I remember when I was first starting out as a clinician in the mid-90s, a mentor schooled me about using “but” when communicating with people. She said it in a professional context, but it holds for all communication. So often — too often — we use the word “but” when talking about mental health. Getting into the habit of replacing “but” with “and” helps validate all feelings and perspectives. It acknowledges we can feel multiple feelings at once (even contradictory ones). And it reminds us we can tolerate discomfort. After all, black-and-white thinking is rarely accurate. When we apply the power of and to life, we embrace it in its full grayness.
Grammatically, the word “and” means to include, in addition to. The word “but” means to replace with something different, often the opposite. When we say, “I’m cold, but I don’t need a sweater,” we’re replacing the first half of the statement with the second. By doing so, we’ve negated the first half. We’ve done away with it. Let’s apply this to feeling scared.
“I’m so scared, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
Notice the “but.”
Notice what happens when we change it to, “I’m so scared, and I’m going to do it anyway.”
Do you feel the difference? It might feel odd to say it because we’ve been taught to use “but.” It’s a completely normal, conversational sentence. The “but” risks invalidating the initial feeling of being scared. All feelings are valid, and no matter how uncomfortable a feeling may be, when we fight it, we inadvertently increase it.
We know that what we resist persists. Have you ever tried to think your way out of worry? What happened? You spiraled, right? The more we run, resist or fight what we call “anxiety,” the more anxious we stay. It’s when we let those anxious feelings be and do what we need to do that we cease being held captive by the fear.
Changing it to “and” significantly changes the meaning. Rather than look at them feelings of fear as the opposite of the active doing, the “and” combines them. They’re given equal validation. In addition to feeling scared, I’m going to go to the party. This combines the discomfort with the action, which then teaches your brain that you can be uncomfortable and still live life.
It works for other feelings, too, like when we talk about seemingly contradictory feelings. We can feel angry and grateful. We can feel both grief and joy at the same time. We can feel anxious and excited. Feelings aren’t all or nothing. We feel multiple emotions at a time often feeling seemingly contradictory ones. That’s natural.
The power of “and” applies to all of life’s ambiguities. It reminds us we can feel discomfort and tolerate it. Again, we don’t want to dismiss the discomfort. We want to acknowledge that it’s there and that we are going to let it be there.
When we’re feeling distressed or uncomfortable, we tend to focus exclusively on the unpleasant ones, making them bigger and more important than they need to be. We forget there are other possibilities and other outcomes.
Using “and” instead of “but” helps us lean into anxiety. It changes our relationship with it and allows us to respond in more productive ways. It’s one simple shift that can impact our daily lives in big ways.