Sun is just beginning to hit a wooded hillside above a lake. In front of the water, marsh grasses are silhouetted. Mist rises off the deciduous forests, forming wispy clouds, in which the round bright shape of the sun is trying to peek through.

Beware The Verb “To Be”

A few years back, a woman from California called me, asking for help in turning her life around. 

She was in her 50’s, and unhappy, working as a retail clerk. She lived in a trailer park, and complained that her place was “always” messy. 

Though she had a degree in Education, she couldn’t get herself together enough to apply for a teaching job. 

“I don’t seem to get any of the important stuff done,” she said.

“Would you like to have a tidy living space, and a teaching job?” I asked.

“Oh, yes! I’d love both of those. But I never make any progress on either.”

(I let the use of “always” and “never” go until a later session.)

“So, why do you think you don’t make progress?” I asked. “What gets in your way?”

The line went quiet for 20 seconds, then she said, “I guess I’m just lazy.”

“Lazy?” 

“Yes,” she said. “I’m a lazy person, and just can’t find the right motivation.”

“So, you think you are a lazy person?”

“Absolutely!” she said. Then paused again. “But I knock myself out for other people.”

“Can you see that one of those last two statements has to be false?”

“What?” she said. “How?”

“If you are a lazy person, you would not knock yourself out for others. 

If you knock yourself out for other people you are not a lazy person.”

Again, silence on the line.

“Holy crap!” she said. “That’s so true. Huh! I’ve been in therapy for seven years and no one ever pointed that out.”

“So,” I asked, “which is it? You are a lazy person? Or you’re a person who knocks yourself out for others?”

“The second one, for sure. But why don’t I knock myself out for me?”

We spent rest of our session examining that question, and talking about judgments that distort current reality, and make it difficult to act.

I explained that the verb form “I am…” can take a particularly dangerous, judgmental form. 

The Verb “To Be”

Among other forms, this tricky little verb comprises these present tense forms: I am. You are. She/he/it is.

When you say, ‘I am lazy,’ it implies that you are always and in every way “lazy”—i.e. a lazy person. 

But ‘I am lazy’ is a judgement. An opinion. It is not true

Although, sometimes, you might act lazy, you are not lazy in general; you are not a lazy person.

So, the statement, “Sometimes, I act lazy,” is a more useful description of your behaviour.

“I am lazy” is a judgement about your character. Distorted, dysfunctional, and dangerous, it leads to negative conclusions, nasty feelings and ineffective action.

The statements, “You are…” or “They are…” are, likewise, judgments that can distort current reality, and affect action.

Many a domestic battle has begun, when the form, “You are…” comes into play.

Hurtful gossip often takes the form of “She/he/it is…”

Prejudice, discrimination and fear of “the other” is often precipitated by the form, “They are…”

Rising Above Judgment

My California client took the lesson to heart, and began looking for negative ways in which she used the verb “to be,” especially in regard to herself.

We worked together for two 8-sessions a-week rounds, with a two-weak break between them.

Realizing that she had the time, energy and desire to “knock herself out for others,” my client began turning those resources to her own dreams and desires.

A couple of months after our last session, she emailed me to tell me that she’d got a job—substitute teaching in an elementary school, and had moved out of her trailer into a 2-bedroom townhouse that she, “generally,” kept clean, neat and tidy.

“It’s like my whole life changed,” she wrote. “All because of that darned little verb “be.” Or, really, how I used it.”