Negative Self-Talk? English Major to the Rescue!

Everyone has good and bad days.1 On my bad days, I find it hard to silence that little disparaging voice in my head. While I haven’t been able to make that whiny putz shut up, I have been able to lessen his impact. The trick is to use the right words to put some space between yourself and your emotions.

Here’s what language can do:

I am sad: “Is,” a form of “to be,” is a short and powerful word. And, in this context, it’s unhelpful because it makes the word “sad” an immutable characteristic. When I say “I am Dave,” “I am tall,” “I am gay,” and “I am Jewish,” those four things are unchangeable parts of my identity. I can’t not be Dave, tall, gay, or Jewish.2 Sadness is a temporary thing and shouldn’t be on that list. 

I feel sad: Upgrading “is” to “feel” is an improvement because it transforms “sad” from a permanent trait to a state of being. Sadness is no longer something that I am; it’s just what I am experiencing.

I feel sad now: Adding “now” adds a temporal dimension. It means I’m experiencing sadness at the moment, not all the time. 

See, that fancy English degree is helpful in the real world after all! By modifying the words my original thought, sadness becomes something I can observe with some detachment. 

When I use this technique, “I’m stupid” becomes “I did a stupid thing just now,” and “I’m lazy” becomes “I didn’t accomplish as much today as usual.” I’m not hyperbolizing a single event and allowing it to define me. 

The next time you’re dealing with uncomfortable emotions, think about the language you’re using. Small wording changes may make a big difference.

1 Anyone who says they only have good days is either lying or on an all-ketamine diet.
2 The double negative is appropriate and acceptable in this sentence.