Language is powerful. The words we say reflect our thoughts and our thoughts impact our mood. Reframing our language can have a hugely positive effect on our mental health. Here are five examples of words to reframe and why.
“Should” is a word that is laden with shame. It holds all of the guilt and none of the action. “I should do my homework”, “I should go to the gym”, “I should do my taxes”. Generally what it means is “I don’t want to, but I feel obligated”. Do yourself a favour and replace “should” with “will” or “won’t”. Make a choice either way and consider where that pressure and guilt is coming from.
I am a mindset coach, and one of the things I discuss with my clients is whether they are living at cause, or at effect. Saying “have to” implies that you are not in control of your life and your decisions. It is transformational to take responsibility, and recognise that you are the captain of your own ship. Replacing “have to” with “choose to” will help with this. It may help reconnect you with your purpose if you add a “because” at the end. “I choose to exercise because I value my health”, “I choose to call my family because I love them”, “I choose to cook dinner because it is satisfying”. If you’re up to it, replace “can’t” with “won’t” and notice the feelings of discomfort that come with taking responsibility for your own growth and limiting beliefs.
While there are definitely times when it is important and valid to apologise, “sorry” is often used in lieu of other phrases like “Excuse me”, “What did you say?” and “Thank you”. Constant apologising can lead to guilt which is then absorbed by others in the conversation like a sad sponge. Gratitude is a far better emotion to lead with.
The power of replacing “sorry” with “thank you” is demonstrated perfectly in this viral comic by Yao Xiao: http://www.yaoxiaoart.com/
In a similar way to sorry, “just” is often used as a softener when sending emails or making requests. “I was just wondering if you had finished the report”, “It’s just me calling to check in”, “I was just hoping to see you tonight”. Before I press send on any emails, I will scan through and remove all the “justs”, “pleases”, “sorrys” and “if it’s not too much troubles”. It is possible to be warm and accommodating while being clear and direct. In the words of Ellen Petry, a former Google and Apple exec:
“I am all about respectful communication. Yet I began to notice that just wasn’t about being polite: It was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.”
What we focus on, is what we get. Reframing the word “problem” to “opportunity” was a game-changer for me. This shift isn’t about ignoring problems, or being passive aggressive to avoid conflict. In fact, “black hat” thinkers are very important as they identify potential challenges. This reframe is about how that obstacle is viewed. Constantly talking about “problems” from a deficit frame can increase feelings of helplessness. Focusing instead on “opportunities” emphasises that everything can be overcome with the right mindset, and allows for creativity to flow.
This reframe is particularly important for social justice advocates. In 2015, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre launched ground-breaking research around which words work best when advocating for social change. When we speak from a frame of fear and guilt (e.g. “There are so many problems in the world, and people aren’t doing enough to help"), then the listeners will respond from a place of guilt and obligation. That is if they don’t switch off entirely because they want to avoid more problems they can’t control. It is far more constructive to speak from a values frame, and target specific opportunities to help. Then the listeners can get excited about being part of the solution.
Reframing language is transformational. Like any habit, it can take a little bit of time to make the shift, but it is worth it to reduce shame, increase agency and improve mental health. What words and phrases are you actively reframing in your life? Let me know in the comments.
Sorry cartoon by Yao Xiao