Rephrasing things positively

by Pace on January 21, 2009

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Chapter 32: Rephrasing things positively

Would you like to rephrase that positively?

The words we use to describe our lives affect how we perceive our lives and thus the quality of our lives. You can improve the quality of your life by choosing to rephrase things positively. In particular, we’ve found that rephrasing obligation words, limitation words, and violent words has significantly improved our happiness, and we’re going to show you why and how.

Obligation words

Sometimes we enter into obligations willingly, which is fine, but often people create tons of completely unnecessary obligation, thereby burdening themselves with heavy loads of stress.

There are lots of obligation-inducing words in English. Here are some examples:

  • should
  • ought
  • must
  • have to
  • need to
  • supposed to
  • forced to

Every time you use one of these words or phrases, you unintentionally take a little more obligation onto yourself. Why? There’s so much obligation out there anyway, why choose to speak in such a way as to heap more of it onto yourself? It’s harmful, it’s completely unnecessary, and it’s not even honest. The truth is that any obligation you have is self-imposed, because if you want something badly enough, you will do it. Conversely, if you don’t want to do something, you’ll find ways to avoid it. A feeling of “should” indicates a conflict between your wants: you want the end result, but you don’t want to go through the process of getting it. You can rephrase this — and thereby reimagine it — by talking about it purely in terms of what you want to do instead of what you feel you should do.

Take, for example, “I should go to the store.” What we actually mean is something like, “We are low on food, and I want to eat, so I’ll go to the store so I can get what I want to eat.” By using “should,” we’re putting obligation into it, making it into something we don’t want to do. By removing “should,” we turn it into something that is good for us and therefore less of an obligation and more of a good, happy-making thing. Here are some more examples:

Obligation-Inducing Phrasing Positive Rephrasing
“I need to call my friend tonight.” “I want to call my friend tonight.”
“I should get to bed by 11 tonight so I’m not sleepy and miserable all day tomorrow.” “I’d like to get to bed by 11 tonight so I’ll be happy and awake tomorrow.”
“I want to sleep in, but I can’t because I have to go to work today.” “I want to sleep in, but I also want to keep my job, so I’ll choose to go to work today because I want that more than I want to sleep in.”

Feel how empowering these rephrasings are. Instead of presenting yourself as a hapless victim of fate, you’re presenting yourself as the captain of your own destiny. You are the one making the choices, you are the one choosing to do what you want to do, you are the one choosing to do what makes you most happy.

“Should” pops up all over the place, so it’s a good starting point to practice rephrasing things positively. It’s easier to start with one word than to try to tackle the whole mess at once. We recommend being gentle with yourself, rephrasing each time you say “should”; for us this was a slow but successful process. You’ll find yourself using “should” and other obligation words less and less, and even better, you’ll find yourself thinking it less and less. Eventually, the word will sound odd when others say it!

Sometimes we found ourselves syntactically replacing “should” with “it would be good to,” so we chose to eliminate that phrase as well. Who says it would be good? Me? If so, then I’ll say, “It would make me happy to” or “I want to” instead. Often it’s covering up for “(Society says) it would be good to,” and that’s another form of obligation.

After practicing for a few months, especially if you have a positive-rephrasing buddy doing it alongside you so you can catch each other, you can completely eliminate all of these words and phrases from your vocabulary. We try to set a good example; the only place you’ll see the word “should” in this entire book is in this chapter where we’re talking about it explicitly. We’ve done this successfully, we’re profoundly happier for it, and you can do it too. Some rephrasings are challenging, but most of them are so easy that you’ll wonder why anyone would choose to say things in a negative or obligation-inducing way. It’s insidious.

Limitation Words

There’s another insidious set of words that we use to chain ourselves down with unnecessary limitations. Here are some examples:

  • can’t
  • impossible
  • too hard
  • never
  • not good enough

Most of the time you use these words, they don’t apply at all. In truth, you can do anything you put your mind to. This isn’t an empty platitude, this is scientific fact. How does it serve you to be anything less than your full potential? How does it make you happier or more fulfilled to trick yourself into thinking you’re less capable than you actually are? One good way to unlock yourself from these chains is to stop using the words that reinforce your perceived limitations.

Take, for example, “I could never play the piano that well; I’m just not good enough.” It’s time to expose yet another myth propagated by our culture: the myth of talent. Science has proven this to be a myth; the number one factor in how good you are at something is neither talent nor upbringing, it is simply the amount of effortful practice you put into it.1 “Practice makes perfect” is not just a cliche, it has been scientifically proven, so why not say, “I could play the piano well if I wanted to devote three or four years to practicing, but I’m choosing to spend my time on other things instead.” Not only is that phrasing more positive and more likely to make you happier and feel better about yourself, it’s more true.

Kyeli’s Story: The Piano Myth

When I was young, I wanted to learn to play the piano. I love the music it makes and I wanted to be able to accompany myself when I sing. When I expressed my desire to learn to an instructor, she said I would never be able to play piano. I have short fingers, utterly unsuitable. I was so discouraged! I took in her words and wove them as part of my life story. I began saying “I can’t play piano.”

