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Next time you catch yourself in a I’m-stupid-I-can’t-do-this kinda place, stop what you’re doing and use your words.

A photo of me looking at some 'words' on a wall AKA graffiti.
Words are everywhere! You don't have to look too far to find some inspiration. Try your local wall to find what all the cool kids are saying.
Tuesday 15 February 2022

The subtle art of using your words

I'd be lying if I said the title of this post isn’t a riff on Mark Manson's The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. I love refreshing perspectives, different ways of looking at things, and to a degree, different ways of looking at myself or the situation at hand. I’ve been trying this in therapy recently too; different ways of looking at my job or where I see myself in 5 years time. OK 10. Alright 20! Time and again Dan Savage on his Savage Lovecast podcast tells callers when they’re stuck in a relationship quandary, “Use your words.” It’s so simple. It’s like there should be some kind of book filled with them or something.

Take the following scenario; maybe you can relate?

You’re in a new job. The environment and culture are new. The users are new. The processes are new. You have new colleagues and the products and apps are new. That’s a lot of newness. You’re still new, so it’s natural to want to show you’ve got this. Plot twist: your new company uses Figma instead of Sketch from your old company. You knew this when you signed up though. You wanted the job and you said you’re a quick learner (true, but eh, learning curves...). They hired you. You’re a few months in and now you’re working on a new feature for the app. You’re having a hard time understanding Figma’s Auto Layout, a feature other designers use. Some internal deadlines are ticking. You’re panicking. What do you do? Do you do what I do instinctively? That’s right, tell yourself you’re stupid, and you’ll never learn this.

Here's a tip!

Don't do this.

Instead of saying to yourself, “I'm stupid,” try, “I'm feeling stupid.”

There you go. You're still talking shit about yourself. But now you're doing it from–a–distance.

I jest, but there's some truth to this.

Saying “I’m stupid” perpetuates a storyline in your head that you are indeed, stupid. Saying that you feel stupid, is identifying a feeling. Feelings come and go all the time. You’re never constantly happy (I hope not), or constantly sad (I hope not). The better you get at distancing inner critics from your inner core, the more resilient you’ll be in times of panic or stress.

Take it a step further, be specific, and use your words

All too easily, we’re quick to respond to the question after a day’s work, “How was your day?” with something like, “It was fine,” or, “Shit.”

I have a nephew, he’s 11 years old. When I ask him how his day was at school, he responds all the time with, “Good.” Good, good, good... Sometimes I try encouraging him, “C’mon, what else can you say? Were you happy? Was it hard? Was anything about it fun?” Sometimes I think we adults resort to the simplest path to expression too:

  • “It was fine.”
  • “Shit.”
  • “I’m stupid.”
  • “I can't do this.”
  • “Meh.”

So try this; be specific. Next time you catch yourself in a I’m-stupid-I-can’t-do-this kinda place, stop what you’re doing and close the laptop lid for a minute.

Write down on a piece of paper what that inner critic is saying: “I’m stupid”. Score it out. Write, “I’m feeling stupid.” Score that out. Now, try using other words to describe it, “I’m feeling challenged,” or “I’m feeling out of my depth,” better yet, try putting, “that’s all,” at the end, “I’m feeling challenged, that’s all.”

Here's a tip!

Resist the urge to add different feelings or thoughts you might be having, try and keep it focused on one thing at a time. Stick to feeling stupid – don't get lost in feeling stupid and pathetic.

Back to the exercise.

Fancy a stretch goal? Stretch out your struggle with as much specificity as possible, “I'm struggling to understand why this nested frame is breaking the container’s width – it’s supposed to hug contents. This is stopping me progressing with the rest of the page’s layout.” This is the best thing to do in my opinion. It reinforces objectivity and really helps take you out of your feelings.

You could also try this, “I’m feeling technically perplexed by this preposterous technology at my slender fingertips.” In fact, if you try and make light of it, it might help take the edge off – I recommend this approach too.

So there you go. Try any/all of the above. Get creative and express your struggles. Remember, you aren’t stupid, you just feel stupid 😉


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