Abracadabra is Aramaic/Hebrew—ibra k’dibra—for “I will create as I speak.” If you believe our ancient texts, words created our reality and gave shape to our world. Today, not much has changed. Words are shortcuts for experience: They are captured energy, ideas crystallized into form. Words are the basis of how we relate to one another, the mechanism by which we decipher, describe, and transmit our understanding of the world. Words are also the foundation of our stories—stories we tell about how we are, stories we pass down from generation to generation.

This may seem obvious, but I don’t think it’s something we contemplate nearly enough. We don’t pay all that much attention to the words we use or why. We don’t typically pause before we spill words across the page, or on an Instagram post, or to a friend—or our mothers—on the phone. But words are ideas. If we’re using a word incorrectly, we’re subconsciously programming ourselves to think in a way that isn’t true to ourselves. Especially if we’re women, when so much of our essential language is gendered in a way that devalues the feminine: Women are “hysterical” (from the Greek hysterikos, meaning uterus) and “wicked” (which shares an etymological root with witch), whereas men “testify” (swear on their testes, literally), create “seminal” works (i.e. semen), and are exclusively “virtuous” (the etymology is vir, or man).

One of the primary mechanisms for breaking free from this programming is to bring our awareness to what we’re feeling—and what we’re saying—about who we are in the world. This begins by examining the language we use every day. Some words seem almost the same but have very different emotional meanings. Understanding the difference between them—and how that difference impacts our inner lives—can change how we see ourselves. If we dare to look.

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1. Kind vs. nice

    The etymology of nice is a hot mess. It comes from nescire/nescius (Latin), which means “ignorant,” to not know. In Middle English, nice came to mean “stupid,” or foolish. Quite simply, it is not a nice word. Kind, meanwhile, comes from the same root as kin.

    There is incessant pressure on women, and most markedly, girls, to be nice—and to perform this niceness ritually, even when it belies what they might be feeling underneath. This performance of niceness requires a certain amount of ignorance, it’s true; ignorance of our emotional lives. While aggression is perfectly natural in both boys and girls, boys are allowed to express their aggression and anger verbally and physically. Girls, meanwhile, are conditioned to stuff it inside, where it then comes out in covert ways: gossip, alliance-building, and exclusion. Much of this happens when we’re “nice” to each other’s faces, all while behaving in ways that are deeply unkind.

    Kindness, on the other hand, is not always soft, but it is always careful and honest. Kindness comes from kin: a mechanism for holding someone close in an unbreakable bond, even when you might not always agree. It underlines an ongoing connection, a connection that takes priority over dishonoring the need for healthy conflict. Kindness requires knowing how we feel, and expressing it directly, rather than in distorted and hurtful ways.

    2. Value vs. worth

      There’s a critical difference between these two concepts: Value is inherent, deeply personal, and in many ways immutable, while worth is predicated by outside factors. Value is how we can describe something or someone in relationship to ourselves, including elements that feel priceless. Something might have a lot of value—a letter from a deceased parent, a painting by a child, the support of a friend—and be of little worth to larger society. Meanwhile, something or someone might have a lot of “worth”—a job title, a handbag, a bank account—and have little value at all.

      Sometimes, in fact, it feels like these words are diametrically opposed. In fact, in our upside-down world, the quality of the feminine—including jobs rooted in nurturance and care, like teaching, parenting, and nursing—are often “worth” very little in compensation, while being essential for our survival. As it is, being a child’s primary caregiving parent is “worth” exactly nothing—it doesn’t count toward the GDP.

      What in your life has value but not worth? Are there things you devalue because the outside world fails to recognize them as worthy? And most important: How can we change this, in our own lives and also in the world?

      3. Faith vs. belief

        I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with organized religion. While I was raised unaffiliated—my dad is Jewish; my mom is a self-titled “recovering Catholic”—I have found myself in an interfaith space, gleaning wisdom from many traditions. I’ve needed to get there on my own, through a deeper relationship with myself, rather than subscribing to any single organized system. In his classic The Wisdom of Insecurity, philosopher Alan Watts takes on this possibility: “The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.”

        4. Sexy vs. sexual

          Years ago, I interviewed gender and identity journalist Peggy Orenstein. She told me about a conversation with a young coed who told Orenstein that her boyfriend said that she was “sexy, but not sexual.” This distinction, to my mind, describes the wide gulf between how women experience our bodies and our pleasure, and how we perform it in the world.

          As developmental psychologist and professor Deborah Tollman explains, from a young age, women are taught to be desirable but rarely desiring: We shortcut connecting to our own bodies in order to display them to the world. This often severs us from pleasure and intimacy, something that should first be nurtured in us before it’s shared with others.

          5. Service vs. servitude

            Since stories began, women have been conditioned to subjugate what we want to what other people need. It’s a heavy legacy. When we see a woman who has a dream for herself that she is pursuing aggressively in the world, our instinct is often to slap her down and put her back in her place: It is hard to see women break free from the idea that we shouldn’t put ourselves first.

            Here’s the thing: There is a profound difference between back-burnering yourself so as to use your energy for someone else’s life (servitude) versus finding a way to be of service to the world, without sacrificing yourself. The latter can actually be joyful, deeply felt, profound, perhaps the call to which we’re all supposed to respond, if we really tune in to ourselves.

            These days, women are so primed to overdeliver in all spheres of life, so cattle-prodded by the consistent anxiety that we’re not doing enough and therefore aren’t enough, that we do not have time to pause, rest, and consider these larger questions. It’s time to stop, to put burdens down, so we can learn how to serve rather than subjugate ourselves.


            On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good

            On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good

            On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good

            $14 at Amazon
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            Elise Loehnen

            Elise Loehnen is the author of On Our Best Behavior (available to preorder) and the host of the Pulling the Thread podcast.