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The Most Dangerous Words You Can Say to Yourself

The most dangerous words you say to yourself are the words you place behind the words: “I am . . .” or the words “I can’t.”

In the past two weeks, I have heard the words “I am” followed by “a procrastinator,” “not good at this,” “impatient,” “not technical,” and “intolerant.”

In a slight derivation on this theme, I have also heard “I can’t.” These words were followed “figure this out,” “understand it,” and “do it.” These were followed by “It’s impossible,” even though what was being discussed was possible (and eventually done).

The words that you place behind these two little phrases are true. The statements you make aren’t true because you really “are” any of the negative words you use to describe yourself. And they aren’t true because you really “can’t” do something. They are only true because you have chosen to believe them to be true. They are true only because you are acting in accordance with what you say.

It Doesn’t Excuse Behaviors

Why do you say these things? For most of us, it’s because we believe it absolves us of responsibility for the behavior.

But saying that you “are” something doesn’t excuse the behavior. Procrastination, frustration, impatience, and intolerance aren’t viruses. These aren’t infections that happen to you. These are behaviors. They are decisions one takes. You decide whether or not to do something that needs done now or to put it off. You decide whether or not to be frustrated, impatient, or intolerant. They’re choices.

What makes the words you use to describe yourself so dangerous is that they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By defining yourself with negative words, you expect that other people should excuse—or tolerate—the behavior. They won’t excuse your behavior. And other people won’t tolerate it. What they will do instead is to describe you to others in those same negative terms that you used to describe yourself.

It’s True Because You Said So

Is it really that you can’t do something?

Saying that you cannot do something doesn’t usually mean you really can’t do it. It usually means that you aren’t willing to do it. While there are some people with natural gifts and talents, none of us are very good at anything without first dedicating the time and effort necessary to get good. What you mean by “I can’t” is really “I don’t want to take the time or put forth the effort to learn.”

Once you tell yourself that you can’t do something, you have given yourself permission to stop trying. Once you stop trying, it is guaranteed that you can’t do whatever it was you were trying to do.

What strikes me as funny about this is how many adults suffer from some form of learned helplessness and how few of them want learned helplessness for their children. They tell their children that they can do whatever they want to if they’ll only put forth the effort. They tell their children to never quit trying. (And thank God this is true!) Why then tell yourself something else?

Saying that you can’t do something is dangerous, too. It doesn’t absolve you of your responsibilities. It’s really an excuse.

Say Something Else Instead

If merely saying something makes it true, then why not say something that you would want to be true. Why not say something positive, something you would want others to say about you?

What if you replaced “I am a procrastinator,” with “I am extraordinarily disciplined when it comes to keeping my commitments,” instead? Who would you be if you replaced the words “I am not technical,” with the words “I am getting better at using my technology tools every day?”

Instead of “I can’t do this,” you might try something like, “I haven’t yet gained mastery of this yet, but give me time!” How would that change your behavior? How would it sound to others?

Words are powerful. Words have meaning. The words you use about yourself make an impact on others. They also have an impact on you. This is why it is critical that you choose the words that you say to yourself and about yourself carefully. Choosing poorly is dangerous.

Questions

What words do put behind the two words “I am?”

What phrases do you use that are really your excuse for some undesirable behavior?

Are you really those negative phrases?

What do you say that you can’t do? Is it really that you can’t, or is it really that you don’t want to make the investment to learn? Is it because it’s difficult?

What are the positive replacements for the negative words you use to describe yourself to you and to others?


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