It’s a simple, three letter word that most of us use regularly in daily conversation. “I didn’t want to go at first, but I had a nice time.” “He seemed really nice, but I didn’t like the way he dressed.” “We were originally going to go to the movies, but then she changed our plans last minute.”
But is used to introduce a phrase or clause that is contradicting to the previous statement. It can be useful when used properly, and in and of itself it’s not an evil word. But, the way many of us use this seemingly innocuous little word can actually indicate a somewhat self-damaging frame of mind.
But is an excuse. It takes what was said before it and says, “disregarding that, this is what really happened”. Take for instance the first example above.
“I didn’t want to go at, but I had a nice time”. What you’re trying to say is that at first you had doubtful feelings, then you overcame them and enjoyed yourself. Why does but need to be in there? All it is doing is dismissing your earlier feelings of hesitancy, and striking them out of the conversation by replacing them with the contrasting conclusion of the situation. Just because you had a good time doesn’t mean that you need to brush your earlier feelings about the outing under the rug.
What if we were to replace but with and?
“I didn’t want to go at first, and I had a nice time.” It seems a little weird to say, but think about the difference in mindset that it conveys. It is acknowledging your initial feelings without saying that, just because you had a nice time in the end, they were unimportant. Saying that you didn’t want to do something and you did it anyway is owning that you were feeling negatively at first and taking pride in the fact that you overcame those feelings and turned your attitude around. And validates where but dismisses.
“He seemed really nice, and I didn’t like the way he dressed.” Again, it sounds a little off. Consider it though: why would we use but in that sentence? Is it meant to say that because of his outfit, we didn’t actually think he was that nice? It provides so much more of a complete assessment of the situation to address that both facts are true: he came off as a nice guy, and you weren’t impressed by his fashion sense. By saying and you are conveying that you can believe both of those things at once. Just because he was poorly dressed doesn’t mean he wasn’t nice.
“We were originally going to go to the movies, and then she changed our plans last minute.” In this case, removing the but is being more fair to yourself. You had plans, and she changed them on you. There’s no need to insinuate that your original plans were unimportant, or that the fact that you were expecting one thing to happen didn’t factor into your experience. Often, when someone pulls the rug out from under us a little bit, we’re a little more hurt or miffed than we like to let on. Saying but puts the emphasis on the fact that you didn’t go to the movies; saying and is addressing the fact that you had initially had plans to go that were changed by the other party at the eleventh hour.
In the book Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, author Kelly Williams Brown lays out this concept in Step 443. In the chapter discussing family relationships she writes:
The problem with saying something like, “I love you, but…” is that the but sort of invalidates the first part of the sentence, and sets up whatever you are about to say as being in direct opposition with your love for them. […] “I love you and I need you to respect that this is the decision I’ve made” sounds very different from “I love you but I need you to respect that this is the decision I’ve made.” Yet they’re saying the same thing.
It may seem inconsequential when you’re first introduced to the idea, however the more you think about it the more it makes sense. Reframing your thoughts into and statements rewrites them to be more accepting and considerate of both sides of a seemingly contradictory situation. Not coincidentally, this is one of the tenets of Dialectical Behavior Therapy: allowing two or more seemingly opposing or incompatible ideas to exist simultaneously.
It can definitely feel a little unnatural to cut down on your usage of but at first. It’s such a common part of our language, and you might even feel like you’re coming off as a little too bold by not being politely dismissive when it is expected of you. We’ve been conditioned to brush certain things off or to downplay their importance, but the goal here is to stop doing that and start owning the things you feel that society might say you’re supposed to glaze over.
One simple shift that I’ve found helpful when the word and just seems a bit too ostentatious is to use the words however or despite. While the difference may not be obvious at first, both of these options give just slightly more respect to the clause they’re refuting. “I don’t particularly feel like doing that right now, however, I will do it for you” still places some emphasis on the fact that you are going against your will for the other person. “I didn’t enjoy that very much, despite being excited for it earlier” more explicitly acknowledges the contradiction without undermining one part of the sentence and playing up the other.
Even if you don’t start out by switching all your buts with ands, it can still benefit you to do it privately, in your own head. The important thing is to understand the difference and learn to recognize when but just isn’t doing justice to how you feel or what you’re trying to communicate. When it comes down to a situation like the one Williams Brown described, it makes all the difference in the world. It’s important to convey to others exactly what you mean without invalidating any part of it in the process. Just remember to respect your right to place exactly as much importance as you want to on every facet of your thoughts and feelings, not just the parts that you feel like others will find most important.