When we started rephrasing things, I mentioned this to Pace. Suddenly, I was filled with the knowledge that I can play the piano, if I really want to do so! I can overcome any limitations with enough practice. I can play the piano!

Then I thought it over further. Is playing the piano something I really want to spend time learning? I decided no, it’s not… but that’s my choice! So now I say, “I can play the piano if I want to learn, but I choose not to spend my time learning that.”

I want to impress upon you, dear reader, the power that has given me. Changing that one phrase in my life, changing that “can’t” to a “can,” has made me feel stronger and more capable than almost anything else I’ve ever done. I learned how to be a good speller — I stopped saying, “I can’t spell,” and almost overnight realized that I can, in fact, spell quite well. I stopped saying, “I can’t do math” and found that, while not a whiz at it, I can do quite a lot of math. I stopped saying, “I can’t write well” and have written this book, not to mention the many stories I’ve since written!

I feel better about myself as well as feeling more capable. I know I can do anything. Knowing and saying that the things I “can’t” do are things I’m really choosing not to do empowers me and helps me own my life, rather than feel like a helpless victim.

Here are some more examples of rephrasing limiting words more positively.

Limiting Phrasing Positive Rephrasing
“I’m a horrible cook.” “I haven’t chosen to spend much time cooking, so I’m not very well-practiced at it.”
“I suck at math.” “I’m not great at math because I haven’t spent much time studying it, and I don’t want to because I don’t enjoy it at all.”
“It’s impossible for me to be honest all the time; I’m a Scorpio!” “I sometimes choose to be dishonest, but that’s my responsibility and I could choose otherwise if I wished to.”
“I can’t go to the movies, I don’t have enough time! I have to work!” “I’m choosing to prioritize my work over going to a movie right now.”
“I can’t make it to your party, because I… uh… have plans.” “I appreciate the invitation, but I’m more in the mood to stay home and relax instead.”

Notice how each limiting phrase has been rephrased in terms of wants and choices. Here’s an example that ties in with “I” statements:

Limiting Phrasing Positive Rephrasing
“You made me mad by doing that.” “I felt mad when you did that.”

The truth revealed by this rephrasing is that we choose our reactions to events, even our emotional reactions. This can be frightening but also empowering.

Like obligation words, limiting words trick you into giving up your own power. When you use these words, you give up responsibility for your actions. Rephrasing things positively helps you be more empowered and more honest.

Pace’s Story: “I’m Not Very Observant”

I used to always say, “I’m just not very observant” whenever I would fail to notice something. “Being oblivious is part of my nature,” I’d repeat whenever the subject came up. Even when my failure to observe something ended up causing lots of problems, I would stick to my guns and insist that it was a basic, unchangeable part of my nature.

One day, a few months after we had started rephrasing things positively, I decided that being unobservant was no longer serving me and I chose to change. Kyeli drove me home from work. As I got out of the car, I said, “I have a surprise for you, Kyeli. I’m observant now. Please catch me if you notice me saying that I’m unobservant or oblivious.” And from that moment on, I’ve been observant. It didn’t take practice or time, all it took was a firm desire to change and a commitment to stay that way. You can do this too! Pay attention to the false limits you set for yourself. See if you want to change any of them. And if you do, you can choose to change in an instant! All you need to do is make up your mind.

Violent Words

We’ve also chosen to rephrase violent words. In the past, we used phrases like:

  • I’ll kick your ass if you…
  • Don’t make me hurt you…
  • It makes me want to smack you when you…
  • I’m gonna beat the crap out of you if you…

When we used these words, it was almost always teasingly, but for the same reasons we don’t like teasing, we also didn’t like this pattern in our communication. The two reasons we chose to rephrase these words are that we like to avoid violence and we also like to avoid dishonesty. Words that imply violence when none is truly intended are dishonest; we now use phrases like “I feel angry when…” or “I would feel unhappy if…” which are less violent and more true. It feels good to weed these words out of our vocabularies; such harmful language is unpleasant both to hear and to say. Rephrasing these words had an unexpected bonus; we became less physically violent as our words became less violent. Playful yet painful smacks slowly stopped and we became more aware of how we treat each other. We started treating each other the way we wanted to, instead of the way we were used to — and that’s a powerful difference.

The power of words to shape thought isn’t limited to obligation words, limitation words, and violent words. Once you start practicing rephrasing things positively, you may find other categories of words that you want to rephrase as well. We mention these three categories explicitly because all these rephrasings have significantly improved the quality of our lives, and they can improve yours too! We suggest you start with rephrasing “should,” with a buddy if possible, and see how that works for you. It takes some practice, but we’ve found it to be well worth the effort.


1. A lot of study has been done on expertise and effortful practice. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, by Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich, and Hoffman, in particular chapter 2.1.

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