Tag Archives: language


There are some phrases we would be better off not knowing, and one of them is: ‘If only…’ It almost always expresses regret about something in our past: ‘ If only I hadn’t eaten that chocolate cake’, or ‘If only I’d held my tongue in that conversation’, or ‘ If only they had noticed that I was struggling’.

Most of them give us reasons to beat ourselves up, and some of them give us reasons to resent other people. None of them are useful!

They are usually referring to things that have already happened, and we can’t change that. It’s a terrible waste of our energy to wish something in the past were different, and positively sinful to beat ourselves up about it!

The alternative is to use those thoughts as a means of doing something different in the future. We can use those phrases to help us to create a different story for ourselves from now on.

If I hear myself doing an ‘if only..’, I ask myself a couple of questions:

  1. Can I do anything to rectify it?
  2. How can I approach similar situations differently next time, so that it turns out in a better way?

Can I rectify it?

If I ate chocolate cake, it’s done! But if I was mean to somebody, or unfair, I may be able to apologise to them and acknowledge that I know I got it wrong.

If someone upset me and I’m holding a grudge, there’s not much I can do about being upset, although sometimes when we re-examine the situation, we have a different perspective on it, and realise that it wasn’t really that serious – we just took it that way at the time.

How can I approach similar situations differently next time, so that it turns out in a better way?

Here’s the useful bit!

If we think about alternative approaches we could use, we are doing two useful things:

  1. We are learning from our experience, instead of repeating the same errors, or beating ourselves up about it – and by the way, beating ourselves up about it means that we replay the experience and practise to do it again next time!
  2. We automatically play our improved version in our minds, and this is like rehearsing to do it more effectively next time we experience something similar, so we have some practice at the new improved way of handling it, and are more likely to use this version.

So next time you find yourself saying: ‘If only..’, use these two questions and stop it in its tracks!


Isn’t it easy to describe our life as a soap opera, full of melodrama! I have been strongly reminded of this recently, as I described the process of getting my book ready for publication to someone. When I had finished my tale of woe and tribulation, I just had to laugh at myself. On reflection, it was simply a bit tedious and required more iterations than I would have liked, but it wasn’t the major drama I had turned it into, and it was worth the effort. What’s more, I realised that I could have made it easier for myself by dealing with it differently.

We all have these areas of resistance, where we fight aspects of our lives instead of accepting them, and thereby cause ourselves even more stress. So I thought it was apposite to look at how we can make a different choice. My beloved teacher Ram Dass suggested years ago that the melodrama of life could become a mellow drama instead, and that has to be preferable. I can feel my mind and body relax at the very thought of it!

First, let’s look at how we create that melodrama. We begin with beliefs we have, that this will be difficult, that we’re not good at this sort of thing, that this not something we wanted in our lives. We are not really aware of these as beliefs, because we tend to state them as facts, and they influence strongly how we react. We then employ all the ‘language devils’ to describe the experience: “ I shouldn’t have to ..’, ‘I had to..’, They made me..’, This sort of things always happens to me’. And we use strong negative language; words like difficult, stressful, upsetting, disturbing, disastrous. Finally, we tell our story to others, to confirm the version we have created, and to get their sympathy. By the time we’ve finished with it, the experience has become the awful story we chose, and we live it that way. After all, we have used a lot of energy to shore up our own resistance, so we’re bound to be reluctant to tackle it in a positive way!

So let’s create a mellow drama

We use the same process to create a mellow drama, just with a different tone to it. We’ve all done this, both with those things we handle easily in our lives and with other people’s melodramas, where we say to ourselves, or them: ‘What’s the big fuss about? Just get over yourself you silly sausage!’

  1. What useful beliefs do you have in this situation? Look consciously for the ones that will support you in keeping it in perspective, and dealing with it well, such as: ‘I can handle things like this – I’ve done it before,’ or ‘it is only a small part of my overall experience’.
  2. Describe it to yourself (and others) in useful language. Begin with: ‘This has happened/is going to happen, so how am I going to handle it?’ there’s no point in resisting it happening, it’s already there, so accept it as a fact and choose how you react. This question creates a pause, so you can make that choice.
  3. Reduce the impact of your language. In your description of the experience, use words like ‘a bit’ or ‘slightly’ annoying, tedious etc. It reduces their power to colour the whole thing. Then add in an ‘and’ sentence, which acknowledges the positives in the experience. ‘It was a bit tedious and it was worth doing for the result’, or ‘It was slightly upsetting and it made me realise that I am lucky not to have things like that in my life all the time’.
  4. Keep it in perspective. As well as being more aware of how you are describing it, remind yourself to keep perspective. After all, it is only a small portion of your life. Think about the other things that do work well in your life. Remind yourself of how you handle most experiences well, even so-called difficult ones. Remember that a year from now you probably won’t even remember that it happened.
  5. Take a step away from it. Imagine yourself viewing it from the point of view of someone who isn’t disturbed by such things. Or just laugh at yourself, like I did, eventually! Laughter always gives us a slight detachment from being caught up, and releases the tension we’ve built up.

