Words to dump from your vocabulary for improved mental health by Marc de Bruin

I should do more exercise. They shouldn’t be doing that. I need to get better at being kind to myself. I must become more disciplined. I ought to know better than that. I’ve got to start enjoying life more.

For years and years, I have been educating clients on how we are constantly “shoulding” and “musting” ourselves. Words like need, must, should, ought to, got to and have to are basically a form of black and white thinking. I call this “necessity language”. With clients present, I generally draw an arrow from A to B, the arrow indicating the “should, must”, etc. In order to get from A to B, I HAVE TO…. To move forward in my career, I MUST work my backside off. To be happy I SHOULD let go of past resentment.

Necessity thinking states: there is only one way to get from A to B. And it generally also states: if you DON’T do it that way, it will not work and you will have failed. This may sound rather dramatic, but our brains often operate this way when using these words.

“Shoulding” and “Musting” are considerable contributors to feelings of depression and anxiety for exactly those reasons. Unrealistic expectations need to be met, and we they are not, we tend to feel guilty, frustrated, hopeless, powerless and disappointed. This then keeps feeding the cycle in which we now “NEED” to do more to counter our thoughts, feelings and results; this leads us to “shoulding” ourselves in the foot even more intensely.

A number of ways exist to deal with this self-defeating cycle; too many to discuss in this article. A simple and very powerful starter-one that I know has changed my own life, and that of many of my clients, is to STOP using these words. Dump them from your vocabulary. That in itself can bring about more flexible, resourceful thinking, as the necessity words (and their inherent meaning) are no longer clouding our thinking processes.

So, what might you want to use instead? Well, there are many words that leave open other possibilities and opportunities, and are not as linear and “one way or no way” focused. I call these words “possibility language”. They can come in many forms; the most recognisable are words like could, will, decide, choose, opt, commit, can. They all indicate that you have options; you’re picking one way, yet are mentally aware there are other ways, too.

Notice the difference between: “In order to be healthy, I need to eat better foods”, and: “In order to be healthy, I choose to eat better foods.” Or between: “I must work on my thinking styles” and: “I have decided to work on my thinking styles”. Subtle differences at first glance, perhaps, but powerful differences in mental and emotional attitudes when applied consistently over time.

Language is powerful. Words are symbols to express our thoughts, yet psychological research suggests that words start to take on a meaning of their own when we are not careful. The WORD then becomes the message, rather than the word being used to deliver the message. A word like anxious or depressed all of a sudden has all sorts of “meaning” and connotations, rather than just being a descriptor of a type of mental state. The same goes for the necessity words I mentioned (and many others like them).

Choose your words deliberately, wisely, and mindfully. If you do so consistently, I am very optimistic you will start to notice positive changes in the way you think, feel and behave, and therefore in the results you will see.

And for my bonus tip this month please email me at: marc@simplifyinglife.com.au; let’s keep the discussion going!


Marc de Bruin

Marc de Bruin is a registered counsellor on the Sunshine Coast in QLD, Australia, assisting people with “Simplifying Life” for improved levels of mental health and well-being.

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