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Freshen up your mouth

(and clean out your ears)

As you read through this list of words, get curious about how their use could create unexpected damage for either you and/or your listener (even if you're speaking to yourself):

  • Accountable

  • Addiction

  • Advice

  • All, always, never^

  • Altruism

  • Ambitious, diligent, hard-working

  • Authentic

  • As much as I would like

  • Bad karma

  • Because

  • Behind on things, things are waiting for me

  • Best (do your)^

  • Better safe than sorry

  • Bitch, jerk

  • Blame

  • Bully

  • Busy

  • But

  • Caring, uncaring

  • Catch up, get caught up

  • Challenge (was/will be hard)

  • Choice

  • Comfortable, uncomfortable^

  • Commitment

  • Common good

  • Competition

  • Confidence

  • Considerate, inconsiderate, sensitive, insensitive

  • Convenient

  • Conviction

  • Cooperative, uncooperative, stubborn, agreeable, disagreeable

  • Coward

  • Deadline

  • Demeaning

  • Deserving, not deserving, worthy, unworthy

  • Difficult, hard, struggle, tough

  • Discipline

  • Discrimination (racism, sexism)

  • Do better (where "how much better" is not clearly specified)

  • Do my best (try my best); giving 100%

  • Doesn’t work, is not working

  • "Don't care what others think"

  • Don't worry

  • Drudgery (see difficult)

  • Duty, obligation

  • Efficiency

  • Effort

  • Either...or....

  • Energy (taking up my energy)

  • Enough, not enough, good enough, not good enough^

  • Entitled

  • Equality

  • Err on the side of caution

  • Excellence

  • Excuse (making)

  • Exploit

  • Extremism

  • Fact

  • Failure, success

  • Fair, unfair, just, unjust, justified, unjustified

  • Fake news

  • Fault

  • Flaw

  • Forgive

  • Freedom

  • Generous, tight-fisted

  • Give me a minute, I'll be back in a minute

  • Giver

  • Giving 100% (giving it 100%)

  • Giving back

  • Good, bad, right, wrong, sin, dark side

  • Good of the family

  • Have a right

  • Have to do

  • Helpful

  • Hope, expectation^

  • Hopeless

  • Honest, dishonest

  • Honor, honorable

  • Hubris

  • Hypocrite

  • Ideal

  • I already know the right answer...

  • I won’t look good to others

  • I want/need to prove that...

  • I don't have enough time

  • I don't have time for...

  • I don’t understand why...

  • I’ll do whatever it takes

  • I'll get back to you

  • I'll see you soon

  • I'll call you later

  • I'll try my best, I'll try hard

  • I’m just trying to explain

  • I should have known

  • I told you so

  • It's their loss

  • Important

  • Improve, improvement

  • Inappropriate

  • Independent, dependent, self-sufficient

  • Information, education

  • Integrity, lack of integrity

  • Keep myself occupied

  • Later (decide or do)

  • Lazy, hard-working, diligent

  • Let down (let down by someone, letting someone down)

  • Let myself off the hook

  • Listening to your conscious

  • Living up to your potential

  • Long way to go

  • Loser, winner

  • Love, hate

  • Loving, unloving

  • Loyalty, disloyalty

  • Make up for

  • Manipulate

  • Many things waiting for me

  • Marriage, divorce

  • Materialistic

  • Mature, immature

  • Maybe, perhaps, if I have time (see below)

  • Mistake

  • Meaningful

  • More (where "how much more" is not clearly specified)

  • Must, must not, have to, got to, putting off

  • Need, not need

  • Need to catch up

  • Need to get done^

  • Negative

  • Never give up (never quit)

  • No pain, no gain

  • No matter what, whatever it takes, somehow

  • None, no one, never

  • Normal, average

  • Not enough time

  • Not ready

  • On hold

  • Opinionated

  • Optimistic

  • Patient, impatient

  • Patriotic

  • Persistence, quitting

  • Pessimistic

  • Polite, impolite, good mannered, ill mannered

  • Politics

  • Positive

  • Practical

  • Pride

  • Professional

  • Promise

  • Proper, improper, appropriate, inappropriate

  • Prove

  • Punctual, late

  • Put up with

  • Racist, prejudiced

  • Ready, not ready, not the best timing^

  • Reasonable, unreasonable, stupid

  • Rejection (being rejected)

  • Respectful, disrespectful

  • Responsible, irresponsible^

  • Reward

  • Ridiculous

  • Right thing, wrong thing (doing the)

