Above all, be careful what you think
because your thoughts control your life.
Proverbs 4:23 (ERV)
I push back from my computer and heave a loud sigh.
If she would finally reply to my email, I could move forward with this project!
I sense the tell-tale signs of an “emotion ocean” storm a-brewing: churning stomach, tight shoulders, ringing ears.
I’ve gotta dial down my stress level before these waves of anxiety grow into a tsunami.
As I head to the kitchen to forage for frustration food, a question comes to mind.
Do I have to wait for her reply? Or could I move forward without it?
I shake my head.
I need to hear back from her because …
A question interrupts my churning thoughts.
Do I actually need to?
I pause to consider.
Okay, technically I don’t need to hear back from her. I want to hear from her. I would prefer to hear from her.
A line from a movie I watched years ago with my kids, A Bug’s Life, comes to mind: I “We are going around the leaf.”
I’ve been thinking of her as this impassable obstacle. But what if the real obstacle is the way I’m thinking about her?
Feeling powerless to do anything without the specific email reply, I’ve been using the word overwhelmed to describe this situation to myself.
But am I truly overwhelmed? Or might I be …
I’m so used to using the word overwhelmed that I have to think hard to come up with a different term.
… might I be simply disappointed that she’s not responding to me?
Why Word Choice Matters
My word choice matters.
When I use the word overwhelmed to describe my frame of mind, the waves of the emotion ocean begin to swell bigger and bigger until I feel like everything is falling apart at once and I have no clue which way to turn or what to do next.
But if I’m simply disappointed by this one person’s failure to respond to me, I can reframe this as a small portion of the larger project and get myself moving again.
As I test out the word disappointed to describe my current situation, I can sense my inner storm subside and the sun start to shine. I smile as it occurs to me:
Increasing my vocabulary multiplies my choices.
Building a Bigger Vocabulary
Intentionally building a working vocabulary of precise, nuanced words helps me “be careful what I think.” This increased vocabulary leads to more accurate thinking, which, in turn, expands my capacity for self-control — a fruit of the Spirit that’s seemed just beyond my reach for so much of my life.
To build my vocabulary, I asked friends to share the words and phrases they use to describe
(1) a small problem, challenge, or issue
(2) a big problem, challenge, or issue
As their feedback came in, I was fascinated — and challenged! — to see so many words that I knew in theory but rarely used in daily practice.
I compiled their input into a list that I use to ask a vital question: Where am I on a scale from “oops” to “overwhelmed” … ?
On a Scale from “Oops” to Overwhelmed
- bump or speed bump
- first world problem
- plot twist
- blip on the radar
- fly in the ointment
- grain of sand on the beach of life
- maelstrom (a powerful whirlpool in the sea or river)
- “train wreck”
Using this list* helps me avoid the trap of all-or-nothing thinking.
If you’re also someone who gets stuck in all-or-nothing thinking, you know how quickly an overreaction can occur — all it takes is a split second. Anything can become cause for full-blown alarm, causing a break-the-glass and pull-down-on-handle reaction … multiple times per day.
Some of us express this reaction externally while others of us bottle it up inside. Either way, it’s a depleting way to live. It feels so self-defeating.
Developing a wider vocabulary gives us options. With more words at our disposal, we can pray-cess thought-full questions like,
- What does this situation warrant?
- What part of this can I compartmentalize?”
- Can I give most of my energy to the main thing that’s going “fine” … while also problem-solving the “blip”?
A limited vocabulary limits our thoughts; limited thoughts limit our self-control.
But we aren’t stuck in limited living.
Increasing our vocabulary multiplies our choices.
Selecting new words from this list* can help us avoid the all-or-nothing trap.
Expand our thinking.
And live with greater intentionality.
Which word(s) from this list* will you start substituting for overwhelmed?
* this list is a Google Doc which you are welcome to download, edit, and print. Use it as a tool to help you “…be careful what you think because your thoughts control your life.” Proverbs 4:23 (ERV)