Empowering Language

What we say matters. The words we choose are a reflection of our beliefs, which can be limiting.  The good news is, we can change our beliefs by changing how we talk. I’m writing this to share the most commonly used disempowering phrases I’ve heard in my own speech as well as that of my clients.  By consciously eliminating these words from our vocabulary, we can become more powerful.

Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice.

    – Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

HAVE TO / NEED TO / MUST / GOT TO (or any language that implies choicelessness)

Example: I’d love to go to your party, but I gotta finish this work

This language is disempowering because it is never true. They say the only things you have to do are breath and pay taxes – actually, you can choose to do neither. In the first case you will probably die, in the latter you will probably get audited, but you still have the choice.  I breath because I want to.  I pay taxes because I want to.  And that feels a lot better than thinking I ‘have to.’

Any word that creates the illusion I don’t have a choice disempowers me.

Replacement word: CHOOSE TO – Thanks for the party invite! I’d love to go, but I’m choosing to finish my work first.


Example: I can’t ask him for that big of a raise.

Here’s another one that’s always a lie. It’s disempowering because it’s literally telling myself I do not have the power to do something. Actually, I do have that power (and so do you). Think of all the incredible accomplishments of humankind. You are a human. You have the same power. You might not WANT TO do it, you might not CHOOSE TO do it, and saying so does not disempower you in any way.

Replacement: DON’T WANT TO – I don’t want to ask him for that big of a raise.


Example: I should clean my room

This word is disempowering because it implies right and wrong, and implicitly says that what I’m doing now is wrong – and therefore I am wrong. Thinking I’m wrong is disempowering. Further, if I think I ‘should’ be doing something, I’m also implying I don’t want to do that thing, or not willing to take full ownership over the part of me that does want to do it. Not taking ownership is disempowering.

Replacement word: WANT TO – I want to clean my room


Example: Well, you know, when you find yourself in that kind of situation, it’s just terrifying.

Again, an example of deflecting ownership, which is disempowering. This one is simple – when I’m talking about myself, don’t use second person pronouns (you, your, etc). Use first person (I, me, etc).

Replacement: Well, when I find myself in that kind of situation, it’s just terrifying.


There are many more words I could add to this list, but I want to focus on the most egregious offenders.  I invite you to completely eliminate these words from your vocabulary.  It will be difficult and you will piss some people off.  But you also earn much more respect – both from others and, more importantly, yourself.


Recommended Reading:

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg