Updated: Mar 28, 2019
Here is Part 2, if you'd like to read it.
Our inner voice and how we use it to talk to and about ourselves matters, and it matters a lot. You are the only person you have to be around 100% of the time. The way we think about ourselves defines our actions, which define who we are to other people and how we exist in this world. Consciously deciding how we speak to ourselves and reframing our conception of ourselves and our actions can act as an incredibly powerful tool to improve our mental wellness, get things done, and live a healthier and more productive life.
There’s a lot to cover when it comes to how we talk to ourselves, so I ended up splitting this into a two part blog post. Today we’ll focusing on what words we use and how our phrasing matters, and tomorrow we’ll look at what kinds of things we say to and about ourselves and how to treat ourselves kindly.
“I can’t” vs. “I don’t”
Never give away your agency. Let me say that again. Do not, for any reason, give away your power to decide who you are and what you do to anyone or anything else. Ever. You get to define who you are. When we say we “can’t” do something, we are saying that we are unable to do something for reasons outside of our control. When we say we “don’t” do something, we are saying that we have made a decision to never do that thing. Don’t say that you “can’t” do it when the power and choice to do that activity lies entirely with you.
As a personal example, I don’t eat meat. I actively choose not to. It is a conscious decision that I have made, and that I stick to and want to acknowledge. Every so often, I’ll be somewhere with food and someone will point out a dish with meat in it and tell me “You can’t eat that”, and it bothers me every single time. No, I don’t eat that. I could eat it, but I have made the decision not to. Someone with a peanut allergy can’t eat peanuts, but I don’t eat meat.
Saying that you “can’t” be on time takes the decision out of your hands. You’ve decided that something else is making the decision about whether or not you can be on time, and because of that, there is nothing you can do to change that. You can’t change something you can’t control. If you say that you “don’t” show up on time, you’ve put the power back in your hands. When you take responsibility for something, you’ve given yourself the ability to change it. Realizing that you can change something is the first step in doing so.
Consider “I can’t keep my room clean” vs. “I don’t keep my room clean”. I’m sure I’ve said the former dozens of times. I used to be a very messy person, but there wasn’t anything that was actually preventing me from cleaning my room and keeping it that way. Had I said “I don’t keep my room clean”, I would have had to admit that the power to maintain a clean room does lie in my hands, and really, I could keep it clean, I just don’t. If I had admitted that, maybe I would’ve cleaned my room, but I didn’t. I had unconsciously convinced myself that there was no way I could keep my room clean, so why bother trying?
Don’t give away your power. Whether it’s a positive, negative, or neutral situation, own it. It may be hard sometimes to admit that we could change certain things and yet we haven’t, but by doing so, we give ourselves the power to change. We reclaim our agency.
Once you’ve realized that you “don’t” do something, if that is something you’d like to change, then change it! You now have the power to decide right here and now that you do do that thing. Yes, you have the time, and there’s no reason you can’t do it, so do it.
There are valid reasons to say that you can’t do something. As I said earlier, a person with a peanut allergy can’t eat peanuts. If you do go to bed at 10 p.m., then you can’t go out to that bar with your coworkers. Examine your situation carefully to decide if you “can’t” or you “don’t”. I will say though, if you “can’t” do something because you don’t have time, I need to point you in the direction of “That’s not a priority right now”, which is another post I made about how the phrases we use impact our actions. Spoiler: you do have time.
“I am” vs. “I want to be”, “I wish”, or “I will”
I am someone who goes to the gym. I believe this to my core; it’s part of how I define myself, and my friends know me as someone who works out regularly and is excited about fitness. Because of this, whenever I have those days where I just really don’t want to go to the gym, I think to myself, “too bad. I am someone who goes to the gym”, and then I go.
I decided on this identity for myself within a few days of the first time I set foot in a gym, and it’s played a large role in my ability to routinely go to the gym. I’ve now been going to the gym regularly for eight months and will probably continue to go for the rest of my life because this is who I am.
You will have an easier time doing things if they align with your identity of yourself. If you decide that part of your identity is, “I am someone who makes healthy food choices”, you’re much more likely to pass on that office donut than if you’ve only thought, “I want to be someone who eats healthy”. You are someone who makes healthy food choices, and a donut is not a healthy food choice. The donut doesn’t align with your identity, so you won’t eat it.
The next time you find yourself wishing a trait onto your future self, “I want to start exercising”, “I wish I cooked dinner at home on weeknights”, “I will start saving money”, decide that you are someone who does those things. I am someone who exercises. I am someone who cooks dinner at home during the week. I am saving money.
Love and know and embrace your new identity. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t very good at it yet. Sometimes we’re not very good at sticking to identities we’ve held for years. That’s okay. By deciding that this is who you are, you eliminate a lot of decisions that your future self would have had to make. Someone who cooks dinner during the week doesn’t have to decide if they’re getting a pizza on the way home from work, because that isn’t who they are and isn’t what they do.
If you define yourself in a specific way to others, often they will expect that of you and help hold you to it. There are people who want to sabotage your progress, but typically if you say that you’re saving money, or you don’t eat dessert during the week, or you read two books a month, your friends and family will encourage your behavior. The people who care about us want to see us reach our goals and improve our lives.
“Get to” vs. “Have to”
The last pair of phrases that I want to discuss is “I have to” vs. “I get to”. Have you ever noticed that any time you say “I have to” do something, that something immediately becomes a little less appealing? Evening if you love cooking dinner, “I have to cook dinner” makes it sound like a chore. When we say we “have to” do something, it feels like an outside force is making us do it whether we actually want to or not.
Now consider, “I get to cook dinner”. Sounds way more appealing, doesn’t it? “I get to go to the gym”, “I get to go to work”, “I get to read this book”, each of these sounds much more appealing than the “have to” version. It’s much easier to get yourself to do something if you look at it as something you “get to” do, versus something you “have to” do.
When we acknowledge that the things we have to do are also things that we get to do, we are also practicing gratitude. You’re looking on the bright side of life. You “get to” go to work. Not everyone has a job, many people are struggling to find employment. You “get to” go to the gym because you have a body that can take you places and do things for you.
By noticing what we “get to” do, we make those parts of our lives that support us more visible. You “get to” cook dinner because you have the skills and resources to make yourself food. Take a moment to feel grateful for those skills and resources. Practicing gratitude is one of the fastest and easiest proven ways to bring more happiness into our lives, and suddenly we’re feeling a bit less annoyed at the fact that we need to get something done.
The way we talk to and about ourselves plays a huge role in how we see ourselves and our world. Our thoughts and words have a massive impact on our actions and our sense of identity, and with just a few small shifts in our language, we can make a noticeable difference on our moods, our actions, and our outlook.
If you’re giving away your agency by using words that put the power and responsibility in the hands of the universe, rather than seizing control for yourself, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You are in control of who you are and who you will become. Letting the world toss you around because you think you “can’t” do something means that you definitely won’t do that thing, and the world will take you where it wants. If you want to stand in your power and be a conscious driver of your life, it’s important that your words reflect that you are in control of your decisions and actions.
Think about your ideal future self. Who are they? How would they define themselves? If you asked your ideal future self to write as many sentences that start with “I am…” as possible, what would they write? Then define yourself by those phrases. If your ideal future self would say “I am someone who meditates regularly”, start to think of yourself as someone who meditates regularly and sooner than you realize it, your actions will start to reflect your thoughts.
The words we use to talk to ourselves and the way we phrase our thoughts matter. A lot of nuance goes into each thought, and by practicing using language that is empowering and embodies gratitude, we can change our actions and our lives.
Here is the link to Part 2 of this post.