Allowing for complexity, starting with our words


A few years ago I wrote a blogpost titled, An End to "But": More kindness and complexity in our words. I'm revisiting the concept as it seems apt for our times. With most of us living in increased isolation, the voice in our head may feel louder than ever. Now is a really good time to check the language we are using both in our thoughts and how we talk to others. Switching from “but” to “and” can be a great start.

Let’s revisit Hayes, Strosahl and Wilson's explanation of the etymology of the word "but" which means "be out":

“It is a call for whatever follows the word to go away or else threaten whatever preceded the word. It says two reactions that coexist cannot coexist and still be associated with effective action. One or the other must go.

...'I love my husband but I get so angry with him' can make anger a very dangerous feeling for someone committed to a marriage. 'I love my husband, and I get angry with him' carries little such threat, and in fact, implies an acceptance of the experience of anger within the experience of love.”

In my previous post I wrote: It's so easy to deny the complexities of our experiences by taking the "this or that" approach in our language. If ever there was a time for recognizing complexities it is now.

Since March we have faced a series of decisions for how we go about everything including how we work, how our kids attend school, how we socialize, even how we shop. No matter what we choose, it feels like we lose. All options come with several caveats ranging from inconvenience and loss to serious risk.

It can help to change the narrative to one that focuses on values. It doesn’t make decisions easier, but at least helps to reframe and reaffirm that your decisions are values-based no matter which way you choose. Living fully and truthfully to our values is something to feel good about even when our choices seem less so.

Let’s look at an example applying this concept to decision making:

I want to visit my parents, but I don't want to risk getting them sick. Both truths represent values here. I care about investing in connections with family. I also care about my parents’ wellbeing and safety. If “but” means "to be out", then by using that word I am writing off one of those two values.

I want to visit my parents and I don't want to risk getting them sick. This statement better represents the complexity of this time and the values I hold. No matter the decision I make, both values are still true.

Here are some more examples of using "and" to validate dual realities:

I love my partner and I also really need to go for a walk to spend time apart from them.

I want my child to spend time away from screens and I benefit when the television keeps them occupied so I can get some work done. 

I’m an introvert and I really want to be around people right now to feel less lonely.

There are some things I like about working from home and I miss going into the office. 

This is a hard time for me and other people are having a hard time for different reasons. 

This is a really difficult time for me and I am hopeful for the future when life will feel more normal.

Let your words set the tone for the compassion, complexity and understanding we all deserve at this time.


About Author

Katie Seavey Pegoraro

Sr Associate Work Life Program Manager

Katie Seavey Pegoraro supports employees with issues of stress and balance, providing tools and resources to cope when life feels overwhelming. Katie is a contact for those who may be coping with issues of mental health, substance use, or grief and loss. A young professional herself, Katie is a unique support to employees who are navigating the many life transitions that occur in your 20's and 30's.

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