Saturday, March 13, 2021

44. Words Shape Experience

Heart Brain designed by Scott McPherson
I have always been fascinated by the reciprocal relationship between words and beliefs.   Do the words we speak reflect our beliefs and values, or do the words we're given create and sustain beliefs and values?  Do we create language to accurately reflect life experience, or do we have lived experiences based on (and limited by) the language we are using?
This chicken/egg debate has raged on through centuries of debates in Psychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality.  The different approaches of cognitive science investigate how words and language shape culture and society, and we continue to see the impact of that today in how people debate socially sensitive terminology.  One thing for certain remains clear:  The words we use impact our perceptions, our emotional reality, our sexual health, and our interpersonal relationships.  

I have directly experienced how changing language can improve my mental health and emotional functioning.  When I stopped using the word "should" at age nineteen I discovered a wealth of peace, empowerment, and relaxation.  I realized that the majority of my depression and anxiety came from oppressive "shoulds" I had internalized throughout my life that led me to believe I "should" be someone different from who I am.  Once I could challenge and change those "shoulds," I could begin to experience love, acceptance, and start helping others. 

I have now been working in mental health for nearly 25 years, and have observed that there are patterns of language and standard phrases that create and/or exacerbate human suffering, separation, and shame.  But because they maintain traditional norms, they are not regularly held up to scrutiny or challenge.  My therapy practice often involves actively exploring these concepts with individuals and couples to see if they reflect their true values and intentions.  Here are just a few examples:

“Should” -  As I mentioned above, one of the problems with "should" is how positions someone against reality.   I also find “should” problematic in the way it undercuts the speaker’s responsibility and agency.   When you say, “I should go now,” or “We should talk,” what are you really saying?  That you don’t take responsibility for your wants or desires?  That there was an election where someone voted on what you should be thinking or feeling?  Was there a committee? Were meetings held?  Cumulatively this is way of disavowing agency and blaming others for their feelings and identify as a victim.  Alternative:  “I’m going to go now” or “I would like to talk.”  These replacements offer the speaker agency and authority of their preferences and decisions. 

“Cheating”  -- In Rational Relating I made a case against  “The Myth Of Cheating.”  Basically I group the word “cheating” with the words “adultery” and “infidelity” --- all terms that were coined to weaponize sexuality and separate people who love each other.  By framing sex as a pawn in a game where one “cheats,” by attaching shame to sexual decisions, you set up an implicitly adversarial dynamic between two people that usually causes hurt and pain.  Alternative:  Having “Integrity.”  Anytime someone in a relationship acts outside their integrity, i.e, says one thing and does another, they are doing damage to their relationship.  It's not directly about sex or genitals, it's not about someone doing something “to” the other.  It just means that if I consistently act outside integrity in any form then there is no reason for a partner to trust me and feel safe being in a relationship with me. 

Using genitals as insults:  It is so common for people to express disapproval or anger by calling someone a “dick” an “asshole”, or even a “cunt.”  People even sometimes refer to sexual organs as “junk.”  What exactly is being implied with this metaphor?  Why are the human body parts that offer the most pleasure the ones that are most synonymous with insults and slurs?  And what exactly is the message you are giving yourself when you refer to one or more of your own body parts as something wrong?  Alternative:  To use terms that are truly unfavorable for insults.  “You bloody fissure!”  “Stop acting like urethral discharge.”  “What a chancre sore she’s being today.”  I know this sounds a bit silly, but the idea here is to use reverence to describe human genitalia, and reserve insults for the symptoms that truly are uncomfortable or painful. 

Using “fuck” as a punishment
:   I have never understood the logic in saying “fuck” as a term of opposition.  For example, it was quite common in the George Floyd memorials / Black Lives Matters marches for people to yell “Fuck the police!” or “Fuck Trump.”  And I’m like, “OH MY GOD - NO!”  Fucking is something I only do with people I like.  Fucking is a reward from me, not a punishment.  And if one were to take this literally -- if fucking is being used for retribution, that is rape. Does anyone actually want to rape Trump?   It boggles my mind.  Alternative:  Chant, “Reform the Police!” or “Rethink The Police!” or “Hold murderers accountable!”  Or when it comes to Trump, “Impeach Trump,” “Investigate his taxes…” something that would have conveyed an actual consequence. When slogans organize retribution around the word “fuck” then it’s not a stretch to see how non-consensual penetration remains an acceptable form of punishment and how rape culture flourishes. 

“Settling down”:  This is one of the many phrases that implicitly declare you must “settle” or give up who you are in order to commit to another human being.  Our culture has organized a framework of getting married around the idea that you must stop growing, learning, playing, being kinky, dancing on table tops, expanding your sexual experiences, traveling, having adventures, developing who you are.  It’s no wonder then that people fear feeling “trapped” in marriages and may avoid the idea all together.  Alternative: There is nothing factually requiring you to be less of who you are if you decide to partner with another person.  The two of you may communicate and decide to explore together, to have sexual adventures, to try new foods, travel to new places.  You may learn new games, you may go to classes, you may get arrested at protests, you may bungee jump off bridges.  But if you automatically default to the cultural notion of commitment as “settling down” then you are setting the stage for stagnation, frustration, and resentment.

“I need you to ____":  As human beings we need oxygen, food, water, clothing, rest, and shelter.  The rest is gravy.  If we get additional things like love, success, acclaim, gifts, appreciation, great sex, rewarding work, then that's wonderful.  But all too often I hear people making demands of others by saying, "I need you to show me love this way," or "I need my boss to recognize my value" or "I need these people on Twitter to go away."  No, you don't need that.  You may really want that, you may be very glad if you get it, but you don't need it to survive.  When we use terms like "I need..." you directly position yourself or someone else for failure and then believing, "I'm not getting my needs met."  Alternative:  If you're alive and reading this then you're doing doing a great job of getting your true needs met.  You can strive for more, you can keep working toward your goals, but even if you don't get what you want you can survive, you can live, you can try again tomorrow.  

Using absolutes:  "Nothing Everything Never Always (NENA)":  It is rare that any one person is all one thing or another.  It is rare for any person to only do one thing or another.  Yet people often organize their perceptions into all-or-nothing statements, "You never show me love,"  "Nothing I do is appreciated," "Everything is wrong in the world,"  "I always screw up."  The problem with absolutes is that they create a false and rigid dichotomy.  In fifty years I have learned that humans are complex, multifaceted, capable of reacting different ways at various times under different circumstances.  Alternative:  We are not all-or-nothing.  We are capable of showing love in some ways, withholding in other ways.  Some efforts are recognized and appreciated, others are not.  There are some problems in the world, and some very beautiful events unfolding at this minute.  You are capable in some ways, need growth in others. Just like me.  

[To learn the importance and value of communicating appropriate medical language and using correct terminology to reduce stigma and end the HIV epidemic, please check out "Why Language Matters" courtesy of The Wellness Project]

Bottom line:  The words we use directly shape our emotional reality.   This informs my decision to maintain a lived association between getting older and empowerment, growth, wisdom, play.  That is why when I speak about aging I frequently use the terms, “Power, purpose, and pleasure.”  Getting older is an opportunity to reclaim language, reclaim experience, challenge cultural limits, and connect lovingly.  Let's do this! 

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707.

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