Ban these four words to start improving your life and relationships.

Yellow sign reading "DEAD END," next to street sign reading "E 1st." Buildings in background. Comic book effect filter over full image. Ashley sees clients for therapy in Minneapolis.

I know banning words from our vocabulary seems a little Puritan.  We’re not doing it because they are going to bring a curse upon our lives, though.  We’re doing it to save ourselves a little bit of sanity, and avoid some common communication pitfalls that set us back and keep us generally (and unknowingly) feeling blah.


Should.  Stop shoulding on yourself.  “Should” is a word that makes a too frequent appearance in our collective vocabulary.  “Should,” in reality, is a word about cause and effect.  If you touch a hot stove, you SHOULD get burned.  “Should” is not a word for motivation, though that is often the implication.  “Should” is a word that is used to shame.  If we walk around shoulding ourselves, “I should work out more,” “I should call my friends,” “I should spend less time on the internet,” we set ourselves up for disappointment and failure, and the resulting shame that usually goes with it.  

“Should” measures an intent against some unknown superior entity that dictates the ONE right way things need to be in order to be worthy of acceptance, praise…existence. “Should” is a judgment.  Our brain makes judgments all day as a part of survival and data processing.  Not all judgements are necessary for our survival though, and those tend to be the ones we can exert some conscious control over.  Every time you notice yourself saying “should,” try replacing it with a judgment-free or factual phrase about your situation.  (Pro tip: “Could” is not a replacement for “should”…try again! 😀 ).  Based on the examples I provided, here are a few possible replacement phrases: “I have the option to workout.” “My friends know I care about them, and I’ll call them when I feel up to it.” “The internet provides me with laughter and refuge.” 

You don’t need to do any certain thing, or be any certain way, to be worthy of acceptance, love, patience, kindness, or existence.  From yourself, or anyone else.  So work on kicking the should habit, and maybe work on tending your garden of self-compassion in the process.


But.  When you make a statement and follow it up with the word “but,” everything you just said goes out the window.  “I love you, but you’re an asshole.”  I guarantee that in the moment no one is hearing or remembering the I love you part.  Here are some other real life examples I’ve heard in my office:

“You know I would do anything for you, but that’s a really stupid idea.”  

“I like having sex with you, but it’s gotten pretty boring.”

“You’re so good with the kids, but I hate that you never have time for me.”

“But” is literally a reset word.  As soon as I say “but,” you are rewinding and taping over what came before it.  “But” will put people on the defensive, and that means you’re not being heard.  If you’re not being heard, you’re losing out on connection, understanding, empathy, compassion, and peace.  What we really tend to mean when we say “but” is “and,” so just go ahead and try replacing it.  It’s challenging sometimes, because, even if we don’t admit it, we really do want to imply all of the things the word “but” implies.  Like, I’m just saying this first part to appease you before I twist the knife.  And sometimes it’s just better not to say anything at all!  Kick “but” out, and make room for a little more “and.”


Why.  “Why” is a great word to communicate curiosity.  The bad part is that it’s usually communicating a lot of other stuff, too.  Stuff like implied judgement, moral superiority, or that you think the other person made a bad choice.  And that’s not even getting into things like tone and body language.  “Why” is a word that is automatically putting people on the defensive.  Notice the next time someone asks you a “why” question.  As soon as you hear the word, your brain starts scanning and searching for ways to justify something, or answer in a way that will make you look good.  There are a few truths here: Sometimes we don’t know why things are the way they are, or why we made the choices we made.  That can create a shame loop, or a longing to understand or try to explain things that are out of our purview of explanation.  Leave “why” behind and show your curiosity in other ways.  Open ended questions or statements work great.  “Tell me more about that.”  “That’s so interesting! I’d love to hear how you made that decision.”  “What made that challenging for you?”  Or, some other therapists I know promote “How come” as a quick and easy alternative.  


You.  This one is based in a little more on context, so I’ll explain.  In a lot of cases, “you” is another word that is automatically putting people on the defensive.  It is also a way to deflect attention away from ourselves and draw attention to something someone else is doing.  This protects us from feeling vulnerable, while throwing that vulnerability directly at the other person.  Take responsibility for how you are feeling and what you are thinking.  If you are wishing you had more opportunities to hang out with your partner, think about these two examples:

“You never take me anywhere.”

“I’d love to go more places together.”  

Which do you think is going to be better received? The first one is accusatory and requires the other person to defend their past behaviors.  The second one opens up opportunity for the future, while also sharing how much you care.  A lot of times when we’re saying “you,” we’d be a lot better off saying, “I.”


If you’re ready to work on communicating more effectively in your life and relationships, contact me to make an appointment today.

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