Words that Can Make the Difference + an Excerpt From My Book


When I was in therapy 60,000 years ago one of the first things I noticed was my therapist’s near constant use of “can be” instead of “is” or “are” or “am” (correct grammar permitting, of course).

He said, “You can be intense.” And I said, “Well, that’s how I am, I’m just intense. I take everything very intensely.”

He sorta laughed softly not at me (right?) but at the conversation. Also, the way he said it, sounded as if I had a choice: “can” and “be” — as if I had an option to be less intense; as if I didn’t need permission, as in the use of “may be” intense… as if I actually had a choice, the ABILITY, to be less intense…?


He told me that often we as humans who are so hardest on ourselves have a tendency to use empirical words or phrases, absolutes or superlatives.

One of the first things he noticed was my penchant for the black and white in life.  I had that penchant because I craved absolutes, to have something reliable in my life.

When I was done with therapy, 57,000 years ago, (the weekly, intensive and aggressive introspection) for the most part, I remember saying, “I am learning to embrace the gray in life.” And then I stopped coloring my hair which as it turned out: was either black or white.  Ain’t life just a surprising little brat sometimes? So then I decided I was too young for gray hair but still embraced the sentiment.

The thing is though, that I learned (and not too quickly) that my therapist was on to something and I have realized over the last 30,000 years that it’s true: consciously acting to change the way I speak out loud has changed the way I speak inside.  I am not sure which occurred first, but I suspect it was the external chatter that changed the internal chatter.

My mother used to sing a song, “Should’ve and could’ve are words we don’t use; should’ve and could’ve will give us the blues.” And I used to think, “what the what is that crap?”

But she was right too.

See how things change when you soften your expectation or appreciation of yourSelf, your life, your experiences by simply allowing the use of the conditional tense.  The conditional tense is not committed either way but it usually yields toward one direction or another.  It’s not milquetoasty or wishy-washy, it’s simply slightly looser than what we’re accustomed to in this instant-feedback/gratification/news/tweet world.

Substitute: I’m always losing  my _____  and it’s always when I’m late!  With: I have a tendency to lose my _____ and it’s usually when I’m running behind.

Instead of: This is the worst day ever.  Try: Well, today is different than I’d hope for.  (I softened “ever” with “today.”)

But we like the drama, don’t we?  We like to be able to complain sometimes.  And that’s hard to give up; that’s a form of martyrdom that many of us have become accustomed to experiencing. It’s a form of chaos, this complaining and martyrdom; it’s also fairly close to bully sheep behavior.

The use of the conditional tense is more like mental ahimsa, it’s nonviolence with our thoughts and words.  You can use it with other people too:  You never often don’t pick up your room when I say so! if I’ve asked you to.

I’m no master at this. I have more learning to do. It’s a lifelong journey, but one with awareness I’m eager to stay on.

See how your tension releases. When If you allow yourSelf to be more flexible, you are can be … more flexible.

I’m having a hard time expressing this, so I’m going to give you an excerpt into the book I just drafted for June’s Camp NaNoWriMo.  Please bear with this indulgence… I hope it makes better sense when you read it this way:

“So, wanting to break something is normal?”  she asked, relieved.

“Wanting to win the lottery is normal.  Feeling like we want to break something every once in a while is normal too, but it’s also part of chaos because if you break it, you get to fix it, or feel guilty about it or continue the martyrdom. So, no. It’s not healthy to want to break something; we want to reduce your stress response to people like Julia, and your mother and other people you will very likely run into again in life.  The more time you get thinking this way, the more quickly you will recognize the signs, but that takes listening, which requires …?”

“Hovering and going with the flow, I should always pick another lily pad,” she said, smiling.

“Right, hovering and going with the flow and also something that allows you to allow yourself to not sway to such emotional or existential extremes, like just not acting on the reaction or the feeling.  For instance, when we get to that state of wanting to break something, Miriam, it’s a scary time emotionally; we feel as though there is no compromise, there is no middle ground, or safe place or neutral zone.  We use words like ‘must’ and ‘have to’ and ‘always’ and ‘never’ and ‘forever’ and ‘kill’ and ‘dead’ and ‘all’ and ‘should’ and ‘none’ and ‘hate’ and ‘love.’ Do you hear this in yourself ever?  I would like to propose that you consider ‘conditionals’ Miriam.  ‘Could’ is a conditional of ‘should.’  Even ‘is’ and ‘are’ have their trappings, I like to think of ‘can be’ or ‘tends to’ instead of ‘is’ or ‘are.’  You know, in Spanish, they have two tenses for ‘I am’: ‘Yo soy’ which is used to describe your gender your name and other more permanent things, and ‘estoy’ which is used to describe a state of being, such as hungry or lost or reading a book.  Intentional? I don’t know, but I like the idea,” he said.

“Yes, I know about the Spanish, I just don’t get what you’re saying, I’m not good at this abstract stuff.  It won’t work for me,” she argued, biting the corner of her lower lip.

“OK.  Try this, but let’s rewind: you’re ‘not so strong with the abstract stuff’ and ‘it’s not working for you now.’  Just like you said it was nice to not have to have an opinion a few months ago, I’d like to take this a couple steps further and see if you’d like to slow down and think of words that allow some neutrality, some room for modification or changes.  Think of the Spanish ‘yo soy’ and ‘estoy.’  You’re not always  angry, so you wouldn’t say ‘yo soy enojado,’ you would say, in Spanish, ‘estoy enojado.’  Which connotes possessing a feeling of anger.  No one is all one thing and none of another.  Ha, I see the irony in what I just said: ‘No one,’ so I’ll change it.  ‘Many of us have tendencies to be intense and feel those emotions,’ do you hear the difference in what I said?  It takes mindfulness.  I didn’t say, ‘we all are intense.’  I suggested that many of us tend to feel intense at times, and that changed the message, didn’t it? It didn’t seem so scary, like such a declaration, did it? It gave us room to make changes,” he said.

Did that help?  I hope so.  This subject is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a few months, but I’d forget to and write about something else.

Thank you.

ps – I’m a twit. Follow me on Twitter if you wish @mollyfieldtweet – just imagine, you can learn all about my ghardelli peppermint bark snack today and my experiences watching the balance of power shift in my family as the children demonstrate their prowess with a new PlayStation 3 versus my use of small stones to demonstrate math.

About Grass Oil by Molly Field

follow me on twitter @mollyfieldtweet. i'm working on a memoir and i've written two books thus unpublished because i'm a scaredy cat. i hail from a Eugene O'Neill play and an Augusten Burroughs novel but i'm a married, sober straight mom. i write about parenting, mindfulness, irony, personal growth and other mysteries vividly with a bit of humor. "Grass Oil" comes from my son's description of dinner i made one night. the content of the blog is random, simple, funny and clever. stop by, it would be nice to get to know you. :)

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