- Language is powerful. Becoming aware of when we misuse it can be helpful.
- Used badly, language may fuel anxiety, depression and pain.
- Used well, language can give us back a sense of control and help us cope.
“I’ve had a terrible day.” These were Petra’s first words to me when we spoke on the phone. Petra is a longstanding friend, so I didn’t rush to commiserate and say how awful that must have been for her. Instead, I said, “What happened?”
“Well,” she said, with a lugubrious sigh. “Michaela hasn’t rung. I was waiting all day and it made me go into one of my states, thinking no one really cares about me.”
Michaela is Petra’s daughter, who lives in Australia. “Isn’t she arriving on Saturday?” I asked.
“Yes. But she said she would ring midweek.”
“It may have slipped her mind. She must be very busy, with that promotion at work and making all the arrangements for coming over here.”
“She does have a lot on.”
“And she clearly cares very much about you, Petra, coming all the way over here, just to spend time with you. Your many friends care for you, too, as you know. So that wasn’t terrible at all, then. What else happened that upset you?”
“Some other woman has taken over from my lovely physiotherapist. She wasn’t very empathetic, not a bit like Joanne.”
“Oh dear, that is bad news for you. Has Joanne got a new job?”
“No, she is on holiday for a week.”
“And you will see her again next week?”
“So, a bit of an annoyance, but not terrible. What did happen today that was terrible?”
“Wordle!” Petra is an enthusiast of the daily word game offered through the New York Times, which gives six chances to guess a five-letter word. “I spent ages on it and just couldn’t get it. I was forced to keep leaving it and coming back to it and finally only just managed it on my sixth try!”
“We’ve talked about this before, Petra! Whether you get it or not, it is definitely not worth getting worked up about – and certainly not terrible.”
“Normally, yes. But it feels it, when everything else has gone so badly!”
“Yet, in actual fact, as we have just been discussing, nothing really went so badly.”
A moment’s pause. “No… I suppose not… I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”
Petra has a tendency to slide between extremes. While she can derive huge joy from lovingly tending a plant or watching an exquisite sunset, she can also easily succumb to misery or even despair over minor or imaginary ills. The negative language she thinks in makes it worse, and she knows it.
The language we use is important – something that all human givens therapists are taught to appreciate and make best use of in our sessions.1 How we perceive and describe, to ourselves and to others, what is happening to us can send our moods plummeting. The language of depression, for instance, includes ‘always’, ‘in every way’ and ‘my fault’. In other words, bad things are going to last forever, affect the entirety of our lives, and we are to blame for whatever difficulty has befallen us, even if it is missing a train because of traffic or losing a job because of mass redundancies.
When people are in chronic pain, using self-talk such as “I can’t cope anymore” or “this is unbearably excruciating” can literally worsen the experience of pain, whereas saying to oneself something like, “When the pain builds up, I know I need to distract myself to calm it down” can give back a sense of control and purpose – and change the experience.
We are probably all guilty at times of catastrophising through our language. Petra wasn’t ‘forced’ to keep leaving and coming back to Wordle, and she managed it on her sixth try, not ‘only just’ managed it. As for myself, when in the car with my husband, if I think he is going too fast (and I don’t mean breaking the speed limit) I may fret that he is ‘hurtling’ along, which merely increases my discomfort, when it would be better to acknowledge that he is a good driver and knows how to manoeuvre safely in traffic.
To recognise the powerful impact of our self-talk, we first have to become aware of it. It gets clients’ attention when they are talking negatively and I suddenly interject, “Please! Mind your language!”
“What?” they say, puzzled. “I wasn’t swearing.”
“No, but you were using bad language….”
Having got their attention in this way, it is possible to break into their negative trance state and enable them to see that they aren’t so much describing how terrible things are – but making them terrible by describing them that way.
1. Also see: The Therapeutic Power of Language, with Dr Gareth Hughes.