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The 3 worst words to say to yourself

The 3 worst words to say to yourself

2 min read
  • Metacognition

“Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything”

We all talk to ourselves when we do a task. For some, this inner-narrative is positive and helpful. For others, they can be their own worst critic. But are some words worse than others? In fact, what are the three worst words you can say to yourself?

What are those three worst words?

When people talk to themselves in extreme terms, it tends to make them more stressed and feel more helpless. Indeed, as Obi Wan Kenobi tells Anakin Skywalker, ‘only a Sith deals in absolutes’.

Here are the three most commonly used absolute statements that students would be wise to avoid:

  • Should
  • Never
  • Always

The 3 worst words to say to yourself

Why are these the worst words?

Using absolute statements can be seen to be an overly negative way of expressing your thoughts or emotions, as well as being simply inaccurate. The world is hardly ever ‘black or white’. It is more nuanced than ‘either-or’. Shades of grey and multiple options often exist.

Each of these words can inspire negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. “Should” enhances feeling of guilt or obligation; “never” is likely to lead to feeling inadequate, stressed or frustrated; “always” makes you believe that, if something is inevitable, why even try?

“Should” isn’t just any word, it’s a mindset that places ownership on others rather than yourself. Taking personal ownership of a situation allows you to control and/or influence it, rather than leaving it to someone else. Research has shown that by taking personal ownership, individuals are able to de-stress and work more effectively in present tasks.

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Consider the alternatives

Philosopher Carl Jung stated that when people talk in absolute terms, it suggests that they think they know an absolute truth. But this unlikely to be true, as a number of random factors impact what is going to happen; this is often referred to as ‘The Butterfly Effect’.

So what words would be better to use?

  • Instead of ‘should’, say ‘could’
  • Instead of ‘never’, say ‘often’
  • Instead of ‘always’, say ‘sometimes’

Final thoughts

Talking in absolutes can lead to ‘learned helplessness’, which is when people give up without trying as they don’t believe their efforts will make any difference to the outcome. The words we say to ourselves are powerful. Teaching students how to better talk to themselves will help them develop their metacognitive and self-regulation strategies. In short, it is a gift that will keep on giving long after they leave school.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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