  • Safe

  • Selfish, unselfish, greedy

  • Self-discipline

  • Self-sabotage

  • Serious

  • Sexist

  • Shameless

  • She knows better

  • Shortcoming

  • Should, should not, supposed to (see below)

  • Sin, virtue

  • Smart

  • Someday

  • Soon

  • Struggle

  • Stupid, ridiculous

  • "Taken advantage of"

  • Taker

  • "Telling it like it is"

  • They should have known

  • Things to do

  • Things I have to do

  • Tolerating

  • Too (as in too hot, too angry, too fat)

  • Too little

  • Too many things to do

  • Too much

  • Trust, betrayal^

  • "Trust me"

  • Try “Do or do not. There is not try.” Yoda

  • Unconditional love

  • Unselfishness

  • Use somebody

  • Waiting

  • Want

  • Waste, recycle

  • Waste of time

  • Wasting time

  • Weird, strange, crazy

  • Why

  • Willpower

  • Worthwhile

  • Worthy, unworthy

  • Work

  • You should have known

The most common reason for toxicity

The use of any word or phrase that has either a laudative or a pejorative connotation is toxic because the use of such a word can imply a "should" or "should not," and is thereby potentially "fighting with reality." Consider the word "marriage," whose connotation is laudative. To get married or to maintain a marriage is "good" and to avoid marriage or to end a marriage (divorce) is "bad." Whenever we characterize something with a "should" or a "should not," we blind ourselves to its costs, benefits, and risks. The worst marriages are those in which the parties think marriage is "good" and should not be broken up. The most bitter divorces are those in which the parties think divorce is "bad" and someone must be blamed.

"Shoulds" and "should nots" can set us up to lose

As Byron Katie said, "When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100% of the time."

See All for one and one for all.

Over generalizations

A word can also be toxic because it is often used inaccurately in an over generalizations, as with "always" or "never." Examples: "I asked her out twice. She's never going to say 'yes'." or "You're always screaming at me."

Get concrete and specific in your language

A third reason for toxicity involves words that are vaguely used or not well qualified, as in "hard," "not enough," "unfair," and "integrity." Example: "This is going to be hard." What specifically about doing this might occur as "hard," especially if you break it up into steps and you accept the fact that it may or may not happen (especially in the time frame that you want/need)?

Missing qualifiers

A word can also be toxic because of missing qualifiers:

"I need this." Need in order to get what result?

"You should be responsible." Responsible in order to have what results?

"I won't look good." Look good in order to get what results?

"I'll get back to you." By when?

The above list of toxic words and phrases above is incomplete.


In fact, almost any word can be used toxically, especially when spoken with irony or sarcasm. Once you begin to get a feel for what makes a word toxic, you'll develop an ability to spot toxicity on your own. Be careful that you are gentle with yourself and others when exploring the toxicity of words! It's very easy to get into thinking, "I shouldn't use toxic words."

Let's learn to think about toxic words by exploring two toxics: "maybe" and "should"





Benign "maybes"


“Maybe” is a benign and useful word in many contexts. Let’s look at these first before explaining its more common toxic uses.

To soften a suggestion


Maybe can be used as a polite way of making a suggestion: “Maybe we could go sailing together tomorrow?”

To indicate uncertain knowledge


Maybe can be used to indicate uncertain knowledge: “Maybe it will rain tomorrow.”

To specify conditionality

Maybe can be used to indicate conditionality because the decision is dependent upon a condition: “Maybe I will exercise tomorrow, but it depends upon whether or not I’m invited out to dinner.”

To be polite (use with caution)

Maybe can be intended as a polite way of saying “no,” although this use may cause problems if the hearer is unsure of your meaning and consequently creates an unfounded expectation based upon your “maybe,” as in, “Maybe I’ll be able to come to the party.” Consequently, this use of this "maybe" could end up being toxic to your relationship.

Toxic maybes

The toxic use of the word maybe is exposed in the following example: “Maybe I will start my diet tomorrow." This maybe is toxic because it implies (to yourself and to others) that you don’t have the power to say (and to follow through on) either, “I will start my diet tomorrow” or “I will not start my diet tomorrow.” When you say “maybe,” you are lying (by implication) to yourself and/or to another, consequently giving away your power.

Polite in the short-term, but rude in the long-term

Another example of a toxic maybe is “Maybe I will attend your class on Sunday.” This could be an attempt at politeness (as mentioned above), with no intention to attend the class. It can be toxic in two ways, not just one. First, it denies the power that the speaker has to say clearly, “Yes, I will attend” or “Thank you, but I will not attend” or "A part of me would like to attend and it's just not going to work for me. I hope you understand" or "I will attend if my babysitter is available." Secondly, it will likely give the hearer some unfounded hope that the speaker will attend.

