Earlier this year, my coach David observed that I tend to default to describing things as “good” or “bad” rather than using more accurate – and less judgmental – words. He scolded me about it, in the way that only someone whose job is to not let you get away with your bullshit can. “Why use value judgements when describing your feelings about something? I try to stay away from those. They’re lazy and unhelpful.”
He was right (of course he was right). Describing something as good or bad is often simpler than thinking about, or explaining, our actual feelings. “Good” and “bad” are such accepted descriptors, despite the fact that they are rarely the most appropriate choice, that we barely notice using them. “Good” and “bad” conceal more complex, honest adjectives, and their overuse neutralizes their actual meaning. Think about all the times you have used the word “good” because it seemed like the politest, most expedient way of expressing, “everything is fine; no further inquiry necessary.” In this way, “good” is like a shield, deflecting more questions. “Bad” can be similarly discouraging of real examination. Is something or someone actually bad, or would it be more accurate to say it was disappointing, upsetting, or tiresome?
David’s larger point about using words like “good” and “bad” to describe things is that they are value judgements, and value judgments aren’t helpful when thinking about your own feelings or behavior (or someone else’s). Value judgments don’t encourage gentleness and patience with ourselves and with others. I had been using “good” and “bad” so generically that at first I balked at this point. But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed. Language matters, and “good” and “bad” subtly signal expectations and judgments that we may not even recognize. Barry Evans, author of The Myth of the Experienced Meditator, wrote about this in relation to meditation:
Meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is.
Without realizing it, I’d been slotting many of my opinions and emotions into the two giant buckets of “good” and “bad.” Since having this tendency pointed out, I’ve tried to be more precise and descriptive when I speak and write. Not just with “good” and “bad,” either, but with any that word that feels like a generic placeholder for a more expressive, more accurate, and more meaningful one. By shifting away from using words that are value judgments, the nuance and the complexity of a feeling can come out. Something can be both annoying and worthwhile, frustrating and fulfilling, or exciting and unsettling. It’s difficult not to default to the words I’m so used to; it requires actual concentration on my part. I am still only successful some of the time. But I’ve noticed that it helps me think about my feelings in a less judgmental way, and to be gentler on myself and with others.
Image: Cass County Courthouse (1937; Library of Congress)