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Change a Word—Change Your Life

 

Many years ago, I’d often fall into a recurring disagreement with my former wife. At bedtime I’d frequently find myself saying, “It’s hot in here.” She’d respond, “No it’s not, it’s cold. ‘’ This led to a frustrating ,mind-numbing back and forth that went nowhere.  It took quite some time until I reached a breakthrough by simply saying, “I feel hot.” After all she couldn’t tell me I didn’t feel hot.

By removing the words—it is— I moved from making an objective statement to a subjective statement. This allowed me to shift from a battle over the truth into simply sharing my perception. Of course, that didn’t settle the issue around the thermostat, but nevertheless I felt some relief to get past that argument. I did, however get proactive about throwing the blanket off my side of the bed.

I remembered that exchange and started to focus on the importance of words. We pay very little attention to the words we express and don’t appreciate how profoundly they affect us and impact others.

Over the last 20 some odd years, in my work as a psychotherapist and communications consultant, I’ve devoted my attention to understanding what gets in the way of successful communications. I’ve learned that words matter very much. Our words either set the stage for others to be open and curious about what we say or defensive and reactive to what they hear.

Our words become the foundation of our relationship not only with others but they become a key ingredient in our relationship with ourselves.

 Our thoughts actually script our life experience. These thoughts impact us far more than anything else, more than our closest relationships. But what comprises our thoughts? Words.

When we string words together they become thoughts.  Some words in particular terribly limit us. I’m referring to the to be verbs. We can find them in virtually every sentence we speak. Recall the word is, in the battle over the room temperature?

The to be verbs are:

Are

Am

Is

Was

Be

Been

Being

So why do I see a problem with the to be verbs?  Let’s take a look.

 

Keeping us feeling stuck

Many verbs express movement and action. But the to be verbs have one element in common. They all connote a fixed, unchanging state. The to be verbs are all inert and static.

None of these words capture a picture of change or flow. So, if words inform our thoughts and if we employ the to be verbs in virtually every thought, how can we feel anything but stuck? Let’s look at the word am.  “I am worthless,” or “I’m unlovable.”  These beliefs collapse into truths as they become unchanging facts in the story we tell ourselves..  How can we envision and actualize change if our thoughts get stuck in an unchanging, inert picture of reality?

The to be verbs block new possibilities. They block movement.

 

It’s hard to change

Let’s look at the common refrain, “It’s hard to change.” Most people would agree with this belief. Of course, change would appear challenging when we our thoughts are cemented in the to be verbs that preclude change.

Let’s look at what happens when we make the statement, “It’s hard to change,” without using to be verbs. You might say, “I struggle to change, or “It feels so hard for me to make change.” Or, “I’ve never succeeded in making change.” These statements still appear amenable to change. They speak to subjective perceptions rather than facts. Change can happen when you shift from making an absolute statement of fact to one of perspective.

 

E -Prime

In 1933, Alfred Korzybsky in his groundbreaking book, Science and Sanity introduced the idea of eliminating the to be verbs from our common usage. He proposed that the to be verbs were relics of an old worldview; Newton’s 17th century mechanism. This classical view of reality depicted a machine-like universe comprised of objects, separate and distinct from one another. They appeared inert and fixed unless outside force was applied. We became these objects. The lack of connectivity seen in Newton’s reality, led to the ideal of objectivity. This construct of objectivity requires standing apart from what you observe; Newton’s theme of separation.

This picture of the universe presented a cold, austere machine-like reality. This looks like a very inhospitable place for humans to exist.  The to be verbs speak the language of the machine-like universe in that fixed objects and objectivity were accorded primacy. These words preclude movement, possibility and potentiality. And so once again, we see ourselves as stuck. This has an immense and unimaginable impact on us.

At the time of Korzybski’s writing, the radical discoveries of quantum physics turned our notions of reality upside down. We came to learn that reality appeared radically different than what Newton had depicted. This emerging worldview described reality as perpetually flowing and bubbling with possibility, a virtual reality making process, with all parts inseparably connected with one another. Everything flowed as one inseparable whole. From this new worldview change no longer appears hard, it in fact seems inevitable.

The thesis of an objective reality became replaced by a participatory subjective reality. This new worldview looks very warm and friendly to humans, as human participation informs reality and we no longer see ourselves as disconnected objects. To access and benefit from this new vista of reality we need to alter our language since the to be verbs keep us stuck in 17th century reality. Korzybski urged that we speak and write without using to be verbs. He called this E-Prime language— the omission of to be verbs.

 When I became aware of this shift in language I began to utilize it as a transformative communications technique. During my years as a therapist I’ve come to see the remarkable progress many people have made when they learned to limit these verbs, particularly in challenging communications moments. Let’s look at more of the benefits.

