In my short time counseling individuals, one aspect of the process has become glaringly clear to me; people have little insight into the impact of the language they use. This small, quite small, but very impactful tool that we have available to us can at once break us and mend us. We “talk” everyday; when we order a coffee; make a call to a client; seal that big deal; make a speech or a toast; radio in updates, benchmarks and bark orders.
As a first responder, you have used language to diffuse situations. You have used language to comfort families. You have used language to negotiate terms. You have also used language to report bad news, inform of a death or someone’s rights. We use language like we walk. We use language as a means to an end that get us from point A to point B. Usually, though not always, we use language to achieve a particular result that we want. And, incidentally, this occurs almost absent of our attention. A “slip of the tongue” should be evidence enough of this.
But, while we spend a lot of time projecting our voices out towards the world, we spend much more time narrating to ourselves. As I write this, for example, I can hear myself saying the words in my head. We are talking to ourselves constantly. Incidentally, we are talking to ourselves while talking to others. Remember that last time someone asked you a question and you couldn’t remember what was just said?
Language, then, is clearly important. But, more important is how you use that language. When people arrive for counseling majority of those clients have arrived because they are faced with an immovable barrier. They have tried on their own, but to no avail. They have come seeking answers to questions. Counsellors, work hard to reframe, retrain, re-inform, and rehabilitate these clients. There are a number of new therapies that are arising that focus on the mechanisms of the body (EMDR, is one), but talk therapy is most often what people receive. “Talk therapy”, is therapy using language, or simply the process of giving people new ways to “talk” to themselves!
How often have you found yourself saying things like, “I’m an idiot, I never should have…” If we’re being honest, we all have engaged in something like this. So, let us break apart this very small sentence.
First thing is what are we trying to say? Well, clearly we have fumbled on something. We may feel like “an idiot” but is there evidence to suggest that we are an idiot? What is an idiot? Is the term idiot a placeholder for an emotion that we are experiencing? Likely disappointment, embarrassment, shame, maybe regret or anger?
The argument here is simply that if we spend a considerable amount of time berating ourselves, part of us bears that. This is usually our self-esteem and confidence. When this is depleted, what stores can we take from that will help us take risks and be comfortable making mistakes? If we are paying close attention, there is a hint of a growing anxiety that can take place as well. This is part of the seed that could grow into a larger issue.
Instead, trying to identify what we are experiencing and confront that head on is a much more effective approach. Human behaviour is can largely be separated in two groups: the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. From this point of view, obviously sitting with emotions is asking you to sit with pain. Yet, confronting these is the fastest, most efficient way to overcome them.
Be careful of the language that you use to yourself. This becomes more imperative when we begin to address mental health issues. It is counter productive to degrade ourselves when we need to take a close look at particularly difficult aspects of ourselves. Just reflect on whether you would hurl the same comments at a friend… and mean it.