Ownership vs Passivity – The Language We Use to Frame Our Lives


The use and effect of language in our lives has become a point of interest and reflection for me over the last year. It started as an interest in how to help humanitarian organizations communicate more effectively and that is still an ongoing study and pursuit of mine.

Over the last few months though, my interest in language has expanded to include its affect on how we see our lives and how we portray our lives and life choices to others. Today I want to talk about the words we use and the messages we send to ourselves and others based on the words we use to describe our choices.

Specifically I want to talk about ownership. As I talk to people about things that happen in their lives there seem to be two basic ways of describing life events or life choices. There seem to be two basic philosophies of life and in turn how events in our lives are processed mentally and communicated to others. The first is passivity. Passivity is the belief that life events happen and we are left few choices but to keep trudging forward on the same course. The Second is ownership. Ownership is the belief that we face a never ending stream of decisions in life and the choices we make for each one determines the course of our life. Ownership means actively engaging and owning each decision we make and choosing not to say or even think “I just don’t have a choice”.

For me it boils down to these two ways of describing the same philosophical paradigm:

Acceptance vs. Active Engagement


Ownership vs. Passivity

If you are a person who talks about things that happen in life in terms of acceptance and the limitations of the hand you are dealt, to me this communicates a belief that you feel that you do not have control over the things that happen in your life and that things happen to you rather than you making conscious decisions about what path you are choosing to take.

If you choose to communicate about the choices you have made and the rationale behind the decisions, this communicates to me a level of ownership in your life, that choices are made after weighing the options. When a conscious well researched choice is made, even if it is a choice that you don’t enjoy you are able to articulate why you made the decision.

While this may seem to be an idle pointless observation, there is a point to all of this. The words we use for self talk and in conversations with others impact our perceptions, the opportunities we see, the choices we make and our ability to make personal, relational connections. If we view life as something that happens to us it removes the incentive to look for other paths, other options. It is easy to allow our internal conversation to gradually work it’s way down to “This is my lot in life and I just need to deal with it.” While that may be true for a time there are always small things on the peripheral that offer choices. Often small peripheral choices are the things that alter our course, they are the risks taken that lead us to a new exciting path. Everything we do in life is a choice, and choices have consequences. If we stop and think about it language even affects or reflects how we view the outcomes of our choices, they can be either consequences or rewards. We make choices based on those potential outcomes perceived or real. If our perception is negative from the start and we are only thinking about the consequences of the choice rather than the possibilities and opportunities there is a good chance those thoughts will affect our judgement and ultimately our choice.

My point not the choices themselves but how we talk to ourselves and others about those choices. The language we use to frame our choices for ourselves as we are making them affects our perception of the outcome. Owning the choice and being able to clearly communicate why each choice was made mentally moves us from a place of weakness and submission to a place of power. We see ourselves and our lot in life differently if we choose to acknowledge and embrace the fact that we have made choices and have the opportunity to make choices. In the end we need to be able to consciously communicate our rationale for the choice to ourselves first and then to those around us.

It might be helpful if we force ourselves to provide a rationale for our decisions to ourselves as if we were reporting to a boss or governing board. If that were the case we would do our research and make sure that we understood our decision making process and had full ownership of it.

The words we use also deeply affect the way others see us and our choices, whether they realize it or not. Often our reactions to the way people communicate are subconscious, but over time the language people use can color our perception of them and the choices they make in life.

Working and communicating from a place of ownership means consciously choosing a vocabulary. Choosing a vocabulary of ownership puts you in a position that demands respect, it creates opportunities and opens our eyes to the possibilities and potential of the world around us. It allows us to see potential opportunity and gain instead of potential failure and disaster. Over time changing our vocabulary to one of ownership, will change how we see ourselves and how we feel about the results of the choices we make.

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