Choosing courage to not use a toxic maybe

Yes, you may be (LOL) choosing courage to say clearly what you will do or will not do...and to put whatever structures may be needed in place (if you say you will start your diet tomorrow) to ensure that it happens.

Speakers, listeners, and thinkers, beware of the word “maybe”

More about "maybe" Lost in maybe-maybe land.






Cyanide for the mouth (that can taste like candy)

“Should” and “should not” are the most deadly and pervasive toxic words in the English language (as well as for their synonyms as they occur in any other language).

Benign ways to use "should"

Before we examine their toxicity, let’s note the ways in which should (and should not) can be used benignly.

To get the results you want

“You should put the soap in before you start the washing machine.” This type of should simply implies that, in order to get the desired washing results, you need to do things in a certain order.

A prediction

“You should be able to catch the train on time.” This should implies that something is probable for you, given the effort.

A provisional deal

“If you should change your mind, I’ll be waiting for you.” This should indicates something that will be available to you under certain conditions.

Ambiguous shoulds

Sometimes the use of the word “should” can be ambiguous, with some interpretations benign and others toxic. “I think I should exercise tomorrow.” Benignly, this means either “I intend to exercise tomorrow, but, if I don’t, that will be fine with me.” or “If I exercise tomorrow, I will get some results I want.” Toxically, it  means, “If I don’t exercise tomorrow, I will blame myself.”


From time to time, you may find a few other benign uses of the word “should."

Meet the cyanide of toxic words

The toxic use of “should” and “should not” involves actual or potential blame or criticism, either 1) towards oneself or 2) towards others or 3) towards the universe or God.


  • “You should keep your promises.”

  • “You shouldn’t cheat on your wife.”

  • “I should do my homework.”

  • “You should fight for your country.”

  • “You shouldn’t swear in front of your grandmother.”

  • “I should get what I deserve.”

  • “Life should be fair.”

Should or shouldn't is implicit in most toxic words

Should is packaged inside of many other toxic words. Here are several examples:


  • Caring: You should be caring.

  • Deserve: People should get what they deserve.

  • Duty: You should fulfill your duty.

  • Failure: You should not fail.

  • Good: You should be good.

  • Honest: People should be honest.

  • Integrity: You should have integrity.

  • Kind: You should be kind.

  • Marriage: You should stay married.

  • Persistent: You should be persistent.

  • Quit: You shouldn't quit.

  • Selfish: You shouldn’t be selfish.

  • Taker: You shouldn’t be a taker.

Should is verbal sets us and others up to lose

In a certain sense, should has no meaning other than to indicate that one or more people (or God) will blame whoever does not do what they (or you) want you to do. Should is verbal violence. Should also resists (fights with) reality. It puts us at odds either with ourselves or with others or with the reality of what is so.

Should assaults the integrity within ourselves

Let’s take one example and tease it out.


Imagine that I said to you, “You should keep your promise to exercise today.” Spoken toxically, this means, “I and/or others will blame you (or be sad or disappointed because of you) if you don’t exercise today and I am letting you know this.” The use of should or shouldn't perpetuates the battle between Now and Next and Oneself and Others.


My Next is hoping for cooperation with your Next by threatening your Now with blame if you don’t exercise today. It shows lack of consideration and respect for what your Now may want and need. In this example it also perpetuates the battle between Oneself and Others.

Should assaults our integrity with others

Should not only perpetuates the Now-Next wars, it also adds fire to the Oneself-Others feud. “You shouldn’t be so selfish; you should think of my feelings.” This should continues the Oneself-Others conflicts by saying that your self-interests should be sacrificed to my self-interests, instead of looking for ways for our self-interests to work together, both short-term and long-term.

Shoulding ourselves and others together

These are examples of shoulding others. We would not should others unless we were shoulding ourselves. We treat others as we treat ourselves.

Underground shoulds

Moreover, many shoulds are never spoken; they remain on the level of thoughts and thereby poison our lives silently, with no need to be spoken in order to pollute our lives.

Shoulding blinds us to better choices

In addition to the damage that shoulding causes by inflicting blame on ourselves and others, shoulding also creates damage by blinding us. It blinds us to the costs and risks of following our shoulds as well as the benefits of alternatives that exist to our shoulds.