 

 To be verbs keeps us stuck in victimhood

Our negative feelings and thoughts about ourselves become inveterate due to our use of to be. These verbs imprint their message on us as they keep us wedded to them. I recall working with a middle-aged woman who constantly insisted that she was stupid. She said, “I am stupid.” I asked, “How did you come to this belief?” She replied, “My dad often said that to me when I was a kid, so I’ve always felt stupid. I ruminated with her, “So maybe you “are” not stupid, but have always simply felt that way?” This exchange opened the door for her to reconsider this aspect of her identity. If she always felt that way, she could open to changing how she felt. We shifted from objective reality to perceptually constructed truth.

Look at your negative beliefs about yourself. Notice the to be verb— surely, you’ll find it— and restate your belief without to be.

 I facilitated a self-esteem workshop a number of years ago when a man in the group shared his core self-worth problem. “I am nothing, I am empty.” Everyone felt stunned by his candid sharing. I asked him to restate his belief without using the to be verb. He said, “I feel like nothing, I feel empty.” His expression lightened when he said this and he actually allowed himself a bit of a smile. I asked him why and he responded, “If these feelings I have change, then I can change.”

 To be verbs anchor us in feeling inert, powerless and as victims. They speak of objective truths rather than perceptions and feelings.

 

Getting past the fear of making mistakes

When we speak in E-Prime, it enables us to move beyond our fear of making mistakes. When you communicate from your subjective perception—the language of the new quantum worldview—you avoid the pitfall of right vs. wrong. When you say, “I think,” or “I feel,” you invite the other person into your experience.

 During a consulting gig I facilitated with a C-suite executive, she shared a bold and innovative perspective she had about a particular challenge the organization faced. When I asked her why she hadn’t shared this with her colleagues, she told me she felt intimidated about their judgment of her idea. I helped her craft the message by using E-Prime. “I have a thought I’d like to share about our problem…” or, “This may sound a bit out of the box but an approach occurred to me that we never considered before.” If you simply share your thoughts, perspectives or ideas in a subjective manner you move past the fear of mistakes or right vs. wrong.

 

Free from the dread of making a mistake or concern around the judgments of others invites all participants to share their thoughts and perspectives. This leads to generative dialogues as we can share our inner monologues with one another. This serves as a powerful tool for learning as we begin to think together. The art of thinking together and collaborating flourishes with E-Prime. This method applies to corporations, families, relationships, to all communications.

 

Relationships

I’ve witnessed how relationships become challenged and deteriorate when we share criticism of one another in an objective manner. Objective statements require to be verbs. Subjective statements avoid to be verbs.

 Nothing derails a conversation as quickly as, “You are wrong.” To express these words assures that your thoughts and opinions will fall on deaf ears and go nowhere. The moment one utters, “You are wrong,” the other person reacts with defensiveness if not hostility. Shift into E-Prime and say, “I don’t see this the way you do,” or “Help me understand your point, I don’t see this the way you do.” This can open the door to a reasonable communication.

I recollect a particular moment in a couple’s session when a woman said to her husband, “You are so selfish.”  She expressed an objective statement. The air thickened as her husband prepared his defense and verbal assault upon her. I requested a time out and prepped her to share her feelings in E-Prime. Her subjective offering of “You seem so self-centered to me,” allowed her husband to inquire why she saw him that way. A purposeful dialogue ensued.

E-Prime allows us to take ownership of our thoughts and feelings rather than to blame ourselves or others. This opens us to dialogue, compassion and empathy as we get past right vs wrong.,

When you feel particularly challenged or anticipate a negative reaction to what you’re about to say try using E-Prime. Open your sentence with the words “I feel,” or “I think,” or “I’d like to share a thought or feeling with you.” You don’t need to be fanatical about this. Choosing particular moments to speak without using to be verbs allows you to move past feeling like stuck. It also opens the doorway to generative dialogue. It may feel awkward at first but when you invite in discomfort you grow and advance into new territory. You can hoist the anchor that’s kept you feeling stuck when you selectively choose to speak without to be verbs.

 To be verbs End possibilities. E-Prime opens the doorway to possibilities and shifts us from a stuck state of being into the process of becoming. We can then join in the flow of the universe that the new worldview describes when we unshackle ourselves from the words that imprison us.

Please note that all to be verbs in this article appear italicized for effect. This article was the topic of Mel’s TEDx Beacon Street talk at Fenway Park and was excerpted in part from his new book, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love.

 

 

 

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Why We Suffer From Anxiety and How We Can Overcome It

In any given year approximately 40 million Americans will suffer from a debilitating encounter with anxiety. Over the course of your lifetime, there’s a 25% chance you’ll experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder. This is such a staggering rate of affliction. It appears we’ve adapted to a new norm—one of mass disquiet. We have become habituated to—and normalized—an epidemic of anxiety.

