Mel Schwartz, LCSW

#080: These Eight Words Imprison Us

The 80th episode of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz examines the damaging, limiting effect of “to be” verbs on our communication with others and our relationship with ourselves.

Listen to learn how “E-Prime” language can re-set your perceptions and move you from a restrictive, objective reality into one of possibility and subjective acceptance.

Have you adopted E-Prime speech in your everyday language? Have you seen a difference in your life? Let me know… in the comments!

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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #080

Hello everybody and welcome to The Possibility Podcast. I’m your host Mel Schwartz. I practice psychotherapy and marriage counseling and I am the author of the book, The Possibility Principle, the inspiration and the companion to this podcast. I’ll be introducing you to new ways of thinking, a new philosophy and a new game plan for life and all of the infinite possibilities that await you.

Hello, everyone. I’m going to take you along for a somewhat deep dive into the importance of semantics, words, and language so you can better appreciate how the use of certain words in particular which we use in virtually every sentence actually restrict us.

They’re a harness on our growth and on our relationships and this is an area of vital importance. I’m proposing that our semantics hold us back. The manner in which we think and speak still relies on words and keep us mired in classical Newtonian and Aristotelian thinking. You’ve heard me speak of this before: either aura thinking or thinking that speaks about objective reality rather than subjective. This problem is deeply rooted.

Our words anchor our thoughts and perceptions and our feelings and relationships in a very fixed, deterministic, and objective-based language and so that becomes our reality. We speak objectively to each other. This is damning to our relationships which I’ll be going back into again with you very shortly.

You know, when we are stuck in words that no longer represent what science is revealing, our minds don’t sufficiently evolve along science’s new discoveries whereas a new language that fits a new worldview activates and strengthens growth, insight, new learning. Our words are the very vessel through which our thoughts and feelings take shape and become communicated to others and to ourselves.

So, what begins as an instinctive impression. You know, the bubbling up of a feeling or a thought. It takes life through words and these words in turn shape how we see and how we engage life. The way that we believe the universe works. How we feel about others and ourselves, our beliefs and our relationships all take life through the form of words.

In fact, it seems that language imprints our brains. There was a great pioneering linguist named Benjamin Lee Whorf, W H O R F, who suggested that when we alter our use of language, we also revise how we see reality operating. In other words, words participate in our perception and construction of reality.

So I’m going to focus now on the damage done by the to-be verbs. In 1926 I believe, an engineer and philosopher named Alfred Krobsiski first proposed eliminating the to-be verbs. These verbs are as follows:

Am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being.

These words, if you think about it, exist virtually in every thought and every sentence. They’re omnipresent. Why would we want to eliminate these fundamental verbs from our vocabulary? Well, when we use the to-be verbs, we’re speaking objectively. We’re speaking in an absolute and fixed way. In the old-world view, the 17th century mechanistic worldview. These verbs constitute the building blocks of literal objective thought and they stand as dark contrast to a language that evolves us to participate in our relationships and our thoughts, the constructing of reality.

For example, let’s look at the simple statement. Joe is lazy. To-be verb is. Joe is lazy. This represents a fixed objective statement of fact. Well, perhaps Joe appears lazy if he’s uninspired or bored or distracted or he’s had too much beer to drink. Maybe Joe overeats which makes him fatigued so he seems lazy.

Now, if we remove the word is and we no longer say Joe is lazy we might say Joe seems lazy today or I always see Joe is lazy. Now this context it accounts from my own subjective perception of Joe could Joe appear lazy now but maybe in the future highly motivated? If Joe finds a passion next year will he still appear lazy? What if Joe starts to work out and eat healthy? Is Joe still lazy? The word is and in fact all the to-be verbs preclude change. They suggest a state of permanence and that that permanence exists.

Wow. They don’t allow for change. No wonder why we struggle with change conceptually in our lives. We get stuck inside this reality of the fixed state as to-be verbs. Now all other verbs show movement. The to-be verbs are inert. Am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being: no movement there. So, if they comprise the essence of our thoughts and feelings and beliefs, we’re stuck.

Let’s look a little further. Tom’s friend might say, my friend Tom is an addict. Let’s remove the word is and say, Tom struggles with addiction. Then, we’re not making an absolute and unchanging statement. In the parlance of alcoholics anonymous, one says, I am an alcoholic. Now, this attitude may help people maintain sobriety but it also limits their personal and spiritual growth since they must always see themselves in the same way. 10 years from now, Tom might proclaim I suffered with alcoholism for many years but I no longer do but I choose to remain sober.

That statement allows Tom to evolve, enabling him to come out of victimhood because to-be verbs deny change. They block us from growth from defining moments. They cement our realities and they obscure our ability to see our participation in our flow of life’s experience. Now, remember, you’ve heard me say before that the universe appears to be in a perpetual state of potentiality. Everything flows. Possibilities prevail.

