Let's talk about language

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Don't worry - I'm not here to correct your grammar or tell you what you should or shouldn't say (although I have been guilty of this in the past). When I say language, what I really want to talk about is the way we explain things to ourselves and others. Like, the actual words we use. And there's a really good reason I'm bringing this up.

When we try to explain things to ourselves and others, we sometimes use metaphors (and similes, if we want to be accurate). We say things like, spending an hour on the bus every day is like dying a slow, painful death. We say, that meeting was complete agony. We say, this whole project has been like pulling teeth.

And we have good reason for using this language. It's been taught to us and reinforced for literal years. In fact, many of us studied it in school and were particularly directed to be more colorful with our language. Our teachers wanted the language to feel alive, and they taught us how to accomplish that. We also live in a culture that loves both exaggeration and understatement. This means that the way we explain things is often very interesting and geared towards highlighting the emotional experience of a thing versus the literal reality of this.

But. When we do this without paying attention to how our words feel - and to what we do when we feel that way - then we can create some results that we don't prefer, and we usually aren't even aware we're doing it. 

And y'all. Before I learned the coaching tools that I use and teach, I did this ALL THE TIME. I have a master's degree in creative writing and years of experience using language this way. And it can be satisfying in a way, to capture our emotional experience by comparing it to something else.

But here's what also happens: when I say that commuting to work on the bus is like dying a slow, painful death, then my brain shows me all the ways that this is true, and it hides all the ways that this is not true (and, y'all, there are many ways in which it's not true, obviously). Also, when I tell myself that commuting is like dying, and I also do it every day or at least several days a week, then my brain thinks that we're doing something that is threatening us. Because ... I told it we were. So my brain wants to get away from commuting, because it sees it as a threat, even though it's literally just a means of conveyance, and something that I chose on purpose because I decided it was a better option than the alternative. Do you see what's happening here?

When I tell myself the story that riding the bus is terrible, then 1. that's my experience and 2. I forget that I am in complete control of the situation. And, as if that's not bad enough, here's another thing that happens: when I insist that it's terrible, then I feel resentful and annoyed, and as you know, resentful and annoyed do not create compelling results. In fact, resentful and annoyed tend to just create more of themselves. So, not only am I riding the bus and noticing all the ways it's terrible and not taking any ownership for it, but I'm also ruining my own mood and disrupting my productivity. 

Now, this may seem like a melodramatic view of what this one thought can do, but it's not. In fact, it's the thought itself that's melodramatic, which is why it creates melodramatic results. Because, as much as I'd prefer not to spend an hour on the bus everyday, it's not actually like dying a slow, painful death. What I really mean when I say that is this: it's not my favorite and I'm ruminating over how upsetting it is and blaming the bus for my feelings. But here's the reality: for $2.25, that my company paid by the way, a big machine on wheels will drive me to a different city where my job happened to be. That's all. 

Yes, sometimes the big machine on wheels came at a different time than it was scheduled to. Yes, sometimes there were other machines on the road and we didn't get to the other city as fast as I wanted to. Yes, there were other people and sometimes no seats available on that big machine. But. None of those is actually like dying a slow, painful death. They were all just circumstances for me to navigate. And I chose them because I preferred the bus commute to driving and paying for parking. 

Now. I may not have wanted to admit that I was choosing the bus. Because I wanted the situation to be different than it was. But wanting things to be different than they are doesn't change them. And contrary to common belief, it doesn't help you come up with creative solutions. Why? Because when you're thinking, it shouldn't be this way, then you're just raging at what is. But when you think, ok, it is this way, then you can ask yourself what you'd like to do, given the circumstances. 

For me, in my old job, with my old commute, this meant a few things. For one, it meant admitting that I didn't have to take the bus. I didn't have to keep my job that was in a different city. I wanted to keep that job. I chose to take the bus there because I didn't want to drive. And, interestingly, when we remind ourselves that it's our choice, it feels a lot better. It's empowering. And then we remember that we can keep choosing. We can choose how we're doing what we're doing.

For me, that meant asking myself what I could do to help my commute work better. And I decided that if I was going to be on the bus for an hour, I could do a few things. I could use that time to work and answer emails. I could get nice headphones so that I could listen to music and podcasts. I could wear comfortable shoes since I might be standing for that hour. And, I could stop insisting that the commute was like dying a slow, painful death if that's not what I wanted it to feel like (and y'all, I didn't want it to feel like that). This is the real essence of this work. We think we're just being honest when we insist that something we don't prefer is terrible. We think it's helping us. But it's not. It's usually just making us feel trapped and helpless in our own lives. 

I want to be really clear - I'm not saying that we just bright side everything. I'm saying - look at the facts and then look at the story you're telling yourself about what's going on. A meeting is not complete agony. It's you sitting in a chair talking and listening. When you tell yourself it's agony, your brain is like, omg, it totally is and here's how: and then it creates a list of evidence for you and it also suppresses all the ways that the meeting is not, in fact, agony. But what's really happening? Is it that Kevin, the project manager, gave you a deadline that you can't meet due to competing priorities? Or is it that you're the project manager and someone else is giving you pushback on the deadline? These are things that do need to be addressed. Going to meetings might involve some discomfort, especially if you anticipate that there will be conflict. But calling it agony is a disservice to you. Because it just makes your brain freak out and it doesn't help you show up to the actual situation you're dealing with. Call it what it is - you'd like to say some words in this meeting and your brain also thinks you might die if you do. Not because you're actually going to die. But because your brain has evolutionarily learned to avoid conflict so it's catastrophisizing and trying to keep you safe in the only way it knows how. 

Language is fascinating because on the one hand, it's just words. But on the other hand, words - and specifically the way we think about things - create our realities. It sounds woo-woo, but it's actually incredibly straight forward. How we think determines how we feel (and what data our brain shows us) and that determines how we act (and what we notice) and all of this adds up to create our reality. We think it's just the way things are, but it's actually the way we've made them. It's not that it's all our fault - it's that it's actually within our control, once we learn how things really work. Once you learn how to use your thoughts on purpose, a whole world of possibility opens up. For now, just notice how you explain things and how those explanations feel. You might be surprised at what your stories actually feel like. If you are, hit reply and tell me what you've learned. 

And y'all, if you've decided it's time to change the stories you tell and how you explain things, I can help you with that. Schedule a consult and let's talk about it.