Watch Out for These Red Flag Words

Language matters, perhaps more than you might realize. Take, for example, the scenario you’re running late to meet a friend. When you arrive, you say one of two things

“I’m sorry I was late.” vs. “Thanks for your patience.” 

One signals to both you and your friend that you messed up. Cue guilt for you and irritation for them. The other primes you both for positive emotions like appreciation and respect. Both acknowledge that you were late, but the language used produces very different results

Let’s take another example. You have a hard task to do, and you say to yourself:

“I have to…“ vs. “I get to…

The first leads to dread while the second promotes something else, perhaps gratitude, excitement, or motivation. The second may help you tap into your values and make the difficult task feel more worthwhile. Notice that there’s only one little word that’s different, yet the sentiment changes pretty significantly.

Language shapes out thinking, which, in turn, influences our feelings and actions. That makes language incredibly important. In the 15 or so years that I’ve been working with people within my psychology practice, I’ve learned to pay attention to red flag words.

Red Flag Words

 Red flag words are ones that consistently signal problematic patterns of thinking; that is, thinking that is likely to drive unnecessary anxiety, sadness, guilt, or anger and/or urge you to take unhelpful actions. Training yourself to catch and change these red flags – or at least notice and disregard them – can be incredibly powerful. 

1.     Should

If you’ve been with us for a while (or have ever had a conversation with me) then you may have heard my soap box about should. It’s the Mean Girls of the English language – criticism and judgment packaged as something helpful. Shoulds are expectations, and they are often unrealistic. Even when the expectations sound realistic, though, reality often doesn’t match them, which leads to internal ick. Don’t take my word for it. Pay attention to what happens when you should on yourself or someone else. I can almost guarantee that the outcome is a feeling of anxiety, guilt, or anger. One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself is ban the word should from my mental vocabulary. A handy trick to start with is to catch the should. Then, try to rephrase the sentence with “I want to _____ because_____.” If you can’t accurately and realistically capture the same sentiment, it’s an unhelpful should. Kick it out! 

2.     Yeah but

This red flag signals negativity, specifically a negative thinking pattern called discounting the positive. Our brains are wired for negativity, which makes them really good at noticing all of the problems, flaws, and downsides. Yeah but is your mind essentially honing in on the negative, like a heat seeking missile. How’s this for an illustration: “I just won the lottery! Yeah but, I’m going to have to pay taxes on that free money.” Kind of dampens things, doesn’t it? When you catch the yeah but, follow it up with a but at least. “But at least I’m getting a whole pile of unexpected money, and it only cost me $1 for the lottery ticket!”

3.     What if

What if is a worry. Worry is your mind looking for and trying to predict anything that could go wrong. While helpful at times, the effect is that you feel anxious or worried in the here and now…even though NONE of those potential bad things are actually happening. When your mind starts to throw out those what ifs, I encourage you to respond by saying, “What if is a worry.” Then shift your attention back to the present moment and what is actually happening. If you can’t disregard the what ifs, at least make your mind do some work to balance the picture. For every negative (and they’re almost always negative, aren’t they?) what if, make your mind find a potential positive what if as well. “What if I tell them how I really feel about it, and they get mad?” “Well, what if I tell them how I feel about it, and they listen appreciatively, and we resolve the whole situation?”

4.     Always and Never

Extremes like always and never or everyone and no one signal black-or-white thinking and are another sneaky form of negativity. Very rarely does someone always or never do something, and when you generalize in the extreme like that, you’re creating problems for you and them. Notice how different “You never listen to me” sounds from “Sometimes, you don’t listen to me.” (Better yet, soften it even more with “Sometimes, it seems like you’re not listening.”) Which one is likely more accurate? When you catch the always and nevers, ask yourself, “Is this true 100% of the time in 100% of situations? There are truly zero exceptions?” If not, choose a more accurate word like sometimes/often/frequently or some/many/a lot of people.

5.     I’m just…

I’m just…making an excuse. Just is for justification, which is a fancy excuse or rationalization. It may seem harmless, and frankly, it may be in some scenarios. Other times, however, it undermines your message or keeps you from doing hard but necessary work like taking responsibility for missteps or making changes, especially within relationships. Imagine that a coworker raises a concern about the quality of some work, and you respond with “Well, I was just trying to get the project done before the deadline.”  While that may feel true, it’s coming from a defensive place with the intent of deflecting blame. It does nothing to acknowledge the situation, take ownership, or make a plan to address or fix it. Instead, something like the following seems a lot more helpful: “The deadline was tight, and I felt a lot of pressure to get everything done in a timely fashion. I didn’t intend to sacrifice the quality of my work. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” The dialogue that follows is likely to feel a lot different. Instead of just justifying your actions, feelings, needs, or perspective, try owning them.

As Dr. April and I love to say, your mind can be your most valuable asset or your biggest barrier. You get to choose. So watch out for these red flag words and train your thinking to be more helpful and accurate. And if you want to learn more ways to make your mind work for you, check out Ascend, our comprehensive psych strength program.

“Change your language and you change your thoughts.”
 – Karl Albrecht

Don’t Fall for This Sneaky Brain Trick

If you’re anything like me, you’re fascinated by how the brain works! I love learning about how our brains process information, the glitches in their programming, and how those natural tendencies influence us in helpful and not-so-helpful ways. Good thing, too, since I’ve spent the last two decades studying this kind of thing!

