When we use blanket statements and labels, we create an emotional charge and judgment about a person, place, thing, or event. What started as a day when 3 out of 5 coworkers called in sick and you were left to handle the phones by yourself morphs into “the day from hell at that god-forsaken sweat shop.” I do not make light of difficult situations, but our language and interpretations can heighten the difficulty.
When we use categorical language and labels, we start to create a story in our minds. Since our brains are like storage facilities, we are very good at stamping a situation or someone’s behavior as “tacky”, “rude”, “obnoxious”, or “abusive” too quickly, losing sight of what really happened. With blurred vision and fading facts, we start looking for more evidence to support the label we assigned. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and part of the story is that we are always right – we are the hero, the victim, or the martyr.
As a result, we distance ourselves from the offending party, gossip with others, and even prejudice our listeners with a one-sided account of our grievances. You avoid the “stuck up” colleague who interrupted you, tell your friends what your slob of a roommate did or did not do, or convince your buddies that your ex is the crazy one. The worst part is that becoming the victim or the martyr in your personal screenplay means that the story will continue, just on different days, with different people. We are strengthening a version of un-reality, the fruits of which are pessimism, resentment, and self-righteousness.
What can we do instead?
We can outline facts as opposed to our interpretations of our experiences.
“I walked by and this group of people went quiet” replaces “those snobbish bigots are judging me.”
“My spouse is lazy and does not appreciate me” becomes “my partner did not take out the trash after dinner like I asked.”
Do you notice the difference? The ground-level evidence is descriptive but non-reactive, neutral instead of conclusive. “My psycho girlfriend is a control freak” de-escalates into, “my girlfriend does not like when I come home late from a night out with friends.” Suddenly other people are not villains and we are not heroes. Suddenly they have just as much right as we to decide when we are going to take out the trash or express how we feel.
The best part is that, when we look at the evidence and still find it offensive, we can now talk about it directly instead of retaliating or nursing our bitterness. If we review the facts that we see or perceive, we also remember that this is still our perception. If we talk to the person troubling us directly (instead of talking to everyone else), then we fairly acknowledge that our version of the “story” is not a divine truth from Mount Sinai. We could be wrong! As Dr. Phil asks, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”