Savvy womens Magazine

Are You Addicted to Verbal Cocaine?

By Jim Curtis, Ph. D.

We talk and talk. We talk to friends and family, to lovers and spouses. It’s one of life’s great pleasures.

But you’ve surely noticed that it’s more of a pleasure to talk to some people than to others. It fact, it may even drain your energy just to listen to some people talk.

These people—often perfectly nice people who would never dream of taking real cocaine—may be addicted to verbal cocaine. In fact, you yourself may be addicted without even knowing it.

Here’s an easy test for determining the degree of your addiction to verbal cocaine:
Do you often find yourself beginning sentences with any or all of these phrases?

  • I need to……………..
  • I should……………..
  • I’m trying to………..
  • If these phrases have a familiar ring, then I have a challenge for you. Can you use any of them to create a strong, positive statement about yourself? It only takes a little experimenting to realize that you can’t do it; in fact, no one can. As soon as you begin a sentence with “I need to…”, “I should…” or “I’m trying to…” you’re committed to coming across as weak; you’re beating up on yourself, or apologizing for yourself. Or all of these combined.

    Try listening to yourself as you say this sentence aloud: “I need to exercise more.” That sentence says not just that you’re needy; it also says that you doubt you can do anything to meet your needs. At best it’s a plea for sympathy, not a statement of personal strength and belief in one’s self.

    Here’s a common enough example of how this works. A woman says, “I’m trying to be a good mother.” This sentence says that although she’s afraid she’s failing at being a good mother, her defense—and it is a defense—is that she’s trying.

    These sentence openings, which can be called “the toxic three,” are as addictive as cocaine, and although they won’t destroy your life, they will keep you from making strong, positive statements about yourself, and they will make you sound weak and needy to others.

    As if this weren’t bad enough, we also say the toxic three to others, especially to spouses and children. Trouble is, nothing good can come of saying “You need to…” or “You should…” or “You try to…” to others. We may think that we’re expressing concern and giving well-intentioned advice when we do this, but we come across as bossy and manipulative. The three toxic cocaine phrases isolate us from others and make closeness and inclusion difficult.

    So how do people become addicted to verbal cocaine? And what can be done about it? To answer these questions, it’s helpful to step back for a moment and consider some basic principles of language learning.

    When we learn our native language, we don’t just learn the names of objects in the external world, like “table” or “chair.” If that’s all we did, our verbal skills would never progress beyond those of toddlers. We don’t just learn an individual word in our native language; we acquire it, we take it in, and make it part of ourselves. We acquire verbal competence when we learn the way native speakers combine words to make sentences. That’s why linguists call this process, not “language learning,” but “language acquisition.”

    The thing is, languages have rules about the way words can be combined. Here’s an easy example: In Italian and Russian, it’s okay to begin sentences with a verb, but it isn’t in English. If you try that in English, you’ll wind up saying something like, “Go I to the store.”

    The tricky thing is that when it comes to our native language, we internalize these rules so successfully that they become second nature. That’s why we don’t have to think about forming sentences in our native language, and why language students often complain about learning grammar. The grammar of their native language—and all languages have grammar—is hidden in their subconscious.

    With these principles in mind, we’re ready to understand how we become addicted to verbal cocaine—and how we can free ourselves from this addiction.

    When we internalize the grammatical principles of our native language, we also internalize ways of speaking in addition to rules like putting the English verb in second position. This is the heart of the matter; we learn to say “I need to”/”I should”/”I’m trying to”/ by listening to the people around us. These are standard phrases that people use to apologize for themselves, defend themselves from anticipated criticism, and so forth. These are dysfunctional ways of talking, but they are no less common because of that.

    Just as we’re not aware of the rules of our native language as we speak it, so in the same way we’re not aware of the toxic three phrases when we use them. That’s why they’re so addictive, and why it takes effort to break this addiction.

    The first step in breaking any addiction is becoming aware of the problem. However, the rules of our native language are unconscious, as we know. (When I’ve discussed the toxic three sentence beginnings in seminars, the most common reaction is, “Oh—you mean I shouldn’t say ‘I should’?”) This is where friends and family come in; we can acknowledge to them that we have an addiction, that we want to break it, and can solicit their help. This is a powerful and effective tactic, because language is always social in one way or another.

    But what about the woman who says, “I’m trying to be a good mother”? There’s something important that she wants to say, and there are non-toxic ways for her to say them. Suppose she were to say, “It’s important for me to be a good mother.” In saying this, she is stating a core value of her life. It’s important that this statement makes no reference to outcomes. After all, who knows how her kids will turn out? And who knows how much of their future happiness (of lack of it) is directly attributable to the way she mothered her children? These are murky waters indeed. It’s best to avoid them altogether, and to say, “It’s important for me to be a good mother”—and leave it at that.

    The principle of stating values rather than outcomes offers valuable help in breaking the addiction to verbal cocaine. Instead of saying any of the things that commonly follow “I need to,” such as “lose weight”; “exercise more”; “spend more time with my kids”; “call my mother more often,” and so forth, we can say, “It’s important to me to…” Or, we can make it personal and direct, and say, “I want to…”

    Whatever you do, keep it light. It does no earthly good to beat up on yourself because of your addiction to verbal cocaine. You didn’t acquire it overnight, and it probably won’t disappear overnight, either. But persistence and a sense of humor will get you through many of life’s challenges, and they’ll get you through your addiction to verbal cocaine, too.

    Good luck!

    About the Author:
    Jim Curtis has devoted his entire professional life to the study of language--how we acquire it and how we use it. He has a Ph. D. in Russian from Columbia University, and was a professor of Russian for 31 years at the University of Missouri.  He has written five books and numerous articles on literature and linguistic communication.