01/06/2014 04:44 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2014

Revising the Words That Hold Us Back: Should, Have to, Can't, and Never

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Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt me. Anyone on the receiving end of a bully's taunts knows for a fact that words can and do hurt. Insults, put-downs, backhanded compliments, jeers -- we all know the drill. One word from certain people in our lives can cause immediate emotional pain. But the person most likely to hurt on us with words is the one person we know best of all -- ourselves!

Plenty of authors talk about the power of positive self-talk, but after a lifetime of berating yourself, removing negativity in one swoop can be very daunting. Not to mention self-defeating -- the minute you slip up and dip into negativity, you have a whole other reason to dump on yourself! But just like any self-improvement, there are small steps you can take to get on the right path. And the road to a more positive self-talk begins with going on a diet from these four words: should, have to, can't, and never.

Should at first seems like a very helpful word. We should eat healthy. We should exercise more. We should look for a new job. Should is like that well-meaning friend always suggesting a new fitness class at the gym or a recipe for something with quinoa and kale. But the problem with should is the powerlessness and guilt that comes with it. Doing what we "should" denies the key element of choice. Humans crave freedom of choice; we like to know that we have options and that we can freely pick from our options. Should is more like a trap -- it may deny what we really want to do.

Removing should from our vocabulary does this amazing thing -- it forces us to consider how much of a choice we really have in our day to day lives. Think of the worst thing on your list of shoulds. For example, I should go on a Paleo diet and join Cross Fit. This is an especially common one at this time of year. What if there was no should? What if you choose to do it? Say instead "I am choosing to diet and exercise this year." Just reframing this single sentence changes the outlook on the activity. Take the earlier example of looking for new work. Instead of "I should find a new job," try, "I want to find a new job," or "I will find a new job." Again, changing the phrasing changes the tone of the sentiment and brings the focus back to positive actions you can or will take.

"Have to" is a cousin of should. "Have to," however, is a thief. Just as should is a trap that limits your choices, have to robs you of the power of choice. Whenever we say we "have to" do something, we are ignoring the fact that we do indeed have a choice in almost everything we do. You may feel like you "have to" go to work for example. And yes, you must work to get paid, but you could choose not to go. The consequences of that, however, may not be to your liking. In refusing to accept the consequences of no paycheck, you are choosing to go to work -- you don't have to -- you just want to avoid the alternative. This may seem bleak, but sometimes remembering that you can and do have a choice helps to empower us to look for other options and feel less at the whim of the world around us. If we remind ourselves why we are choosing to do the more difficult items on our life's to do list, we can reframe our focus on what really matters to us instead of being mired in negative emotions.

Can't is the standard bearer for lack of choice. When we say we can't do something, we deny that it is even possible. If we believe we can't, we never, ever will. So every time we say we can't lose weight or we can't make time to exercise or we can't get enough sleep, we damn ourselves in the process. Instead of "can't" trying reframing with this: I am working on ___________. I am working on losing weight. I am working on finding the time to exercise. I am working on better sleep habits. Many people espouse saying positive affirmations to effect change. Many people bristle at these, finding it ludicrous to repeat things that aren't true. Take the phrase "I am working on" as a halfway step. If these are really aspects you want to change in your life, it is being honest to declare that you are working on them. And you are then using the power of language to start you on the right path.

Never is much like can't. It too denies possibility. I would never introduce myself to a stranger. I could never take a dance class. I never do yoga. I never eat quinoa. Maybe these are things you really truly would never like to do. Or maybe they aren't. Maybe instead, you could try saying, "I haven't fully considered learning how to skydive." Or "I haven't fully considered baking my own bread." Or "I haven't fully considered starting my own consulting company." By shifting from declaring that you could never, ever possibly do something to admitting that you hadn't considered how to do or if you would want to, you open up the door to new possibilities in your life.

These are not big changes to make. Anyone that has been on a receiving end of a harsh word can attest to the power of words. And these are just four simple words to cut down on to improve your relationship with yourself. Why not harness the power of words to your own benefit and use them to support the good things you want in your life?

If you want to learn more about using the power of words and revision in your life, please check out