The importance of language

The college I attended was tiny, smaller than my high school, so I didn't graduate with a BSW; there was a social work concentration but no major. Instead, I majored in sociology, which was a little broader of a topic. Still, even as a sociology major, I gravitated toward the micro: family systems, symbolic interactionism, and subcultures. Symbolic interactionism, especially, felt right to me. For those who didn't major in sociology or who have forgotten their intro to soci college course, a quick definition: the theory refers to how we understand and interact with each other within larger systems. It proposes that human beings have agreed upon meanings to words, gestures, and other symbols over time so that we can communicate with one another. Fairly straight forward: we agree on certain symbols as a culture, as a family, as a romantic couple and this is how we are able to exist together. It can also cause miscommunication at times; we sometimes may disagree with each other about the severity of a swear word, for a simple example. One person's damn is another person's... You get my drift.

This is all to say that I've been considering language more lately as I begin my work as a therapist and add more supervision clients. Namely, I've been considering how important words are in the therapeutic context, whether we're talking directly to clients or talking to colleagues about our cases.

I can admit that I've sometimes used disrespectful language when talking with my peers about patients or families. In private with my colleagues, I've used words to describe patients or their family members like "crazy" or "insane," when really I meant that I felt frustrated; that it was me feeling crazy and out of control because of the interactions I was having with a particular client. Using those kinds of words can feel like a balm sometimes, a way of distancing myself from the issue at hand, which is really that I don't feel confident that I can help the patient or family.

Language is powerful. Even if I would never use those words in front of the person I was thinking of, it's powerful to use them in any context, even just to myself. If I assign the label crazy to someone, I'm dehumanizing them a little. I'm making it easier on myself if I feel like I can't reach them therapeutically; it's not my fault, they are irrevocably broken. I've erased any failure on my part; they're just crazy.

This was actually pointed out to me by a supervisor a few years ago. She noted that when I felt frustrated or defensive about a situation, I immediately started saying things like, "they're just nuts." It was not a pleasant thing to hear about myself, as you can imagine. Since then I've tried to be really conscious of how I think and talk about my patients, as well as what words I use when I'm talking with them. If I find myself going back to those old standbys (crazy, ridiculous, nuts), I start to question myself. What am I struggling with here? The same practice can be used in the supervision relationship. One of the tasks of the supervisor is to listen closely to the phrases that keep coming up and helping the supervisee examine them in context: what does it mean that you describe your patient this way? How do you think of yourself in these interactions?

It bears repeating: words matter. I'm working on choosing mine carefully. 

Photo by  Tim Marshall  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash