What if I told you I could trace most of your cognitive stress to a single two-letter word?
And what if I told you that once you realized how this word hijacked your brain, you would all of a sudden begin to see examples everywhere of not only yourself, but also your friends, partner(s), family, and co-workers falling under its evil spell?
And further, that as you mastered the way out from under this tiny word’s clutches, you would feel more peace, greater joy, and deeper connection with yourself and others? The underpinnings of your reactions to things would come into focus: your feelings, your wants, your needs, and your desires. Life would unfold in a cleaner, clearer path before you. Complex discussions would become simple. Arguments would end quicker.
You might even feel you hold the key to world peace.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
This one tiny word has a stronghold on our culture, language, and ways of interacting, and forces us to think untrue (or less true) thoughts. Yes, it has us deceive ourselves–regularly.
It does this by drawing our attention outside of ourselves, to a source of authority that most times, doesn’t exist, though we act as it if does. No wonder we’re confused, anxious, and exhausted.
We’ve outsourced reality to a nonexistent authority and waste oodles of precious life energy chasing it down.
We may call this spinning, perseverating, worry, or, in the 70’s, neurosis.
Because of this two-letter world, we fall prey to the delusion that we’re less-than, do not know, cannot tell what’s true for us. We’re duped. Doomed. Delinquent in our proximity to truth.
It’s not our fault.
And, we alone can switch it up.
We can stop outsourcing reality by bringing more attention to how we use the two-letter word that hijacks our brains. We can reclaim peace, connection, and joy
Do you know what that two-letter word is?
Here’s a hint: I gave it to you right up there.
That’s right. The word is…
It works like this: Whenever we point to what “is,” whether we think it “is” good, bad, right, wrong, messed up, inappropriate, and so on, we refer to a source of authority outside ourselves that probably doesn’t exist. I say “probably” because some communities do have agreed-upon principles of governance, whether institutional, biblical, or conventional. So we can, in many cases, meaningfully say, “that’s wrong (or against the rules, or a sin)”, according to an outside source.
However, I’m referring to those ubiquitous instances in which we appeal to a non-existent source of authority using “is” and other forms of the verb “to be” (such as are, am, ought, and so on. We ask such questions as, “Am I doing the right thing?” “Is he a jerk, and I’m just kidding myself?” “That is wrong of you to think that way.”
Wrong according to what or whom? And wrong how? With what implications?
You might argue that we have general agreements about right and wrong in our culture, and that, for example, the world’s religions generally seem to agree on a unifying principle resembling, “Do no harm.” We’d be in agreement about that.
However, if all humans agreed across the board about notions of right and wrong, we’d have no arguments, nor debates, nor court systems. But in fact, we disagree–frequently–and invoke multiple and competing notions of right and wrong, good and evil, usually as ways of expressing underlying feelings, and needs
Sentences like “They are wrong,” and “Am I doing the right thing?” drag our mind along well-worn paths of external reference, or what I call “outsourcing reality.” Most of us outsource reality every day, in ways large and small, without realizing it. As a result, we think less clearly, know ourselves less well, and connect with others less deeply than we might otherwise.
Some people manage clear thought, self-knowledge and great relationships without ever excavating, dusting off, and mastering this artifact of the English language. However, learning how “is” and other forms of the verb “to be” operate in our minds and bodies equips us with an extremely powerful tool, like a crowbar for getting underneath our everyday delusions.
I will often gently reframe a client’s layers of external reference (I am, she is, he ought to) with an internally-referenced question like, “Are you feeling frustrated, because you’re wanting more cooperation? Are you feeling angry, because you’re wanting respect?” In Nonviolent Communication, based in the work of Marshall Rosenberg, this type of query goes by the name “Empathy guess.”
The empathy guess redirects the listener’s attention to their internal state, a reality which, when spoken truthfully, carries ultimate authority. If you tell me honestly that you feel sad, I may say “No, you don’t,” but in fact you alone know your own feelings. I have no basis for arguing with you about your feelings. I might say what I notice about the expression on your face, or your body language. I might express the internal dissonance I feel hearing you express your feelings when I compare what you say with how your body appears. But only you know for sure what you’re feeling inside, even if you don’t have a vocabulary to fully describe it.
We can help each other get clearer about feelings–but only when we’re willing to open and soften, and come down from our right-wrong tree. Sharing feelings vulnerably also creates the groundwork for empathy to replace argument. Counselors, mediators, and facilitators who know this can help their clients and students translate their externally-referenced stories about reality into inner feelings and needs, helping them connect with themselves and their counterparts. It just…feels better.