Oliver Page

3 words I banished from my vocabulary

19 April, 2022

I’m endlessly fascinated by words. Why are some words powerful enough to lift my spirits, while others deflate me in a single breath? Words can fill me with love and vitality or hatred and self-doubt.

Even among synonyms, the range of reactions in me can be quite varied. Take the words ‘aim’ and ‘purpose’. Objectively, they’re getting at the same thing – my reason for doing something – but subjectively, they feel worlds apart. Wouldn’t you agree?

Word choice is so influential that it can even affect our physical health for better or worse, through the placebo and nocebo effects.

I saw this play out many times as a junior doctor. Not yet fully conscious of the power of words, I relied on cold, mechanical terms like ‘dysfunction’ and ‘failure’. More than once I watched as such terms caused a look of fear or dismay to sprawl across the patient’s face.

This is the quantum leap I think we need to make: the same dynamics are at play when we communicate with ourselves. Words can be our medicine or our poison. They can promote stress, anger and violence, or they can heal, uplift and pacify. The quality of our energy is greatly influenced by the language we employ. The more purposeful we can be about it the better.

Here are 3 words I’ve been actively eliminating from my vocabulary where possible. For each, I also propose a more empowering alternative. Making these subtle shifts has been a useful tool in taking more ownership of my life and feeling more at peace with myself each day.

1. Perfect

The idea of ‘perfection’ is just that – an idea.

Perfection can’t be found anywhere in the cosmos. Whether we’re referring to an vibrant orchid, a luscious beach, or our swanky new haircut, there’s no objective truth to describing those things as perfect.

When I label things so, I’m usually taking a linguistic shortcut. I’m bypassing the nuances of how I truly feel about the object of my perception. Perhaps I look at a sunset and notice the words “how perfect” tumble out of my mouth. In reality, I might mean something like, “right now I’m looking at this sunset and feeling waves of peace and serenity wash over my soul.”

In the case of a sunset, this habit is quite benign. Things get messier, however, when I apply the same shortcut to the realm of human activity and human nature.

For instance, if I describe my piano performance as perfect, I’m judging my own competence as if it is a fixed product. The alternative is to express what’s unfolding inside me: “this piece came out just how I wanted it to. I feel so pleased about that.” This is a far more spacious way of communicating.

‘Perfect’ sounds like praise, but it isn’t. In trying to capture the essence of something, I’m performing an act of subtle aggression against it. I might write an article for this blog which goes on to be highly praised, and then come to think of myself as a ‘good writer’. But this reductiveness actually frustrates further growth by hampering self-reflection and feeding into complacency.

Words like ‘perfect’ and ‘good’ also imply that more menacing judgements are lurking around the corner – judgements like ‘inadequate’ and ‘not good enough’. This might be why I contract slightly when some facet of me is described as ‘good’, ‘amazing’ or ‘perfect’. The speaker means well, but I often find that such words ring hollow.

As I’ve hinted, the more empowering option is to make an objective observation, and to express our feelings about that observation: “when x, I feel y”.

Here are a few ways this might play out:

  • “Life is just perfect right now” becomes “when I woke up today, I felt so grateful to have a loving family and a job.”
  • “That was the best article I’ve ever read” becomes “when I read your article, I felt moved to tears.”
  • “I had a rubbish, terrible upbringing” becomes “when I was a child, some of the things I experienced greatly upset me.”

This formula helps me take a step back, observe things as they are, and then release the truth. The alternative is to keep deluding myself (and others) with some final judgement based on veiled feelings.

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2. Should

Most of the time, I don’t think the word ‘should’ can be traced back to an authentic emotional state. It’s often a cloak for fear, guilt, self-loathing, or some other unresourceful way of being. These states aren’t born from who we really are, but from roles we’ve been conditioned to uphold.

‘Should’ statements can be dangerous, eliminating our connection to choice and personal responsibility, which is at the core of everything we do. ‘Should’ makes everything a matter of cold, mechanical duty. We feel it’s our duty to impose certain behaviours upon ourselves and others, not in light of our authentic nature, but in light of tribal/herd mentality.

Left unchecked, ‘shoulds’ paint our lives with a tragic quality because we’re not consciously living it based on our core values.

Not to mention the perils of inflicting ‘shoulds’ on other people, which can end up sucking them into that same vortex of criticism, comparison and conformity we may have ensconced ourselves in.

The more empowering alternative is “I choose to” or “I want to”.

For example, I might catch myself thinking, “I really should meditate this morning”.

Instead, what if I told myself, “I choose to meditate this morning because I want to kick off my day in a state of calm.”

The difference is subtle but powerful. When I use a should, I’m ceding my responsibility to some other authority. That authority might be another person, or group of people, but more often it’s my inner tyrant. The better parts of me become passive and suppressed.

When I connect with my authentic desires, I can take ownership of my choices and live each day on my own terms. I believe this awareness can only make us more fulfilled, more resourceful, and more at peace with our decisions.

3. Problem

I have a confession: I’m a problem-solving junkie.

I love trying to answer riddles, solve crosswords and master Rubik’s cubes. What isn’t quite as fun is when I apply the same mindset to my life. After all, life isn’t a simple brain teaser – it’s an amorphous, dynamic entity imbued with unlimited possibility.

Why then, do I keep falling into this trap? Why am I so prone to analysing the big questions in my life as if they’re puzzles to be solved?

The philosopher E.F. Schumacher distinguished between two types of problem:

  • Convergent problems: if I were to break my arm and ask 30 different surgeons for advice, their answers would converge on the same solution. Such is the nature of convergent problems – we can use logic and deduction to arrive at the ‘correct’ answer.
  • Divergent problems: if I were to ask 30 philosophers what the meaning of life is, their answers would probably diverge considerably – I may well end up with 30 different answers. Divergent problems ask us to make art. I must look within to discover the answers, engaging not only head but also heart.

Our hyperintellectual culture has fallen into the habit of framing almost everything as a convergent problem. Through this lens, we’re forced to think our way out of every dilemma, which is something of a Sisyphean task.

When this idea truly hit home for me a few years ago, I felt unshackled: no longer do I need to fix or solve my relationships, my career, my purpose, my mental health, my personality, and so on. These existential building blocks of my life call for divergent thinking – in other words, raw creativity.

The reframe, then, is to shift away from the word ‘problem’ whenever I need to create the answers myself. Instead, I try to use the word opportunity.

Opportunities are about turning obstacles (read: discomfort) into something more meaningful. This calls for openness, courage and ingenuity:

  • The problem of a boring commute to work becomes an opportunity to practice patience and presence.
  • The problem of feeling envious towards my friend becomes an opportunity to celebrate their happiness and grow in emotional maturity.
  • The problem of feeling lost in life becomes an opportunity to create an inspiring vision based on my core values.

These moments are all choice points, moments in which I can call forward the best in myself.

More often than not, my problems aren’t something to fix, hack, or manoeuvre around. They are valuable sources of acceptance and beautiful opportunities to become the kind of person I want to be.