly even entirely hidden behind the “should”.

If you do try to rephrase “I should” as “I want”, you may either realize that you really do want it (instead of just being obligated to do it), or that you actually don’t want it and can’t come up with any good reason for doing it, in which case you might as well drop it.

Special note: there are some legitimate uses for “should”. In particular, it is the socially accepted way of acknowledging the other person when they give us an unhelpful suggestion. “You should get some more exercise.” “Yeah I should.” (Translation: of course I know that, it’s not like you’re giving me any new information and repeating things that I know isn’t going to magically change my behavior. But I figure that you’re just trying to be helpful, so let me acknowledge that and then we can talk about something else.)

However, I suspect that because we’re used to treating “I should” as a reason to acknowledge the other person without needing to take actual action, the word also becomes more poisonous to motivation when we use it in self-talk, or when discussing matters with someone we want to actually be honest with.

“Should” also tends to get used for guilt-tripping, so expressions like “I should have left that party sooner” might make us feel bad rather than focusing on our attention on the benefits of having left earlier. The next time we’re at a party, the former phrasing incentivizes us to come up with excuses for why it’s okay to stay this time around. The latter encourages us to actually consider the benefits and costs of the leaving earlier versus staying, and then choosing the option that’s the most appropriate.

2. Replace expressions like “I’m bad at X” with “I’m currently bad at X” or “I’m not yet good at X”.

Examples:

  • “I can’t draw.” -> “I can’t draw yet.”
  • “I’m not a people person.” -> “I’m currently not a people person.”
  • “I’m afraid of doing anything like that.” -> “So far I’m afraid of doing anything like that.”

Motivation: the rephrased expression draws attention to the possibility that we could become better, and naturally leads us to think about ways in which we could improve ourselves. It again emphasizes our own agency and the fact that for a lot of things, being good or bad at them is just a question of practice.

Even better, if you can trace the reason of your bad-ness, is to

3. Eliminate vague labels entirely and instead talk about specific missing subskills, or weaknesses that you currently have.

Examples:

  • “I can’t draw.” -> “Right now I don’t know how to move beyond stick figures.”
  • “I’m not a people person.” -> “I currently lock up if I try to have a conversation with someone.”

Motivation: figuring out the specific problem makes it easier to figure out what we would need to do if we wanted to address it, and might gives us a self-image that’s both kinder and both realistic, in making the lack of skill a specific fixable problem rather than a personal flaw.

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