Words I Avoid

Sep 2021

Language shapes thought -- a.k.a, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. There's lots of good evidence for this -- for instance, a very popular study on how Russian's multiple words for shades of blue allow speakers to more rapidly distinguish between those shades.

Differences in thought patterns might arise not just between speakers of different languages, but between individuals speaking the same language. I'm specifically interested, here, in cognitive distortions, -- a kind of dialect spoken by people who are clustered together, not through physical geography but on a memetic landscape. Cognitive distortions are correlated with depression. There are even claims that we might be getting more depressed as a society, based on increasing prevalance of cognitive distortions in public text.

This is interesting, but is a post-hoc justification for a practice that I noticed myself independently adopting. Language forces a frame of thought, sometimes those frames are not helpful, and language can be a clue that a specific frame is arising. When I notice myself using these words, this is a clue to myself to pay attention and possibly to re-frame my thinking. Without further ado, my listsicle.


This is the most common one I notice in myself, and in many of the people in my life. Often used like "I should stop being on the computer so much" or "I should exercise more". An old housemate used to react to shoulds by saying, "Don't should all over yourself".

I dislike the way should imposes an obligation. It's not that I should go brush my teeth -- it's that I want to have healthy teeth and good breath. Reminding myself of my motivations is often helpful in getting myself to actually do the task.

I also don't like imposing shoulds on others. Instead of saying "You should read X", I could say "I think you would like X". While reframing in this way, I sometimes realize that I'm not even sure the person would even enjoy X -- I end up simply telling a story, like "I enjoyed X, because..." -- allowing me to share excitement and enthusiasm without adding a TODO to my interlocutor's list.


I suffer from the influence of what a wise person I know once called "the control virus" -- the mistaken desire, and belief in the ability to, control outcomes in the world. For instance, I cannot control the world's climate, or the way the world responds to climate change. What I can control is how I engage with that problem, how I show up in relationship to it. Do I avoid thinking about it? Do I let it dominate my life and take away my joy?

A global catastrophe is a more obvious example. But the control virus shows up more frequently in interpersonal interactions. I can't control whether or not my housemate washes their dishes, for instance. This is insidious because it seems like, if I just ask them "correctly" -- if I say just the right words that would inspire just the right feelings of solidarity and guilt -- then maybe the dishes will get washed after all. In other words, I would get the outcome that I wanted.

Thinking about life in terms of desired outcomes is a recipe for dissatisfaction. There is gratitude when my housemate chooses to wash their dishes, while if I somehow controlled their actions via the right words, all I get is smug self-satisfaction. And what of the alternate scenario? If they didn't wash their dishes after our conversation, I can be mad at myself for not saying those magic correct words, and mad at the housemate for depriving me of my desired outcome.

I find it helpful, through life, to remind myself that I am fundamentally not in control of outcomes. All that I can choose -- and even that, with great difficulty -- is how I feel in a given moment. I can feel drained, avoidant, anxious, and withdrawn from the problem of climate change -- or I can be motivated to engage through feelings of love, the joy of building and creation. I can be frustrated at my housemate, or I can be curious and supportive of the challenges in their life, and inspired to build a more harmonious household (including by being less frustrated in general).

I think the freedom to choose my own feelings in the moment is the greatest possible freedom. It often seems non-existent -- always, the temptation to react in a way that I might later regret, not in alignment with the kind of person I would like to cultivate. So, it is difficult enough to obtain this freedom without constantly, voluntarily surrendering it to others.

This is why makes me feel is such a agency-robbing expression. My usual retort to this, inside my own head, is "nobody can make you feel anything!" People who up in the way that they choose, and then I feel about it the way that I feel. Sometimes, my reframing of this phrase takes an NVC turn -- "when you leave your dishes unwashed, I feel...". When talking of others, I can pivot "I'm sorry I made you feel X" into an opportunity to think about exactly what I said or did that proved a reaction. For instance, seeing that a person is angry, I can take a moment to think about what I said which provoked anger. Saying "I'm sorry I said X", instead of "I'm sorry I made you angry" acknowledges the person's feelings and my role in them, while leaving intact their agency in the situation.


I got this from one of my housemates, who pointed out that the word just is often doing a lot of heavy lifting in a sentence. Having trouble with your boss/spouse/child/pet/inanimate object? Why not just ...? This can often be quite patronizing. There's an impression that the solution to a problem is trivial, deadening curiosity through a mistaken belief that you already know the right answer.

There's no catch-all reframing for just, but many paths depending on the conversation and relationship. Is your manager being a jerk in meetings? A common script devolves into naive solution-ism -- "You could just complain to their manager!" When you notice that just, that's the cue. One option is sympathy -- "Damn, that sounds terrible, I would be so mad in your situation." Another option is collaborative problem solving, but with curiosity -- "Does their manager know about this behavior? How would she react if she knew?"

Putting it all together

An Igor of a few years ago might say something like "My manager makes me feel so angry in meetings! I should just go complain to the VP." A hopefully-more-self-aware Igor of today might notice several opportunities for deeper reflection here. Why am I feeling angry about the situation? How can I work, both internally and externally, towards a different reaction in that situation? Do I want to bring external parties to help mediate the conflict? Would that help the situation, or escalate it?

The goal is not inactive analysis paralysis. Instead, I want to give myself the chance to avoid reacting to situations, because my reactions often have the opposite effect from the one I desire. If I avoid reacting and create spaciousness even in difficult situations, I can use the spaciousness to choose a path most likely to help me feel best in the future.

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