"But" is a word I hear frequently, not only in my counselling room, but also in conversations out and about. It's such a short word we often pay it little attention, and for such a small word it has tremendous power. It has the ability to turn triumph into defeat.
How does 'but' do so much?
Take two statements, such as "I did a pretty good job," along with "I ran short of time." They sound fairly neutral on their own, don't they? What if you join them together?
I did a pretty good job, but I ran short of time.
Now that pretty good job you did, doesn't sound so good. It sounds more like a criticism. When we use 'but' in a sentence, it enables the second statement to negate or diminish the first.
So instead of feeling good about the job you just did, you are left with worrying about how you managed the time to do it. 'But' cancels out the praise, and leaves you with the criticism. Our critical voice is a master of this, and it very frequently uses 'but' to do it. Footnote #1
Our critical voice has another powerful word in its arsenal - 'should'. We only ever say 'should' about things we haven't done. It reminds us of what we failed to do.
Take these two statements, "I managed to get my report in on time," along with "I should have started it earlier." Now mix them together with a 'but'.
I managed to get my report in on time, but I should have started it earlier.
By ramping your 'but' up with 'should', you've managed to turn your success of getting your report in, into a piece of personal failure. Your success is now missing an essential ingredient - an earlier start.
Making one small change
When people use 'but' in the counselling room, one thing I will suggest they try is substituting it for another 3 letter word - 'and'. This often completely transforms the meaning of what they have just said. Using my first example,
I did a pretty good job, and I ran short of time.
Woah there, steady on! What was a critical statement with the use of 'but' has been made to sound much more positive, heroic even, just by using 'and' instead.
One of the effects when I suggest this in the counselling room, is that people often feel more positive when they use 'and' in their descriptions. It doesn't in anyway change the facts, it just changes the way the person feels about those facts.
For the second statement, 'and' is not so effective.
I managed to get my report in on time, and I should have started it earlier.
Using 'and' here does not feel anywhere nearly as transformative as in the first example. It only tends to lessen the hold of 'should', rather than eliminating it altogether.
Also you may find it very difficult to say a statement like this without using 'but', and even if you do start off by using 'and' you will in all likelihood slip back to using 'but' instead. This is because 'should' and 'but' fit very neatly together.
You can lessen the hold of 'should' a bit further by adding 'I feel' or 'I think' in front of it,
I managed to get my report in on time, and I feel I should have started it earlier.
When you say you feel or think something, it lets uncertainty into what you are saying. It opens your 'should' up to questioning, and examination.
'Should' is something I will often explore with people in the counselling room, because it is often at the root of many of the problems we experience.
Why 'and' is better than 'but'
Don't get me wrong, 'but' is a great word when used properly. You probably noticed I used it at the beginning of this piece, when I said "not only in my counselling room, but also in conversations out and about." Here the 'but' cancels out the 'only.' I could have written it using 'and' instead, however, by using 'but' I am emphasising the fact I hear it in both places.
However, when we use 'but' to talk about ourselves, what we are typically doing is to cancel out the first thing we say in favour of the second. 'But' limits ourselves to just one negative perspective.
'And' on the other hand, keeps both statements alive. We keep both the sense we succeeded and the sense there were things we could have done better.
'And' does make life a bit more complicated. It does give us two things instead of one. However, when you use 'and' instead of 'but' you are also letting in a better connection with yourself and the world around you.
main picture by Mihai Paraschiv