1st August, 2023

How to Use Power Language to Keep Your Boundaries Strong

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

Have you ever had to do something you didn’t want to do? Maybe it was a task at work, a favour for a friend, or a chore at home. It can be frustrating and draining when it seems we have no say in our actions. It can make us feel powerless and stressed out. And that’s not good for our work quality or our well-being.

But is that true? Do we really have no choice at all?

In this Quick Dip, we share how to use power language to set boundaries and take back control of your life. Keeping your work and life balance in check can be hard when you feel like your freedom is taken away. You will learn seven simple words to help you regain autonomy.

Learn how to set boundaries through your language. If you want to know how to regain control of situations that drain you out, this episode is for you.

Show links

Reasons to listen

  • Find out what it means to give over connecting.
  • Discover the importance of autonomy in motivation.
  • Learn the seven words that will help you take back autonomy.

Episode highlights


Connecting with People Who Drain You


Taking Back Autonomy


The End Goal


Even If


Causing Inconvenience


Power Language

Episode transcript

Dr Rachel Morris: This is a You Are Not A Frog quick dip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea, so you can return to whatever else you’re up to feeling energized and inspired. For more tools, tips and insights to help you thrive at work, don’t forget to subscribe to You Are Not A Frog wherever you get your podcasts.

I was doing some wellbeing training earlier on as part of the shapes toolkit, we talked about the power of connection, the power of connecting with people. And often, many of us are connecting with people all day, but we still feel exhausted at the end of the day. Sometimes we spend the weekends connecting with people that, if we’re honest, sort of suck the life out of us, rather than re-energize us.

Whenever we talk about the power of connection, I always talk about these people that you’d like to see, you want to see, but you really don’t feel energized after you’ve seen them and you are net-giving out to them. Now, we’re not telling people never to see people that don’t re-energize them. But sometimes, rather than having that in your connecting bucket, in your ways to well-being, you could put that in your giving bucket instead.

So, ‘I’m choosing to see that person so that I can connect with them, because I recognize that’s me giving to them’. And that got me thinking about, wow, what is the difference there because it’s exactly the same thing, only this time we’re doing intentionally. I was out to dinner with someone a few weeks ago, someone who, if I’m honest, I find a little bit tricky, then I find that sometimes I get quite triggered and backed into a corner, but I really want to see this person.

I had gone with the expectation that I was going to go and be really present with them. I was choosing to go and listen and have a lovely evening. And as it happened, it was a great evening. Everything happened as it normally does, but I was able to spend some time with that person in a really good way because I had chosen to go there with no expectation of anything.

I was reflecting on what the difference was between the evening with that person this time and the evening with that person previously. And it was my intention. It was because I had used power language to take control of the situation and it changed everything for me. So when we have these situations where we think, ‘Well, I have to, I have no choice. I’ve got to see that person, I have to spend time there, or I have to do that.’

That is powerful language in terms of ‘you have to,’ but unfortunately, it’s totally, totally unhelpful. And we need to shift our perspective from this feeling of ‘I have no choice’ to ‘I am choosing to do that.’ Then why is this important? Well, we know that a hugely important part of human motivation is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We know that from Daniel Pink’s book Drive.

We also know that having autonomy taken away is profoundly disempowering and backs us into the corner straightaway. Then we sit there feeling resentful about something that we feel has been imposed or forced upon us. And when we feel stuck, when we feel trapped, this can lead to burnout very, very quickly.

In fact, some recent research about burnout has shown that people with high expectations in their job, but very low control over what they can do have much, much higher levels of burnout than people who have very high expectations in their job and high control. So this thing about autonomy is really, really important because it can help us feel much more powerful.

I’ve recently had the double whammy of A Levels and GCSEs in my household. So we’ve had people revising from, well, from sort of the end of March onwards. And I realized about six months ago that I had to stay here really. I couldn’t travel around in the summer like I wanted to do because I wanted to be here for the kids. And I very quickly realized that using the phrase ‘I have to stay because the kids have got exams’ was making me feel restless, was making me feel itchy feet and trapped.

