May 19, 2023

Soy vs Estoy: how language shapes our perception


In Spanish, there is a distinction between two verbs that, while it may sound trivial at first, is quite profound in reality. The verbs are soy and estoy. "Soy" implies permanence—attributes that cannot be changed, such as your age, birth date, eye color, etc. In contrast, "estoy" suggests a state of impermanence, referring to ephemeral circumstances, such as a racing heart when you see someone you like or being at a particular place.

So, what is all the fuss about? The implications of our word choices when describing ourselves are powerful. In English, it is ubiquitous to use the auxiliary verb "am" after the pronoun "I" to describe both permanent and impermanent states. For example, when it comes to stress, it is pretty common to say, "I am stressed." Or before going on a first date, we often say, "I am really nervous." Or when we cannot make a swift decision, we say, "I am indecisive." It's not just us who describe ourselves this way—people around us do as well. "Keshav, you are indecisive," "You are stressed," etc.

We use "I am" in English to describe who we are and what we feel, even though they denote two distinct states. What's problematic here is that we use "I am" to describe both permanent and impermanent states. Through language, we merge the identity of the emotion with ourselves when we express our emotions using "I am {x}." We don't merely feel the emotion; we become it. So even if what we mean is that we are experiencing stress right now, by saying, "I am nervous," you subconsciously imply that your default state is to be nervous. When we continually repeat and dwell on these phrases as if they were mantras ("I am so incredibly nervous," "I am so stressed"), we begin to conflate our emotions with our identity. We default to being nervous because that's who we are. We default to being stressed because it's what we are.

While it may seem trivial, this process is rather insidious because it all happens subconsciously. Our subconscious mind shapes our perception of ourselves and our world. It holds our beliefs, values, and biases, even if we no longer remember them in our conscious mind. These beliefs shape how we interpret the world and react to things that happen in our lives. For example, when we frame our emotions with "I am," these feelings become ingrained in our subconscious and affect how we perceive ourselves in the world.

In Spanish, it's dramatically incorrect to say "soy nervioso" (I am nervous) because emotions aren't considered a permanent state. Instead, the correct way is "estoy nervioso" (I am [temporarily] nervous) because that roughly translates to "I am feeling nervous right now." See the subtle difference? When you are merely experiencing an emotion, you separate that from your identity—it's not that you are inherently a nervous person; rather, you are just experiencing the emotional state of nervousness at this moment. You create healthy detachment between the emotion you're experiencing and who you are. This is especially critical when you are experiencing inherently intense, challenging, and visceral emotions, like stress, overwhelm, frustration, etc.

It's not that I am anxious all the time, but I am just experiencing anxiety right now because I am about to give a big presentation. This simple reframing is critical to helping us decouple our identities from our emotions and our approach to dealing with such emotional changes. This alteration in perspective changes how you feel in the moment and influences the way this information is implanted in your subconscious mind, which, in turn, affects how you handle these feelings in the future. When you're merely experiencing an emotion, you have the choice to lower its intensity, akin to adjusting the volume knob on a stereo—yes, like the 1990s!

We give ourselves permission to influence and control how we feel. Only through dissociation, not conflation, can we finally liberate ourselves from our own incessant source of self-pity, negative talk, and becoming what we feel.

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