The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopher of Mathematics
Limitations Create Stress, Options Create Peace
When I order something in a restaurant, they sometimes ask me, “Do you want this with the side salad, mac and cheese, or fries?” My gut reaction is always “Yes, please!” Then for a moment, I feel the turmoil of choosing just one.
It’s natural to feel tension when we’re asked to eliminate options and choose just one, especially if there are multiple things that are resonating with us.
We experience this phenomenon in our everyday lives – not just when picking our sides at a restaurant.
Words Can Limit or Open Our Possibilities
We feel tension when we believe we have to choose between things that matter to us, like:
- Being grateful versus having our needs met
- Doing what we love versus doing what will pay the bills
- Self-care versus caring for others
Most of us were taught that ideas that matter to us are somehow mutually exclusive.
In psychology, this type of thinking is also called polarized or all-or-nothing thinking. It is a type of cognitive distortion because it distorts our reality. And the reality is usually more nuanced.
But unlike that restaurant, we have the power to say yes and make room for all of our truths.
Here’s what I mean:
- We can be grateful and desire more
- We can appreciate someone’s help and need something different
- We can acknowledge the sacrifices our parents made and know that not all our needs were met
- We can be proud of our accomplishments and feel nervous about what’s next
- We can prioritize our well-being and love other people
- We can make a great living and do what we love
Using the literal word “and” can immediately create more space to honor everything that’s true for us (i.e., peace).
Three Signs You Can Use More “And” in Your Life (to create peace)
1. Your “but” is in the way
Have you ever noticed that using the word “but” in response to someone in a conversation is the easiest way to escalate an argument or shut down a connection?
Take notice the next time you’re at a dinner table or a conference room – see how the word “but” gets in the way of new ideas, creativity, and flow.
This same thing happens when we “but” ourselves with our internal dialogue – we limit ourselves.
Instead, try swapping “but” with “and,” and see how tension shifts to spaciousness.
For example, instead of thinking, “I’m excited that I was invited, but now I’m nervous,” which presents a conflict and a problem to solve, I can rephrase the sentiment as “I’m excited that I was invited, and I’m nervous.”
This sends a different message to our nervous system – one that’s ok and accepting. There’s nothing wrong or anything that needs to be changed.
Swapping “but” for “and ” allows both the excitement and the nerves to exist.
2. You’re “should-ing” on yourself
I should care about this. I should do more. I should feel better. I should exercise. These are all examples of “shoulding” on ourselves.
When we “should” on ourselves, we cast judgment, blame, and shame.
Remove the “should.” We either do or we don’t. We can be honest. It’s ok.
The combination of “should” and “but” are a dead giveaway that there’s an opportunity to tap into the power of “and.”
For example, “I should be grateful for what my parents sacrificed, but my emotional needs were neglected when I was a child.”
While this sentence could be true, it creates tension because we’re having to choose between our two truths, where one supersedes the other.
Instead, removing the “should” and replacing the “but” with “and” sounds like this: “I’m grateful for what my parents sacrificed, and my emotional needs were neglected.”
Swapping out the “should” and “but” with a simple “and” allows both things to exist and be true. I can be grateful and acknowledge my needs weren’t met.
Stating your truth creates peace.
3. You’re boxing yourself in
A type of distorted thought in psychology is called black-and-white thinking, or all-or-nothing thinking.
This way of thinking distorts our reality by boxing ourselves into only two options, instead of looking at life through a broader perspective.
This can sound like this:
- I can be either healthy or ambitious
- I have to choose between doing what I love or making money
- It has to be perfect otherwise it’s crap
- If I’m caring, I can’t prioritize myself
- You can either have a beautiful, loving relationship, or you have a successful career
Black-and-white thinking oversimplifies a world that limits our possibilities.
When we notice black-and-white thinking, which we all do at times but especially when we’re stressed, try inserting “and” and see what shifts:
- I can be healthy and ambitious
- I can make money and do what I love
- Something can be imperfect and valuable
- I can love you and prioritize myself
- I can have a beautiful, loving relationship and succeed.
What We Say Shapes How We Feel
When we box ourselves in or demand that we choose one absolute truth, it turns on our stress response in these three ways (which blocks our sense of peace):
1. It signals survival mode
When we need to fight for an outcome – be it in our heads or with someone else. Our bodies release stress hormones that wear us out in the long run. By introducing the word “and,” we can immediately disengage from the fight and create room for various ideas and beliefs to exist.
2. It denies us a part of our truth.
Unlike what many of us learned in school – that there’s always one right answer to a test question – life is multidimensional. As adults, we can choose to be more inclusive when it comes to our truths. We don’t have to pit our truths in a battle to determine a single winner. Just by introducing the word “and,” we’re allowing our truths to co-exist.
3. It gives us tunnel vision.
When we see the world through tunnel vision, it limits our ability to see the bigger picture, including all the possibilities that make life complex, nuanced, and beautiful. By introducing the word “and,” we are immediately broadening our vision and imagining the possibilities.
Language is powerful in shaping our well-being. When we’re feeling torn, conflicted, and undecided, this little, itty-bitty word can come to our rescue. As you play with using “and” to reframe your world, notice how it creates more spaciousness to breathe, loosens the grip on unhelpful thoughts, and relaxes the heart and body. Notice the easing of internal conflict, which creates clarity and peace.
For an extended version on this topic, check out Episode #10 of the MYBREATHINGMIND PODCAST.
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