Redefining the Vocabulary of Everyday Life

By John-Henry | October 20, 2018

Easily the most profound ideas from modern clinical psychology is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). For those unfamiliar, the key tenet of CBT is that if we can change the way we think, then we can change the way we feel. In practice, CBT involves learning to recognize distortions in thinking, and then address these issues with new improved practices. For example, people often use the word “should” in everyday life. “You should focus on school”; “You shouldn’t eat so much junk food”; “You should be grateful for this opportunity” etc. etc.. But what are the implications of talking to people or thinking like this? Well for one, each of these statements contains an implicit disapproval in the current self. Each statement represents an internal deficiency, which you are not currently addressing. Each of these statements implies, you are lacking willpower and are not doing the right thing, and when viewed from this perspective, it is no wonder “should” statements make us feel depressed!

I find this idea from CBT to be extremely profound. To me, CBT proves that our everyday vocabulary has profound impact on how we feel. “Should” statements can be bad for our mental health, but very people realize this. “Should” is not taught to as a dirty word, but perhaps it should be (get it?). CBT addresses a few other words that have negative mental health aspects (e.g., “always”, “never”), but I’ve always been concerned that this list of words is incomplete, and that there are likely other words with deleterious effects but not addressed. It may be true that the language not addressed by CBT is not related to mental illness, but isn’t it interesting to think about the implications from other words? What other word definitions do people have trouble distinguishing? I understand that this post is bordering on philosophy, and is not empirical psychology, but I find it enjoyable thought exercise if anything. Below are the words in my life that I’ve tried to redefine. Special thanks to Al Turtle and Brene Brown who provide many of the definitions seen below.

  • Always is an exaggeration where something has a 100% probability of occuring. “Always” is the correct word to use when there are literally no situations where a given thing does not occur. “Always” is rarely the correct word to use in everyday life, and is never the appropriate word to use when describing human behavior. Cf., never
  • Authenticity A practice. An everyday choice. Letting go of the fake. Not laughing at jokes that aren’t funny to you. Cf., reliability
  • Busy A mildly rude blanket word that glosses over what you’ve been up to without giving much detail. It communicates that you don’t really want to share what you’ve been up to. A word that barricades vulnerability
  • Compassion A skill involving being kind to others. Begins with being kind to yourself first and then to others, because we can’t practice compassion unless we treat ourselves kindly.
  • Connection The result of authenticity. The willingness to let go of who you think you should be, in order to be who you are.
  • Courage From the root cur (heart). Literally meaning “tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” Acceptance of being imperfect, and putting yourself out there anyway.
  • Empathy A skill that fuels connection. Empathy is about perspective taking, staying out of judgement, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating that you are feeling with that person. Empathy is “I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone”. It doesn’t begin with at least, “I’m just so glad you told me” which doesn’t foster connection. Empathy is the antidote to shame, secrecy, silence, and judgement. Brings out the words “me too”, which are the most powerful thing you can say to someone. cf., sympathy
  • Guilt Guilt is a feeling based on time travel. It is putting today’s wisdom into yesterday’s event. “ Yesterday, I should have known what I have now learned.” I suggest you celebrate the new learning and discard the fear.
  • Listening A skill that involves putting energy into the conscious hearing of another person’s verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Never “Never” is an exaggeration where something has a 0% probability of occuring. “Never” is the correct word to use when there are literally not a single situation that provides an exception. “Never” is rarely correct word to use in everyday life because a single exception nullifies it. “Never” is never the appropriate word to use when describing human behavior.cf., always
  • Other-Esteem A somewhat fragile tendency to like yourself or admire yourself if others like or admire you. cf., self-esteem
  • Perfectionism A maladaptive coping skill. Perfectionism is armor. It’s not internally driven like healthy striving. It’s externally driven and fueled by “What will people think?” Perfectionism is a shield that keeps us from being seen. Here’s to a genuine, unarmored, messy, awkward, compassionate, less-than-perfect.
  • Reliability A skill that builds a reputation for yourself. Reliability means that you do what you are going to say you are going to do. Reliability is built by doing this over and over and over again. To achieve this, you need to be really clear in your limitations too. This means not saying you want to hang out, if you don’t really want to do it. That is not actually nice. cf., authenticity.
  • Self-Esteem Being able to like yourself even when others hate you. cf., other-esteem
  • Should “Should” is a word that implies your present self is not good enough. To some degree each “should” statement is a power play from the speaker (or your mind!), implying that they know better than you and you are deficient for not reaching their level. “Should” statements can be replaced with “it would be preferable to …” which does not have the same negative conotation as “should” does.
  • Stupid That friendly and thoughtful state you were in before you learned something new. Knowledge is “terminal” to stupidity. Once you’ve learned something, you can’t go back to being stupid again.
  • Sympathy Pseudo-empathy. Sympathy drives disconnection. Sympathy is trying to see the silver lining. Saying “at least, you know you can x”. Does not foster connection the way that empathy does because of the lack of vulnerability. cf., empathy
  • Truth A “something that is going on” which all humans experience differently. An interpretation of reality, which often there is no single correct view of.
  • Vulnerability Vulnerability is putting yourself in situations that are not comfortable, not excruciating, but are necessary. Vulnerability is the willingness to say “I love you” first; trying to initiate sex; or investing in a relationship that may or may not workout. Vulnerability is putting yourself in situations where there are no guarantees. Vulnerability is necessary, because we cannot selectively numb emotion, and so by being invulnerable in some parts of life therefore will affect others.
  • Worthiness A skill that is defined as feeling a strong sense of love and belonging, and feeling worthy of love and belonging. Created with authenticity, courage, connection, vulnerability, trust, and reliability
  • Writing A blanket word people use that doesn’t cover the many cognitive efforts used to create valuable content. Cf., busy

If there are words you think I should add to this list, please let me know.


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