February 4, 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—things that cannot be changed, like your age, when you're born, the color of your eye, etc.—whereas estoy suggests a state of impermanence; things that are ephemeral in nature, 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 implication of our diction when describing ourselves is 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. And when we continually repeat and harp this like a mantra ("I am so fucking 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.

And while all trivial, it's rather diabolical because all this is happening 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 as "I am," they become ingrained into our subconscious and affect how we see 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 just feeling an emotion, you decouple that from your identity—it's not that you are a nervous person; it's just that, at this moment, you are experiencing the emotional state of being nervous. 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. And that changes how you feel in the moment and how this information is implanted into your subconscious mind, which then impacts how you deal with these feelings in the future. When you are just experiencing something, you can choose to lower the intensity of the emotion like the volume knob in a stereo (what is this, 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.

Thanks for reading! For any questions or corrections, please send me an email.
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