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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 Acting Strong is Actually Weak

authenticityarmourA troubling theme that I come across in my work as a therapist — and in my observation of people in general — is the belief that we should always act strong and hide our insecurities and fears. The damage perpetrated by this “common wisdom” is incalculable. It decimates true self-esteem and damages our relationships.

Acting strong is acting. When we act or pretend to be different than who we truly are, we abandon our real self by putting on a mask. We do this in an attempt to control what we hope others will think of us. So we manipulate and camouflage our self as we seek the approval of others, or at the least try to avoid their disapproval. This sets up our primary betrayal of our genuine self.

Authentic self-esteem is derived from our relationship with our own self. If we contort our personality to seek recognition or approval from others we’re pursuing what I call other-esteem. This is other-esteem because it doesn’t come from within, but is sought from outside of us. We’re trying to feel better about ourselves by being disingenuous. How do you think that’s going to work out? The more we do this, the further we move from genuine self-esteem. This is the opposite of what we should be doing. We should be embracing our vulnerability.

What do I mean by vulnerable? For me the word vulnerable doesn’t elicit weakness, but openness. Don’t construe vulnerable to mean fragile. As humans we all experience vulnerable feelings like insecurity, doubt and fear. In moderation these are common emotions. But due to our misinformed cultural meta-narrative that demands the appearance of strength we decide to hide these feelings from one another. So we live out our lives falsely thinking that our shortcomings or self-doubts are unique to us. The sad irony is that those same individuals whose opinions we are so worried about are very likely doing the same thing. So the vast majority of people are disempowering themselves, thinking that others are more confident and secure. This tragic myth terribly limits our lives. On another note, the more you can embrace your insecurities, the sooner you’ll move past them. Hiding them cements them into your being whereas allowing them to surface tends to dissipate what you’ve been trying to hide.

Hiding our true self from others makes is what makes us fragile. Being yourself makes you strong. When I encourage this transition people may ask, “but what will they think of me?” How will I be seen? This is a common concern for people who grapple with revealing their genuine self. I’d offer that I want to be seen — as I truly am — as my authentic self. This is the path to a powerful self-esteem.

When we accept our vulnerability we have nothing to hide from others and this in turn makes us genuinely powerful. The key to a resilient self-esteem is found by embracing your vulnerability – your fears and insecurities. In doing so, you liberate yourself from setting up others as your judge, as you have nothing to hide. You must embrace your vulnerability to attain inner strength.

Who is my judge? Why is it more important to us what someone else thinks of us than what we think of ourselves? When we subordinate our self worth by setting up another person as our judge, we perpetuate emotional abuse on ourselves. Other people aren’t your judge so why appoint them that power? Everyone has opinions for sure, but to elevate someone’s opinions to the power of a judgment is both irrational and without merit. What you’re doing is judging yourself and then projecting that power of judgment on to someone else. I’m found of saying that the only person who has the right to literally judge me wears a long black robe and presides in a courthouse.

For relationships to thrive we must experience emotional intimacy. What I mean by this term is a transparent and safe sharing of our feelings. When we obscure feelings that we think will be criticized or scrutinized we block emotional intimacy.

We all just want to be loved, but to be loved you need to be lovable. Most of us struggle in actually being lovable. When you need to act strong you’ve erected a defensive wall that doesn’t allow others in. You become impenetrable and therefore, unlovable. Vulnerability – openness — is most often seen as lovable. In my work with couples and families, when someone expresses their softer vulnerable feelings, others not only listen, they care.

Isn’t it insane that we hide the very qualities that could have us feel validated, affirmed and loved? Embracing rather than hiding from our vulnerability makes us authentic and powerful. It suggests that we accept and value ourselves as we are, without fear of what we think others may think of us. We’ve been clearly playing from the wrong game plan.

My forthcoming book, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love (Fall 2017, Sounds True) will provide more detail on this subject. Please enjoy many other similar posts on this topic found here on this blog.

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Raising Resilient Children

Resilient ChildAs parents, no matter how devoted and nurturing we may be, our children often struggle with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and a host of other challenges. Some of these disturbances are simply life experiences that they may regrettably have to experience. Our goal is to feel confident that they will overcome these obstacles and that our kids will even grow stronger for that success. To achieve that end, we need to provide them with the skills to be resilient, to bounce back from these assaults on their wellbeing and ultimately to thrive in their lives. We can provide them with the foundation to do so if we rethink our relationship with them. If our best intentions are not producing the expected results, we need to examine our operating beliefs. We may be playing from the wrong game plan.

We’re typically comfortable sharing our strengths, values, and ideals with our offspring. We assume that doing so will enable them to follow our guidance and propel them in the right direction. But the tendency for many parents is to openly share their positive attributes but withhold the personal history of their life’s struggles and upsets. We may say that they don’t want to burden our children with our problems – past or present. Or we simply don’t want to present ourselves in a way that is inconsistent with what we try to model. Ironically, when we share only the good with our children, we deprive them of a realistic expectation and preparation for what likely lies ahead.