Life is always going to present us with hundreds of opportunities for melodrama, from the trivial – someone cutting in front of you in traffic – to the major – splitting up with your partner. But it’s up to us how we interpret that experience. Sometimes, of course, we feel justified in having it as a melodrama, but often we could save our energy for just dealing with it, by viewing it as a mellow drama, just another part of life’s rich tapestry, and use that energy for more useful things, rather than resisting it and causing ourselves all that stress.


(By the way, the book that prompted this is called ‘It’s not Rocket Science – a blueprint for a sustainably successful organisation.’ It is now published, both as a paperback, available through our website www.meta-org.com and as an e-book on amazon. And I am delighted with the result!!)


You know what I mean! We all get really good at telling ourselves about all the things we should do, or should have done. Sometimes we disguise it by using a different expression, and, in the English language, we have lots of alternatives: ought to, have to, got to, must, need to – I think we have more ways of obliging ourselves than any other language!

And that is one of the reasons for challenging our tendency to ‘should’ ourselves: these words all imply an obligation or duty. In Meta we call them language devils, because they trigger an unconscious resistance to whatever they are attached to that makes it even harder to do it well.

What do I mean by this? Well, as a small child, you look at the world as a place where you can do and have what you want, and where you use your own intuition and perception to know what will make life feel good for you. This sounds selfish, and in some ways it is, but small children are also warm-hearted, giving, and generally quite happy! Then they begin to learn all the social rules: be quiet, sit still, finish your dinner, do your homework first, tidy your bedroom – the list just goes on and on…

They also observe how adults behave, and begin to notice that the majority seem to be driven by their extensive and complex list of should’s and ought’s: housework, visits to relatives, ways of dressing appropriately, and of course, the biggest one, their work life. Not only do they observe this, they notice the effect it has on adults: bad-tempered, tired, fed up, stressed – not exactly attractive is it!!

We talk about the stage of child development, 2 or 3 years old, when they have tantrums and refuse to obey the rules – is it any wonder? Then they give in, because they are wise enough to know that they need these adults to care for and protect them, so they fit in, more or less, and become accustomed to the rules.

When children become adolescents, they have another period of rebellion, questioning the custom and practice, the norms, and seeing how far they can stretch the limitations. But they have already absorbed the ‘fact’ that adults accept and take on most of the rules – they have observed it from birth – so most of us eventually give in and become the constrained, rule-driven adult that we know is inevitable.

For me, this happened after university. I knew that I now had to fit in more, take on the responsibilities of adulthood. I got the responsible job, I made sure I did all the acceptable things, and I became more and more stressed and miserable! How I was being just didn’t fit with my innate nature at all, so I was in a constant battle with myself – an exhausting way to live!

I was lucky enough to have a teacher/mentor who challenged this way of being. He pointed out that I wasn’t in control of my own destiny. My whole life seemed to be a set of duties and obligations, driven by something external to me – ought’s and should’s ran my life! And he asked me to experiment with ignoring some of them and following my own heart, and see what happened. I only dared to try it out on one thing – my whole life might fall apart if I wasn’t careful!!

So I started with washing up – a job I hated. My normal approach was to wash up after every meal, and to always volunteer to do it if I visited someone else – my mum had trained me well! I did always do it, bad-temperedly, often breaking pots in the process, but I got it done, and that was what mattered.

So I left it and just piled the dishes in the kitchen. After a day, something strange happened: I began to think that I would like to clear my kitchen up, that it would please me to have the washing up done and the place looking tidy again. So I did the washing up, with a goodwill, and was very pleased with myself – (by the way, those of you who know me will know that I still do my washing up less frequently than most people!)

I had learnt the first stages of the lesson:

  • If you don’t do what you ought to, your world doesn’t fall apart
  • If you wait until you decide you want to do it, it is easier, less stressful, and quite satisfying!

I continued to experiment from then on, gradually reducing the should’s in my life. With some I realised that they really were unnecessary and I could drop them altogether. With others, I found that if I made a choice to do them, I did them with more willingness and less hassle. It also helped if I decided when I would do them, so that I felt in control of what was going on. I also began to notice that when I choose to do things, as opposed to doing them when I should, I tend to do them in a more effective way, and get better results. After all I am no longer using some of my energy to battle my own reluctance – the rebellious teenager within – and to force myself into action, so I can focus that energy where it is more useful.

So what can we do to help ourselves to stop ‘should-ing’ so much:

  1. Experiment as I did with one of your habitual ‘should’s’ – make it something that’s not too important to begin with – and just leave it till you actually want to do it, or have it done.
  2. Start to leave ‘should’ out of your vocabulary. Experiment with ‘I want to..’ or ‘I’m choosing to…’ or ‘I want to have xxx done’ or simply ‘I will..’ Notice that ‘I want to..’ is not always convincing – I never really want to do the washing up! – but I will decide to do it, or want to have the kitchen cleared, and those statements both make me feel in charge, rather than being forced to by some external rule.
  3. If you realise that you are should-ing yourself, stop for a moment, and give yourself a little treat as a reward for realising you’d forgotten again. Then ask yourself how you could deal with this in an easier way.
  4. If you really can’t get past the ‘should’, at least allow yourself to choose when you do it – sometimes just saying, ‘I should do such and such, and I will do it in half an hour’ gives you back the control, and makes it feel less driven.

Please do experiment with should-ing yourself less – it really can make a big difference to how you feel in your everyday life…