Shoulding traps in the past

When we should/shouldn't, we are looking for someone to blame, even for someone to be punished (including ourselves). We live in the fantasy that somehow we think that shoulding will make our future better. We create defense in others and in ourselves, making it problematic to use curiosity to explore and uncover all the factors that contributed (from every source) to the unwanted result. It makes it problematic to use partnership and creativity to find ways to make it more likely to have better results in our future.

Why do we should?

Why do we should ourselves and others? What benefits are we trying to get with our shoulding? Certainly, shoulding is often a deeply ingrained habit that has strong support from family, media, and culture. But, unless it did not provide (at least seemingly) ongoing benefits, the habit would be easy to break.

Shoulding can live only in a world lacking integrity

Shoulding lives in the world in which we believe that our Now must be sacrificed to our Next. It lives in the world in which we believe that our Oneself must be sacrificed to our Others. As long as we believe in these types of sacrifice, as long as we identify ourselves as our Next and our Others at the exclusion of our Now and our Oneself, our shoulding will continue. As long as we remain convinced there are good guys and bad guys, we must should ourselves and others in order to help Next (our good guy) win against Now (our bad guy) and for Others (another good guy) win against Oneself (the other bad guy). Otherwise, we believe, the world and our life will fall apart.

Shoulding gives us a (false) sense of power or control

It makes us feel safer. We act as if our should or our shouldn't can make ourselves or others behave a certain way. It can even be used to deflect or diminish other people's possible criticism ("I know I should do better").


Should had a stranglehold on my mother

Here’s a big example of should-induced blindness that had a major impact on my life: My mother knew that she made a mistake in marrying my father within two days of their marriage. But she believed that she should be persistent. She was persistently married for 41 years to a man she didn't love and didn't respect before she finally got divorced. After my mother finally left my father, every time I spoke with her, she would exclaim, “Why didn’t you tell me how happy I would be without him!?”

She was blind to the benefits, costs, and risks of the options available to her

Because of her should of persistence, my mother was blinded to the costs and risks that she (and others around her) incurred because she remained married to my father. She also kept herself in the dark about all the better alternatives available to her that involved not being married to my father. Her shoulds blinded her from exploring these alternatives. Shoulding keeps us in a dark, making it difficult to the navigate the world and have the best relationships with others. Without shoulds and should nots, our abilities to see and evaluate the opportunities, possibilities, and options of life are greatly enhanced.


But how can we un-should ourselves?

Freshen up your mouth

As a first step, freshen up your mouth. Whenever you want or intend something to be a certain way, don’t use the word “should” (or its synonyms). You might say, instead, things like this:

  • “I want this to happen.”

  • “I intend this to happen and I will take action to support that.”

  • “I request that you do this.”

  • “I think the country could be better off, if the president did this.”

  • “I invite you to do that.”

  • “I notice that I am frightened that will not happen.”

  • “If you do this for me, I will do that for you."

Use the NNI and OOI toolkits

Most fundamentally, however, shoulding will fade away naturally as you create and maintain integrity, both NNI and OOI. Use the NNI toolkit, the OOI toolkit, and the NFS toolkit to support this process. “How can Now and Next both win in this circumstance?” This is the question that is answered in the NNI toolkit. “How can my Oneself and my Others both win in this situation?” This is the question that is answered in the OOI toolkit. We need to ask one or both of these questions whenever shoulding raises its ugly head.

Make your shoulds align with reality

A final method to undo shoulding is to continue to use the word “should,” but only in a new way that aligns with reality. Here are examples.


  • If you find yourself being lazy, then say, “I should be lazy.” (since you are lazy right now).

  • If you notice you are a workaholic, say, “I should be a workaholic.” (since you are a workaholic right now).

  • If your friend lied to you, then say, “My friend should lie to me.” (since that is what your friend did at least once).

  • If your spouse slept with someone else, then say, “My spouse should have slept with someone else.” (since that is what your spouse did).

  • If you weigh 300 pounds, then say, “I should weigh 300 pounds now.” (since that is what you weigh now).


These shoulds in no way limit you in taking actions to make changes. In fact, they lay the helpful groundwork of accepting where you and others are, which is the perfect place to make changes from.

Question the fairy tales

As long as we believe in the belligerent fairy tales of the shoulds and should nots, told by the wicked witches and warlocks of discord, we will continue to suffer the tortures of unhappy relationships, both with ourselves and with others.


Now that you've had a short course in toxic words, go through the list of word at the beginning of this link again and consider how each one might be used toxically.

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