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Freeing Yourself from the Grip of Low Self-Esteem

self-esteem-wordleTo further our exploration of developing authentic self-esteem, I’m pleased to announce the launch of the Self-Esteem Workshop, a live, interactive videoconference, beginning Tuesday, August 13th.

In my previous articles in this series on self-esteem, we’ve considered how low self-worth surfaces as an array of psychological, emotional, and relationship challenges, and then we looked at how we misunderstand what we actually mean by self-esteem, seeking it in futile ways. We’ll now turn our attention to how we can free ourselves from the debilitating grip of self-denigrating beliefs and thoughts that script those lives tragically limited by low self-esteem.

I often assist my therapy clients in surfacing and articulating their core beliefs about themselves. Subtle or overt messages or treatment, typically in childhood, set up and mold our sense of self. Those who struggle with their self-worth have invariably secured negative imprints of themselves. These themes may play out in one’s head as “I’m not lovable,” or  “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m not smart enough,” or simply ”I’m a loser.” Once we internalize these messages, we integrate these beliefs deeply in our psyche. The beliefs become self-fulfilling. Our potential as human beings collapses and narrows as our limiting beliefs of self become our truth. And we act out our lives correspondingly. Read more

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Self Esteem or Other Esteem?

woman-low-self-esteemIn my previous article, Self-Esteem: A Missed Diagnosis, I proposed that a devaluation of one’s self lies at the heart of most psychological and emotional disorders. Let’s now explore more deeply what the term self-esteem denotes and come to appreciate what we mean by it as well as what gets in our way of attaining it.

I have come to believe that the way the term self-esteem is used is actually a misnomer. The first half of the expression, self, would seem to indicate that esteem, the second half of the expression, is derived from one’s self. Yet if we look closer, we find that most people seek a sense of worthiness from that which lies outside of them. For a student, it might come from good grades; for a businessperson or worker, it’s derived from a promotion or a raise; and for most individuals, praise or acknowledgement provide a temporary increase in esteem. Our society generates billions of dollars in revenues from inducing people to seek the quick fix of vanity as a means toward feeling better. Yet none of these actually contribute one iota to self-esteem. Ironically, they may even get in the way.

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Low Self-Esteem: A Missed Diagnosis

low self esteem

According to the National Institute of Health, one in every two Americans will ultimately be diagnosed with some form of mental illness. What’s behind this staggering rate of malaise? Aside from the psychiatric/pharmaceutical collusion that tends to overly pathologize normal life challenges and transmute them into mental illness, I’d offer that the primary culprit is low self-esteem. Yet the DSM – the psychiatric bible for diagnosis – offers no diagnosis of self-esteem. My experience informs me that marginal self-worth manifests through an array of dysfunction, including but not limited to depression, anxiety, ADHD, codependence, failed relationships and, even more tragically, lives lived out in mediocrity.

We focus on the more specific diagnosable illnesses that result from marginal self-worth because we have medications that treat them, notwithstanding their questionable results. But there is no pill to offer someone with low self-worth, so there’s no revenue to be generated. Moreover, as a culture, our intellectual proclivity is to focus on the symptom and disregard the underlying and perhaps complex circumstances that contribute to the devolving of a human life. This is due to our drive to over simplify and seek quick solutions to the very complex tapestry of a human life.

 

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The Problem with Perfection

In recent years, I’ve treated increasing numbers of individuals who are driven to distraction through their pursuit of perfection.  The desire to be perfect traps and burdens many people and imprisons them with unrelenting stress, often creating havoc in their lives. This is a very curious thing, given that these same people believe that seeking perfection is desirable. Like many operating beliefs and assumptions, when we take a deeper look, they may appear nonsensical.

Perfection suggests a state of flawlessness, without any defects. To be perfect implies a condition whereby your action or performance attains a level of excellence that cannot be exceeded. Seeking perfection at a particular task might be achievable, and certainly a student can strive to attain a perfect grade or you can try to accomplish a perfect execution of something. You can hope to bowl 300 or produce a perfect report at work. You certainly hope your surgeon does a perfect job on your operation.

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Self-Esteem or Other Esteem?

self-esteemAfter some consideration and many years of practice as a therapist, I have come to believe that the term self-esteem appears to be a misnomer. The first half of the expression, “self,” would seem to imply that the esteem is derived from one’s self. Yet, if we look closer, we may find that very often that self-esteem is actually attained from outside of one’s self. For a student it might come from good grades, for a business person or employee, a promotion or a raise. For most individuals, praise or acknowledgement provide an increase in esteem.

Although all of the above are understandably positive, it is essential to note that they depend upon things external to one’s self. Since the esteem is externally derived from the outside, we can see how we might be inclined to alter our personality and behavior to achieve more of this reward. Admittedly being approved of or valued by others is a natural desire, but we must be cautious not to betray ourselves in order to achieve these results. If we don’t receive the desired outcome, or if it is suddenly removed, how do we then feel about ourselves? If a mediocre performance or lack of praise – or even criticism – diminishes how we feel about ourselves, it becomes evident that the esteem is indeed not from self; it is actually what I call other-esteem. Read more

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