5 Words That Distort Our Outlook

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” -  Marcus Aurelius

There are instances where I feel like I should be doing more with my life. I always miss important details. I try my best, but never quite hit the mark. It makes me feel like life isn’t fair.

The Whirlpool of Thought

I frequently encounter a similar sentiment with my clients. Their stories make the world seem overwhelming, and often places them at the mercy of fate. Thinking in this fashion usually compounds and spirals into a whirlpool of depression and panic. At first, hearing these stories made me feel helpless. That is until I discovered the power words have on how we feel about ourselves and interpret the events in our life.

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, we become so wrapped up in our emotions that we overlook the beliefs that cause them. We use distorting words which create a sense of helplessness and feel pressured by the demands of a supposed other. In the end, our behavior and feelings are shaped by language.

Fortunately, within the discord of life, we have the ability to alter our perception of the world by adjusting the words and concepts that compose our attitude. By examining our own way of thinking we can pinpoint words that distort our outlook and, in turn, make us feel a certain way about the external world.

Here are five frequently used words that distort our outlook and keep us from maintaining a balanced understanding of the world.
1). Should. When we use “should” to describe our feelings and actions, there are two misinterpretations that take place. First. we externalize our expectations. By doing so, we perceive our own desires as external demands. For example, by saying we “should be happy” for X, Y and Z reasons, we define happiness as something that’s expected of us rather than by us. We set ourselves up to feel guilty, helpless and resentful about standards that we’ve unknowingly placed on ourselves.

Secondly, by externalizing our expectations of ourselves, we avoid taking responsibility for our role in accomplishing these expectations. When using “should” or “ought” we assume that certain behaviors or feelings are outside of our control. For example, thinking “I would like to be happy”  instead of “I should be happy” transforms a requirement into a preference. A preference is a choice rather than a demand imposed by an external authority.

If we believe that being happy, successful, beautiful or healthy is an imposed expectation, we feel bad when we don’t meet the supposed standard. However, by acknowledging that we would like to be more successful, happy, beautiful, etc., the standard is revealed to be our own creation and therefore are able to adjust it as we see fit.

2). Awful. Our use of slang can exaggerate how we interpret certain experiences. When we try a burger we regard it as either “awesome!” or claim that it “sucks!” While exaggeration is harmless in small doses, this can be detrimental to our outlook if applied to most events in our life. For example, if someone is mean or critical, labeling the event as “awful” casts a dark cloud over the experience. Likewise, stating we’re “awful” at cooking, playing guitar, dancing, etc. we keep ourselves from attempting to better our skills by defining the situation as hopeless.

Awfulizing is common among clients who report depressive and anxious symptoms. It distorts our expectations of certain situations by immediately assuming they will turn out terrible. This is also known as catastrophizing because every situation is viewed as a catastrophe. When catastrophizing, encounters with old flings, rudeness and even minor glances are interpreted as personal attacks or disasters that are fixated on for days.

Challenging these thoughts with rational discourse can have a significant effect on our long term attitude and expectations. Even replacing “awful” with “bad” or “ok” is a positive step forward. For example, “I had a bad day at work” makes the situation feel manageable. Everyone has bad days at work. However, “I had an awful day at work” implies a sense of catastrophe and feels less manageable than “bad.”

Lastly, throwing up our hands and saying “I can’t handle this” is a form of awfulizing. If you give yourself more credit in your abilities, you’ll be surprised what you can get through.

3). Always/Never. Along with “should” and “awful”, overgeneralizing words such as “always” and “never” can make our thinking rigid. First, when using “always” such as “Bill is always right” we create a distorted understanding of Bill's abilities. No one is always right, and chances are we’re basing this assumption on limited information. Doing this makes our outlook rigid by ignoring the grey areas of life and can result in feelings of helplessness. If something is “always” this or that way, then it can feel like we have no control over the outcome.

Likewise, “never” has the same effect. For example, “I am never on time!” makes us feel guilty and implies the belief “I should always be on time.” Never can be harder to overcome than always because it’s a direct put down on the abilities of others. If Bill is never right, we’re downplaying his worth. Repeating this over and over can result in Bill actually believing that he is never right. Thinking in this way can become a self fulfilling prophecy and create a monster out of half-truths.

By avoiding generalization, we allow ourselves to see the world in all it’s colors rather than in black and white. Avoid absolutes by using words like “occasionally” and ‘sometime”. This helps to develop a more accurate picture of reality and allows us to forgive ourselves and others for shortcomings. No one is perfect and no one is 100%  terrible. Understanding this will make life manageable and allow for greater experiences of joy.

4). But. Think of a friend or family member who always has to have the last word or always ends up debating almost everyone they encounter. At first, they’ll agree with you followed by immediate criticism. Everything is an argument and they always have to be right. You’ve probably heard something like “That’s a great album, but their last two EPs were awful.” more times than you’d like to count.

For the but-person, nothing is ever good enough. It’s a way of avoiding vulnerability while justifying our worldview. Having and expressing our own opinions is perfectly normal, however, providing a rebuttal for every suggestion can be off putting and keep us from adopting new ideas and experiences.

If you’re a but-person, try to hold back one critique each day or save your opinions for conversations with those who enjoy debate. Be mindful of other’s reactions when using but and try replacing it with suggestions that include everyone’s interests. For example, instead of “Thai food sounds good, but it’s never spicy enough” try “Thai food sounds good, I know Mike mentioned he wanted to try that new barbeque place too.” this keeps us from being the bummer-bomb of the group and opens different options as well.
5). Fair. Fairness can be complicated because we all want to be treated fairly. That being said, this does not always happen and sometimes we have to sacrifice our own expectations for the sake of others. Assuming that we deserve fair treatment all the time can lead to a lot of disappointment and aggravation. Not everyone is respectful nor do we all view fairness in the same way. What’s fair for you may not seem fair to others. The ambiguity of what’s fair can leave us feeling frustrated and wronged.

Our assumption that we deserve to be treated fair is a form of entitlement and doesn’t take into consideration that fairness, like anything, is a privilege- not a right. In some instances, we will put more effort into a relationship, work project or hobby than others. Other times, we may be treated in a rude or demeaning manner. It’s existence doesn’t mean unfairness is right. Though getting upset over unfair treatment does not make it go away.

What we can do, is treat others with respect and give them the benefit of the doubt when we deek we’ve been treated unfairly. Without allowing ourselves to be harmed or taken advantage of, being compassionate about other’s bad behavior transforms unfairness into understanding and forgiveness. Ask, “what events caused this person to make them treat others unfairly?” While compassion isn’t easy, it prevents others from dictating our state of mind.

Awareness is Power

Practicing mindfulness and awareness, with special attention to our use of language, can lead to positive change in our outlook and behavior. Starting can be tedious and involves small strides. Be kind towards yourself and forgive small mistakes. Our current way of thinking developed from years of observing others. Forming new mental habits takes time and patience.

You’ll notice that each time you replace a “should” with a “I’d like to” you’ll feel different about the situation. Use these positive feelings as motivation. After a while, you'll notice less hostility or anxiety. The world will begin to appear more inviting than before. Hopefully, you’ll become the master of your own thoughts instead of letting language decide how you’re going to feel.

**For more information about overcoming cognitive distortions, check out Albert Ellis's REBT model. If you're experiencing extreme symptoms such as depression, panic attacks, or have thoughts of harming yourself or others, please seek professional help. There is hope and help available.