Distorted thinking patterns and brain glitches cause all kinds of problems. In the context of the upcoming election, though, one in particular stands out to me, and I want to make you aware of it, too, so that we can all work on keeping our thoughts healthy and helpful.

Black-or-White Thinking

A particularly common yet problematic brain glitch is black-or-white thinking, also called dichotomous or all-or-none thinking. Black-or-white thinking shows up when we think in rigid either/or terms. The issue here is that very few things in life are truly black and white. Black-or-white thinking creates false extremes that can lead to all kinds of problems, and it keeps us from seeing the world as it really is.

Take these examples, for instance.

  • “I ate a cookie, so my diet is blown.” What kind of choices are going to be made now, and how do those line up with health goals?
  • “Everyone is better at that than I am.”  What kind of impact is that thought going to have on continued effort and confidence?
  • “You’re either with me or against me.” (Hello, election season.) What’s the effect here on collaboration and effective problem-solving? What about on attitudes and emotions?
  • “If it’s not perfect, then it’s a failure.” How do those unreasonably high standards play out over time?

Are you starting to see how black-or-white thinking can create some problems? It becomes even more clear when we contrast it to more rational alternative thoughts like:

  • “I ate a cookie, but that’s not the end of the world. I can still make healthy choices for the rest of the day and minimize the damage.”
  • “A lot of people are better than I am at this, but I can improve with practice.”
  • “We have a lot of differences, but I bet we can find some common ground to work from.”
  • “No one is perfect. This is good enough.”

 Problems with Black-or-white Thinking

1. Negative effects on your feelings and behaviors 

You’re probably getting the sense that black-or-white thinking can negatively impact your feelings as well as your actions, and it certainly can! In fact, black-or-white thinking can also contribute to broader and more pervasive depression and anxiety, too.

2. Limited choices

Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you had to make a choice, but neither of the options in front of you seemed like good ones? For example: either I tell my friend she’s upsetting me and ruin the friendship or I say nothing and just deal with it. Yikes. Neither of those sounds particularly appealing, does it? Pay attention to this one: Either I send my kids back to school and they’ll get COVID or I quit my job to teach them at home. Again, neither sounds ideal. When black-or-white thinking is determining our choices, we’re limited. We can choose black or we can choose white. Often, though, there are gray choices available. We’re just not seeing them.

3. Relationship damage

When black-or-white thinking shows up in our relationships, bad things happen. Most people are a complex mix of strengths and flaws, of good intentions and mistakes. When we view people in black-or-white terms, though, we oversimplify and filter out important information. We miss out on that complexity and that can cause some damage. Consider, for a moment, what happens if you view your partner in all-or-none terms. Let’s assume your partner did something that he knows you don’t like, and your automatic thought was, “He never thinks about anyone but himself.” How is that scenario going to play out? And what happens if you repeatedly think of your partner in that way? Moreover, what happens when we think about children or coworkers or bosses or even strangers in black-or-white, extreme terms? I’m not seeing a pathway to solid, healthy relationships here. Are you?

Recognizing Black-or-white Thinking

Black-or-white thinking can be sneaky and isn’t always easy to recognize. Fortunately, there are some red flags that can alert you that you are falling into this trap.


If you find yourself thinking or saying “either/or” take a pause. This is a signal of black-or-white thinking. Your mind is only seeing two options, and chances are that’s a false dichotomy.

Extreme language

Extreme language is often a sign of black-or-white thinking. Words like always/never” or everyone/no one” signal extremes.

Shades of Gray

When you notice black-or-white thinking, I challenge you to find the gray. You may be able to do that by simply asking yourself if there’s a gray option here. Other helpful questions include:

  • Can it be both/and instead of either/or?
    • For example, can I be a generally successful person who also made a mistake? Can she be both loving towards me and occasionally do things that hurt my feelings?
  • Are there any exceptions? Is this true 100% of the time in 100% of circumstances? 
    • Does my partner really never think about anyone else? Have there really been 0 times that he considered someone else’s needs?
  • Is that conclusion extreme? Could there be another outcome?
    • For example, does eating one cookie really mean that my diet is completely blown? Could it, instead, mean that I practiced moderation and can continue to make healthy choices?
  • What’s a third option?
    • For example, are these really my only two choices? How might I get the best of both? Or what else could I do in this situation?
  • And, one of my all-time favorite, most useful questions…is this thought helpful?

Beyond the Gray Zone

I hope you’ll embrace the gray and make efforts to counteract black-or-white thinking. Keep in mind, though, that changing your thinking patterns is an ongoing process. You’re going to slip into these glitches regularly, and it’s important that you don’t get black-or-white about your success! It’s possible to both make progress on your thinking AND slip into old habits. How’s that for gray zone?

And, if you are as fascinated with the brain as I am, you’ll love our Ascend program, especially Module 2: Your Mind. In this section of the program, we do a deep dive into how your mind works and why it does the things it does. Through the educational videos and hands-on exercises, you’ll learn about different forms of problematic thinking. You’ll get really clear on how your mind works and when it’s helping and hurting you. And most importantly, you’ll develop the skills to turn your mind into your biggest asset. Click the image below to learn more about the program. 

It’s up to each of us to learn how to make our minds work for us, and doing so can have a HUGE impact on your life experience. The gray zone, with its infinite shades, is a freer, more balanced place to live. I’ll see you there!

“Don’t define your world in black and white, because there is so much hiding amongst the greys.”
– Unknown