Behind placeholder words lie useful meanings, too often obscured…

We often use what I call “placeholder” words which tend to obscure, rather than illuminate, the fuller meaning in what we’re describing. Perhaps the most blatant example I can think of is a word that has received a great deal of attention recently, “should.” What does it mean when I say I should go to the gym and exercise? If I set aside the word should and try to unpack what this word is obscuring, it goes something like this: “I’m unhappy with the extra weight I’m carrying. I believe it would probably be beneficial for me to go to the gym and exercise. However, I have a lot of resistance to the gym, in fact, I don’t want to go to the gym. Truth be told, I’ve never been comfortable exercising at a gym. I’ve been trying to make myself join a gym for decades but I never go and I’m really sick of the whole debate…”

When we start to unpack all that is hidden behind the word should we see that there’s information which can be worked with. What’s behind the belief I apparently hold that the gym would be beneficial? Can I separate the benefit idea from the gym idea and find another way (something I’d actually like to do) to gain that benefit? If I look into my resistance to going to the gym what do I find? What about the gym experience–or, more accurately, my imagined gym experience– bothers and discourages me? Is there a way to overcome the bother? I could go on differentiating my experience in this way for a couple pages. All this, and more, was obscured by the word “should.”

Placeholder words like “should” bring in a quasi-moral component which is intended to coerce. Telling myself I “should” do something is an unskillful attempt to bully myself into doing something I don’t want to do. If I wanted to go to the gym I would never choose the phrase “I should go to the gym and exercise.” I’d say “I’m going to the gym now,” or “I’m looking forward to exercising.” Notice how different these phrases feel from the one which is intended to compel me, with an abitrary (make believe) moral authority, to go to the gym. This is also what we’re doing when we tell a friend or our child what they “should” do. Behind the placeholder word might be something like “Here’s what I’d like you to do. Would you be willing to do that?” This is how we take ownership of our part in things, by making it clear that what is coming from me (my request) is mine, and not something bestowed by a mythical shoulding force in the universe.

Other examples of placeholder words are “lazy” and “procrastinate.” If I call someone lazy aren’t I really saying they’re not doing what I want them to do? When I say “I’m procrastinating” I obscure the reason I have for not doing whatever it is I’m avoiding. There’s always a reason, and I will not be able to look clearly at my conflicting motivations as long as they remain hidden behind the judgmental placeholder phrase “I’m procrastinating.” Who knows, behind that procrastinating I may find a should.


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