So, conditions that appear fixed should seem incongruous to us. We shouldn’t say Joe is or I am or you are because they suggest that change can’t occur. The word is precludes possibility. To-be verbs are antithetical to the Possibility Principle that we can invite in and sustain possibilities and growth in our life. These to-be verbs block us from seeing life as flowing and unfolding. They blind us to movement as they root us to concrete thinking and fixed notions. These words all keep us stuck.

You know, Heraclitus, the famous Greek philosopher, said, you could not step into the same river twice. He believed in flow. Many years later, I found myself saying, the only constant in the universe is change. I used the word is. I now appreciate two errors in my phrase. My use of the word is is inconsistent with my current beliefs. Additionally, I came to appreciate that the word change has no meaning without the absence of change but as we’ve seen everything flows. Our use of the word is stops flow in its tracks. Nothing simply is.

Let’s look at self-esteem issues. Our self-esteem tends to be marginalized by to-be verbs. I am a loser. Sounds far more damaging than I feel like a loser. After all, if I feel like a loser, I might ask myself why I feel that way. How I came to that belief and how I could change it. My feelings and perceptions can change of course but if I am a loser, I’m stuck.

Or I am not smart enough. It would be a lot healthier to say, I feel stupid when I don’t know the answer. To-be verbs tend to lock us into our confining wave collapses. Remember, wave collapses or those primary core limiting beliefs coming from our childhood usually where we get stuck and so we stay rooted in old beliefs about ourselves only through the use of to-be verbs.

Think about the difference between saying to your child, I am so disappointed in you. Statement of fact as opposed to I feel so disappointed for you. Empathy, compassion. Sometime ago, I was working with a young man who was very pessimistic about himself and his outlook and he said the following. He said, I am a glass half-empty kind of person. Am is negative. Immeasuring self-reference imprinted his self-image in his life. He was a pessimist. I asked him to reframe that thought without using a to-be verb. He thought about it and he said, my thoughts and my beliefs have me see the glass as half empty.

Well, that opens him to the notion that the glass could be half full if he changed his beliefs.

Take a moment and reflect on any belief that you cling to that limits your life. State that belief. Certainly, you’re going to find a to-be verb in that statement. Now, resay it, restate it without using any to-be verbs. Notice how doing that frees you from your belief.

In previous episodes, I’ve spoken about the problem with either or thinking. The removal from complexity into simplicity. The use of the word is is fundamental here. It resonates with Aristotle’s philosophy which is that something either is or is not true and that leads us to either or thinking.

Now, science quantum physics has told us that is or is not true is no longer reality. Let’s look at our emotions. Do I love you or do I hate you? A separate dichotomy. We understand that it all depends upon the moment. These to-be verbs reduce complex matters into an oversimplified and wrong-minded choice. Something is correct or it is wrong. You are this or I am that. By using these to-be verbs, we paint over the complex, multi-layered tapestry of human experience with a broad brush stroke that reduces everything to an ignorant simplicity.

I’d love to show you my appreciation for your subscribing to and rating this podcast by offering you a gift to one of the following: The Power of Mind a live Talks that I gave or one of my digital e-books Creating Authentic Self Esteem, Overcoming Anxiety, or Raising Resilient Children, and lastly, Cultivating Resilient Relationships. Once you have subscribed, please send an email to Mel at Mel Schwartz dot com and just let me know which gift you’d prefer. Thanks.

Let’s take a look at the progress we can make in our relationships by limiting or avoiding the use of to-be verbs. We stop making objective statements which is what triggers conflict in our relationship. We take ownership of our feelings. For example, Bill is a selfish husband. Sounds very different than Bill seems so self-centered to me.

If Bill seems self-centered to me, we can explore why I experience him that way. Why he presents himself that way to me. If I say to Bill you are selfish, end of conversation. You know by now when we reduce ourselves to the right versus wrong argument, all is lost. To-be verbs present themselves in opposition. Obstructing the spirit and practice of meaningful dialogue. They block us from having a generative curious shared inquiry and they move us into opposing camps from which we each cling to our facts and we argue and debase and denigrate each other. In short, the to-be verbs incline us toward an oppositional adversarial energy that leads us to argue about the truth as opposed to speaking to my truth which doesn’t preclude your truth.

Also, removing the to-be verbs helps us create our own authorship of our own statements rather than saying you are or it is. If I say I think, I see it as I’m taking ownership. I can see how I’m participating in the constructing of my own personal truth. Our personal conflicts tend to engage around the battleground of what is or is not true.

Now, removing these to-be verbs is referred to as E-prime language. I can’t actually tell you the derivation of that term. I’m not sure but E-prime language removing the to-be verbs invites us into the heart center of our relationships. Allowing us to express perceptions, vulnerability, connected relationships and effective communication requires speaking with one another subjectively. Do you care how I feel can get us somewhere as opposed to saying you are.