If 40 million people fell suddenly ill, The Center for Disease Control would be working overtime to find both the cause and the cure. As a culture, we only look superficially into the cause of anxiety and focus more on the treatment—typically management through medication. We need to do much better. As a practicing psychotherapist, I’ve been looking at why we are suffering in this way. It’s time we disrupt our complacency around our victimhood.

Stress is normal in our hurried lives. We can look at stress as a byproduct of our adapting to the challenges that confront us. Stress is the result of our deeper engagement with life that can lead to growth, new learning and productivity. But when stress turns into distress it impedes our ability to live well, to live joyfully. Distress calcifies into anxiety. So, the question is: why do we suffer from this avalanche of anxiety? Here’s what I’ve learned.

Anxiety— at its source— is due to our relationship with our thoughts. In particular these are the thoughts which are perpetually seeking certainty. We want to know what the future will bring, and what the consequences of our decisions will be. But that future is of course unknowable. And so, we become anxious as we try to ward off the unknown. This results in our not being in the flow of life as we try to hold back the future. Ask yourself, “What causes me distress and anxiety?” Does it have something to do with your uncertainty about the future, your fear around decision-making?

I had been working with a middle-aged woman who came to see around her anxiety regarding her future. She had been unhappily married for quite some time and shared that she and her husband had been unsuccessful in marital therapy. They had grown apart, were contentious and had little in common. She felt that her marriage was a drag on her life. Given that she had no children and was financially independent I inquired why she was opting to stay married. She said, “I don’t know who I’d be as a divorced woman.”

There it was. Her fear around the unknown—which offered her possible relief and new possibilities—kept her imprisoned with anxiety. She was actually choosing to stay miserably in the known rather than face the uncertainty of a different path—one that might have brought her joy. The question, “Who would I be?” froze her with fear.

We invite uncertainty into many aspects of our lives. We enjoy watching sports and movies because of the thrill of not knowing. But in our personal lives we become choked by predictability and certainty. Seeking predictability stunts our relationships, our curiosity and our greater engagement with life.

So how did we become so attached to needing to know the future in advance? I track the cause to the great 17th century scientist Isaac Newton. He instructed that if we had sufficient information—in today’s jargon we might call that data—we could reasonably predict the future. This became known as determinism. And we have become addicted to this way of thinking.

Determinism has benefited us in many ways, but at the extreme it’s led to much pathology. We live life as though we were playing a chess match. We sit back and calculate our next move. We might fret over whether our decision will be a “mistake.” We slice and dice and analyze the possible consequences of our decisions and we get frozen. We don’t move forward as this straitjacket of fear blocks our flow of life. If you feel anxious around decision making, you’re likely addicted to seeking predictability.

Here’s the good news! It turns out we’ve been living from the wrong game plan. Over the last hundred years quantum physics has revealed an astonishingly different picture of reality. Unlike Newton’s determinism, reality appears to be thoroughly uncertain and that’s actually good news. It seems that nothing is fixed or inert. The universe appears to be perpetually flowing and bubbling with potentiality, a virtual sea of possibilities.

We too can join into that new worldview. When we learn to reframe our relationship with uncertainty, we invite in new possibilities. Remember that what you resist you make more formidable. Paradoxically if you choose to welcome uncertainty it becomes your ally. When we welcome uncertainty and literally embrace it, we are in movement, joining in the flow of the universe. We are then able to navigate our life as it unfolds, in real time.

Think of it this way: Uncertainty = Possibility. If reality is uncertain and we continue to demand certainty we will dysfunction and anxiety will be the result. To embrace uncertainty, we must change our relationship with our thoughts. Try to notice your thoughts. What are they telling you? If you see your thoughts trying to predict the future, release the thought. It’s just a thought, you don’t need to become that thought. “In the nanosecond before your next thought, you exist in a state of pure potential.”

When you free yourself from the torrent of addictive thoughts seeking certainty, you join in the flow of your life and anxiety retreats. It turns out that the epidemic of anxiety is primarily due to living from an outmoded game plan for life. It’s time to embrace what we’ve been resisting and make uncertainty your ally. Uncertainty can become the wind in the sail of our change process.

 

Transcending Anxiety, Stress and Depression.

A 6 week Live Streaming Online Workshop. Starts Wed. March 7th


 

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Getting Past the Right or Wrong Impasse

In the previous post we looked at how dominant the motif of seeking to be right is in our culture. It is one of the most singular influences on our behavior and our relations. Now we’ll turn our attention to understanding just how this prevailing compulsion to be correct came into being.

The way that we see reality is very influenced by what is known as Aristotelian thinking. Aristotle’s philosophy held that things were or were not, is or is not. This duality very much filters how we picture reality operating. This is known as either/or thinking. It structures our beliefs into a very simple posture. We therefore know of something only by including its opposite.

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