Avoiding Self-Sabotage: 5 Words That you Should Definitely Stop Using


Self-sabotage can be spelled in many different ways.

Hand making a "stop" gesture

A couple of years back, ‘vocal fry’ – a self-imposed speech impediment where you lower, soften and staccato your voice to sound like a pack-a-day smoker – was a hot topic, and threw a slew of huskily-spoken American female celebrities (including much of the Kardashian family) under the bus. A study went as far as to say that women who exhibit vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hireable than those who don’t. And coupling this croak with ‘uptalk’ – where sentences are uttered with rising intonation at the end, as if they were questions (also known as the ‘valleygirl lift’, thought to have originated with the movie Clueless) – renders a woman positively air-headed.

Women tend to soften the edges of their arguments with self-diminishing qualifiers – ‘It’s only my opinion, but…; I’m not an expert, nevertheless…; I might be wrong about this, however…’

Yet even the most crisply articulated among us, conversing in the virtual realm, as they commonly do, can see their true desires derailed and they themselves demeaned by way of their written words. Women studying at Oxford University, for example, consistently get 5 to 10 per cent fewer first-class degrees in English. The exams are scored blindly, so in accounting for the disparity, the finger is pointed at how women tend to soften the edges of their arguments with self-diminishing qualifiers (It’s only my opinion, but…; I’m not an expert, nevertheless…; I might be wrong about this, however…). And they do it because, generally speaking, women want to be liked.

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Perceived competency hardly seems a fair trade for perceived likeability, so how about we send those niceties to our sign off with warm regards and best wishes and just try saying what we actually mean. Without the just. And actually. Here are five common crutch words we’re cowering behind and why we should eradicate them from our vocabulary list, STAT.

For a word that, as an adjective, is as mighty as they come (a just claim, just analysis or just deserts sound so darn powerful), in its fluffy little filler form, it does nothing but weaken your assertions. “I’m just concerned that…” quivers in the shadow of, “I’m concerned that…” as does “I would just like to ask…” versus “I would like to ask…” Adding ‘just’ to virtually any sentence suddenly makes you seem hesitant about what you’re vocalising – unsure, shy even – and ‘just’ having a timid, toe-in-the-water try at saying what you really want. I’m a real sucker for the, “I’m just emailing to see that you got my previous email…” Pathetic much? Drop the just. Just do it.

Lena Dunham owned up to her “apology addiction” on LinkedIn last year, where she challenged herself to go cold turkey on the sorrys and see what happened.

Playing Big author Tara Sophia Mohr takes particular issue with this one, explaining that “‘actually’ communicates a sense of surprise that you have something to say. Of course you want to add something. Of course you have questions,” writes the life coach on her site. “There’s nothing surprising about it.” The same goes for saying “actually, I disagree”. Is it really that absurd that you have a counter-argument? And I’ve broken another one of Tara’s rules right there, by posing my statement as a query.

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“Don’t make your sentences sound like questions…’ Tara writes. “Unsurprisingly, speaking a statement like a question diminishes its power. Make statements sound like statements; drop the tone lower at the end.”

Last week, I watched a woman walk out of a toilet cubicle and upon realising that I was waiting to go in, she guiltily whispered a ‘sorry’ as she scuttled away. Sorry for what? Performing a natural body function? There’s a time and a place for a heartfelt apology, and a public bathroom on a Thursday afternoon is not likely to be it (unless you’ve had a little accident, but let’s not go there). Lena Dunham owned up to her “apology addiction” on LinkedIn last year, where she challenged herself to go cold turkey on the sorrys and see what happened. “It turns out when you express what you want (without a canned and insincere apology), everyone benefits.” She’s only sorry she didn’t try it sooner.

People use this one for emphasis – to bring an audience into their confidence – to level with them. But it could, in fact, work against you. Does this mean you’re not always honest? Does everything you say without the addition of this ‘honest’ disclaimer now come across a touch less true? The mark of a trustworthy, authoritative individual is that they are their authentic self across all scenarios and circumstances, so says Helene Lerner, the Emmy-Award winning TV producer and author of the book In Her Power: Reclaiming Your Authentic Self. “Being visible and letting people know the real you can feel awkward…” writes Helene. “But we must not shy away from this uneasiness, because it means we are growing.”

Here’s a word that, when thoughtlessly emitted, is likely to ring as redundant as saying ATM machine and PIN number. Much like ‘honestly’, it’s used to pack a punch – for its ‘wow’ factor – but if you look at what you’re saying (it took all my strength not to put an actually there) this word makes a liar of you. You didn’t literally walk a million miles when you missed the bus, and there’s no possible way that you literally died and are currently mid-sentence. It’s puzzling as to why a word that is meant to express something in its truest and sincerest state is used willy-nilly as an embellisher and exaggerator. A completely unnecessary (not to mention annoying) one, at that. Get real, and get heard.

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Tori Moran

Another one is ‘like’. Also coined from the movie Cluess!
“I’ve left like 10 messages”
Have you though?
Have you left 10 messages? Or just 3!?

helen collier

I love this article – I’m in the business of words and named my company Just Words, loving the irony and juxtaposition of ‘Just’ meaning ‘True’ as well as ‘Just’ meaning ‘Only’. After all, we do only have words with which to communicate, so let us use them well and wisely.


Great article. Last year I refrained from using ‘just’ in any of my emails. It will be interesting to see how I can converse without ‘like’ and ‘actually’!


Thank you! I agree that these words can be a way that we diminish ourselves, though often I find there is an expectation we do so lest we be accused of being ‘opinionated’.


Brilliant. We need more direct hits like this. Thanks for saying it. You got guilty giggles from me.


Sorry but like actually I honestly just literally used all these words for the last time. Thank you.


Most women use softer language and tones because if they don’t, they are perceived as being bossy or rude


“Just Not Sorry” is an app you can use with gmail to highlight any of these words and phrases that we commonly use (it underlines them in red like a spelling error). It helped me change the way I write emails by changing the habitual “Just” and “I think” that plagued my communications with others in business. I highly recommend it!


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