I then started thinking about, ‘Actually, is that true? Is it true that I have to stay? Of course, it’s not. I could get up and go at any point and leave them.’ The reality is that I am choosing to stay. I am choosing to be here for them and be around just to support them and love them and that mindset shift, ‘I am choosing to,’ made all the difference for me. But it’s not just ‘I’m choosing to,’ but ‘I am choosing to, so that.’

What is the end goal? And I talk about this all the time because unless we have the end goal in our head, we are just open to persuasion. And so other people think, what they want, et cetera, et cetera. And we’re also open to the guilt and shame stories in our own head of ‘you ought to’ or ‘you have to.’ Well, that’s really bad saying no to that. But if we can say, ‘You know what? I have chosen. I have chosen this so that.’

Now that’s what I used to teach as power language. ‘I choose to, so that.’ But there is one part missing here. And that is, ‘even if’, because there is always a consequence for the choice that you make. If I choose to not to travel in May, in June, I will miss out on some of the work that I could have done. If I choose to say no to something, it might mean that someone’s a bit disgruntled or upset with me or thinks badly of me.

We need to predict the consequences before we’ve even made that choice. Because the pushback I often get from people when I’m talking about if you’re in control of something or not, is that well, I can’t possibly leave the surgery on time if there’s a patient waiting, and they could have a really serious illness, and it’s a medical emergency.

I’ll say to them, ‘Of course not. If a patient is going to be severely harmed, you would stay and see that patient. Of course, you would choose to do something so that something else, even if and that even if that ‘even if’ is even if I lose my job, or even if something really awful happens.’ We could probably make a different decision because that is not what we want. That ‘even if’ is crucially important, because if you’re ‘even if’ is a severe consequence, then you’ll probably not choose to do that thing. You’ll choose to do something else so that you avoid the ‘even if.’

Of course, we do not want to tolerate patient harm, doing anything that’s absolutely against our core values, doing something dishonest, or something that’s going to lose us our jobs. But there are things that we can tolerate, such as maybe some pushback from somebody, maybe them being a bit upset with us, maybe something being done that’s not quite perfect or not quite finished. Or even not getting to the bottom of our to-do lists which, side note, you will never get to the bottom of.

Side-side note, I refer you back to a previous podcast where we talked about our to-do list, looking at it as a river rather than a bucket because the bucket you’ve got to get to the bottom of whereas the river, you can just pull stuff out that you’re gonna commit to doing.

Another ‘even if’ is upsetting someone, and yet another ‘even if’ is causing someone a bit of inconvenience. Because so often, if it’s a choice between someone else’s inconvenience or our inconvenience, we choose our own inconvenience every time. And it’s fine doing that once or twice. But if it’s 20 times a day, then we end up getting so resentful and just dancing to everybody else’s tune.

What I would say, when you’re looking at these ‘even if,’ if that means there’s going to be severe patient harm, or someone’s going to die, then do something different. You have the choice. You have the choice. And the problem is when we fail to realize we have a choice in these things, we feel trapped, we feel stuck and we feel resentful because you always have a choice.

Next time you are struggling to articulate what it is that you want or need long-term and you’ve got to follow through on a difficult decision, use some power language. These seven short words: ‘I choose to.’ What are you choosing to do? ‘So that.’ Why you’re choosing to do it? ‘Even if,’ what might the consequences be? And if you can get that fixed in your brain and stick to it, it will save you a whole heap of pain.

Recognize that you have a choice. Stay in your zone of power, which means the only choices you’ve got are things that you can control. You do not have a choice over the stuff that’s outside your zone of power. Sometimes the choice that you will make is just accepting that, ‘So I am choosing not to do anything about that so that I’m not gonna feel really anxious and stressed, even if there are some adverse consequences, even if I don’t like it.’ Because this is the only thing that’s gonna let you be in it for the long game and have the biggest impact in your work.