Words are powerful. Words can start a war or soothe a heart. They can create the most beautiful song and they can define a nation. The most powerful words are the ones we speak to ourselves. And over time, they can define who we are.
Knowing how powerful or detrimental words can be to the quality of our lives and the lives of those around us, I have learned over decades of experience to be very careful with my words (spoken and internal). This last year, I removed a word from my vocabulary permanently. You won’t find a single iteration of this word in my published work, and you won’t hear me say it out loud, although I’ll use it here to illustrate my point.
The word is “should.”
Sticks, stones, and that other “s” word
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “should” is,”Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.” Think about that last part. The word is used to criticize. It is not helpful, it does not change behavior, instead it demeans.
I know this firsthand, because I was a chronic “should” user. In fact, I was constantly “shoulding” myself to death. Anytime I felt I had fallen short, the conversation in my head was, “I should have been more productive. I should have worked harder. I shouldn’t have cut off that person in traffic.” The word was a mental hammer, beating on my self-esteem until I felt small and a bit useless.
Did it improve my driving? Or add to my bottom line? No. It only served as a constant reminder of my failures.
Why then, do any of us use this word, either in the way we talk to ourselves or in interactions with others?
Speaking it to yourself reinforces the idea that you are falling short. Speaking it to someone else implies shame and high, sometimes unrealistic, expectations. It focuses on the negative without driving any action. In short, this word is damaging.
The consequences of using this word in our relationships are far-reaching. Here are just a few of the unintended meanings you are conveying when you say it to others:
- I am judging you for your actions
- Are you ashamed of yourself yet?
- You are deficient.
- You are not meeting my (or others) expectations
Speaking this way to yourself might be even worse. It destroys your mindset, reduces your ability to set meaningful goals, and limits your potential. Negative self-talk has been linked with decreased motivation and an increased risk of mental health problems. You might be surprised at the true meaning behind your self-talk when using the word should:
- I don’t like myself.
- I am not responsible for what happens next.
- I have no control over my actions.
- I am stressed and overanxious.
- My decisions don’t matter.
Removing should from your vocabulary will instantly give you more compassion for yourself and for the people you interact with. Becoming more positive in the way you talk to others and especially to yourself will bring you lasting joy and a greater chance of success.
Adopting the habit
It’s hard to completely stop saying a word. It takes introspection and discipline, but mostly, you need a backup plan. You still need a way to convey expectations to both yourself and others.
So, if you are no longer using “should” in your language, you need positive options to replace it with. Luckily, there are a myriad of phrases that work much better, depending on the situation. Here’s some to keep in your back pocket:
“It’s important to me to . . .”
Using the word “important” helps you prioritize the action or behavior you are pointing out. Saying something like, “it’s important to me to exercise more” is much more proactive than the alternative. You could also use, “I want” here, such as, “I want to be on time to the next meeting.”
“The benefit of . . .”
Adding in detailed benefits lifts a comment from a directive to a motivating statement. For example, “if I smile more often, it will improve my mood.”
“I feel . . .”
Accepting the truth and asking questions is much more helpful than shaming yourself or others for something that has already happened. Instead of placing blame, you could say, “I feel angry. What triggered my anger and how can I resolve that?” Accepting the truth opens us up to humility, learning, and acceptance rather than the closed emotions of doubt, shame, and frustration.
“I will . . .”
This is my favorite replacement, because it is so powerful. “I will” is an accountable, dedicated commitment backed by action. Try it. Tell yourself, “I will put my cell phone away at 8 p.m. tonight,” and see what happens.
“I think . . .”
Instead of implying that you have a definitive answer, using the term, “I think,” or “I believe,” helps to open up a dialogue between you and someone else. “I think adding another person to this project will help us meet the deadline,” is so much better than commanding others to see your point of view.
“Would . . .”
Would may rhyme with the other word, but it’s meaning is very different. “Would you like to leave in 10 minutes?” or “would it be helpful if I finished this report?” are more inclusive than their counterparts, and convey responsibility instead of blame or indecisiveness.
“It’s expected that . . .”
“The deal should go through tomorrow.” is not centered and is setting things up for disappointment. “It’s expected for the deal to go through tomorrow,” is better.
An empowering habit
It sounds so simple to stop saying one word, but adopting a new habit is no easy task. I challenge you to continue this exercise and watch to see if you can adopt the habit.
You will find yourself a more honest, positive, action-driven person. Removing this one word from your life will give you the power to get back to being the best version of yourself, and encouraging the same in everyone you interact with. The power you gain from mastering self-talk has the potential to spill over into all areas of your life.
Curtis J. Morley is an award-winning entrepreneur, educator, and author of The Entrepreneur’s Paradox, an International Book Awards finalist. Curtis is founder of several companies and has worked with 96 of the Fortune 100. He helps entrepreneurs achieve next-level growth.