The language we use carries weight. Don’t be fooled by the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me…” – words can pack a punch! What makes language particularly tricky is that our word choice often sends messages beyond those we intend.
For example, perhaps one of the most insidious words in the English language is the word “but”. So often, that little, seemingly harmless, three-letter word can become caustic. Think about it… what happens if somebody says to you, “You worked really hard on that project”? What emotions does that bring up? Could be pride in your accomplishment, could be excitement that somebody acknowledged your success, could be relief that your work was well-received, could be contentment to have all that work behind you… Now what if we extend that statement to, “You worked really hard on that project, but it took you a long time to complete”? Suddenly, all the positivity conveyed in the first half of the sentence is gone, erased, stripped away. You now might feel disappointed, downtrodden, angry, or even unseen.
Love & Hate
When the word “but” makes an appearance halfway through a sentence, it effectively negates everything that was said beforehand. It denies the fact that both halves of the statement could be true. It may be true that you worked very hard on a project, and it may be true that it took a long time to complete. Embracing these two ideas as simultaneously true is an example of dialectical thinking. Dialectical thinking acknowledges that two opposite ideas can be true at the same time, and that when you accept both ideas as simultaneous truths, it creates a new, greater truth.
Love / hate is a common example. We often think of love and hate as opposites, yet we can feel both feelings towards the same person. In moments where we are swept up by romance, we may only acknowledge the love we feel for a partner. In contrast, when they do something upsetting, we can get swallowed by feelings of hate. If we think of love and hate as incompatible, these moments may guide our decision-making in harmful ways. We may rush into a relationship with someone too quickly if we only acknowledge the feelings of love. We may damage an otherwise functional relationship if we only see the hate. However, if we are dialectical and embrace the love and hate, we have a more honest and representative perspective on our relationship with another person.
Enter the word “and” – one of the most powerful vehicles of dialectical thinking. Instead of thinking, “I love him, but he drives me crazy,” or, “He drives me crazy, but I love him,” we can work towards validating both sentiments – “I love him, and he drives me crazy”. Instead of saying, “You worked really hard on that project, but you it took you a long time to complete,” we can honor both truths: “You worked really hard on that project, and it took you a long time to complete.”
If you practice observing yourself over the course of a day, you might be shocked to hear how many times you use the word “but” – with your colleagues, with your family, and even with yourself. The word “but” is unintentionally invalidating and may be causing more friction than you realize. Think about how some of these statements might come across:
- I appreciate that you want to help me with chores, honey, but you loaded the dishwasher wrong, and I had to redo it. (cue a partner who will never load the dishwasher again!)
- I’m glad you got A’s in English and Math, but I see that you got a C in History. (cue a child whose focus is now directed towards their areas of difficulty).
- I know that I’m trying hard to work on my temper, but I keep losing my cool. (cue a drop in your own self-esteem).
Try It Today
To maintain a more balanced perspective on yourself and others, as well as to be more mindful of effort, progress, and moments of success, try decreasing your use of the word “but” and replacing it with the word “and”:
- My partner and I don’t always see eye to eye, and we love each other very much.
- My child’s temper tantrums are getting on my nerves, and he’s working on using his words.
- I can do this, and it’s going to be hard.
You might find that replacing one small word for another has a pretty big impact on your perspective and your relationship with others. It may even improve your relationship with yourself.