Eliminating those to-be verbs allows a great transition into subjective and participatory communication. If I start a statement with the words I find, I experience, or I believe, several things happen. First, I’ve avoided the pitfall of right versus wrong. Then, I also learned to express what I feel, think, and experience in a way that may be open and of curiosity and interest to you. Beginning statements without to-be verbs leaves the door wide open for other people to share their subjective experiences or impressions.

There’s no battle. There’s no conflict. Subjective communication presents a gateway to verbal and emotional intimacy. Whereas objectivity represented by to-be verbs precludes relatedness. The to-be verbs speak of the objective language of things from Newton’s worldview. Avoiding them helps us sidestep the battle, the inevitable destructive battle over right versus wrong.

Let’s look at a few more of the benefits of avoiding to-be verbs. As I’ve described in my book, we were trained to view reality as existing out there and that leaves us dispassionate and removed observers in our lives and from this orientation, we can see ourselves as victims of circumstance like I am a loser as opposed to I feel like a loser if I don’t meet my goals. The advantages to this linguistics transition are far greater than mere words can express.

You may recall my episode entitled “Who am I.” Who am I seeks a fixed answer which limits our identity removes the word am and you might ask how do I see myself how would I like to see myself how would I like to experience my life notice the shift there from the objective conclusion to one that opens us up to an unfolding possibility. Removing to-be verbs also helps us embrace uncertainty which by now you know can be a very powerful trait and skill. Many people feel tentative or insecure about sharing their thoughts and feelings. They may be sensitive to other people’s opinions and they will elevate other people’s opinions to judgements. So they may vacillate, wonder whether to speak or not, question themselves, and this insecurity interrupts their natural process of articulating.

Some people will prepare an entire sentence in their mind to feel safe before they actually communicate. I think of this halting approach as the equivalent of a silent stutter. These people are stuck in a need for certainty. To-be verbs make statements of certainty with no room for embracing uncertainty. They speak of determinism. We can learn to open ourselves to thinking and speaking in E-prime which opens the doorway to inviting in uncertainty.

I recall working with someone years ago who spoke of her memory of her father’s words when she was a child when he said, think before you speak. Those words constructed a fearful image for her and it inclined to always worry about making mistake. I found that using E-prime, removing to-be verbs, dissipates that fear. At first, it may feel awkward to speak without employing to-be verbs. We need to pause and find a new voice.

When you speak from the first person in a subjective voice, you can feel safe from others correcting you. You have perceptions that differ from other people but you’re only sharing a belief in their perception. You can’t be told you’re wrong. That woman doesn’t have to fear making a mistake if she doesn’t make objective statements.

So you see using E-prime eliminating to-be verbs will build your self-esteem as your feelings and thoughts and perceptions are removed from judgement. When you give yourself permission to speak in this manner and think in this manner, one word follows the next. You find your voice. You can trust in the process. This manner of communicating embraces uncertainty and it opens up to a starkly different contrast to the limitations of objective punctuated communication rooted in to-be.

Let me conclude with some following thoughts. The to-be verbs trap us in a rut of old thought, old feelings. They keep us stuck in the past. Removing the to-be verbs from our mental map allow us to transition from being to becoming, from fixed to flowing. It ushers in a transformative process. Our language when it’s rooted in an old worldview acts as a roadblock. It restricts our growth, our curiosity, our learning.

When we learn to think and communicate free of the to-be verbs, our thoughts no longer trick us into false objective reality. We can take ownership of our thinking and when we begin to modify our words and language in such a way, we can experience ourselves from automatic stuck in the past from victim into authorship.

These semantic shifts are pivotal in creating a present that can become unburdened from the past and they allow us to join in the flow of the universe, remember our words shape our thoughts in our world.

This is a lot to take in, I’m sure, for many of you who are not familiar with my work in this area but just pause, look at your limiting thoughts and beliefs. Look at where you get stuck in communication and in conflict and relationship. Notice the to-be verbs and rethink those communications and those reflections in which you take ownership of your perception and your feeling and you’ll be stepping into an exciting new adventure of growth whereby your perceptions and thoughts participate in creating your reality as opposed to reality existing out there in front of you unchanging and leaving you as a victim.

I hope you enjoy today’s episode. Please check out my TEDx talk on eight words that will limit your relationships. You can find that on my website or send me an email and I’ll be happy to send you a link to it. Mel at Mel Schwartz dot com.

I enjoy sharing these thoughts with you today and I look forward to future conversations. Be well, be safe, and hope to be speaking with you again soon. Bye for now.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Possibility Podcast and I welcome your feedback on this or any episode. Please send me an email at Mel at Mel Schwartz dot com or leave a comment in the show notes for this episode at Mel Schwartz dot com. If you like what you’re hearing, please take a moment to rate and review the show at Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. Your reviews really help boost the visibility for the show and it’s a great way for you to show your support. Finally, please make sure to subscribe to The Possibility Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. In that way, you’ll never miss an episode and thanks again and please remember to always welcome uncertainty into your life as you embrace new possibilities.

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