To hear this episode or read more about it, visit theallusionist.org/behave
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, find out what language is really hiding under its mattress.
Today's show concerns mental health, and there’s nothing particularly strong or graphic in the content, but I just wanted to let you know that the discussion nudges some topics which may not be comfortable for everybody. So if you have concerns, please sit this episode out, and return in two weeks for the next one.
Let’s prepare with a little light word history, sponsored by Animoto.
Right now it is Wimbledon, and even if, like me, you don’t care about tennis, this is exciting because of ETYMOLOGY, even somewhat unclear etymology as can be found for the word ‘tennis’. It turned up around the 14th century, and most likely came from the old french ‘tenir’ meaning ‘to hold’, or more precisely the Anglo-French imperative form of the verb, ‘tenetz’, meaning ‘hold’ or receive or take, which servers used to shout at their opponents. At the time, the game was called ‘la paulme’ because it was played by hitting the ball with the palm of the hand, but it’s understandable that if spectators observed players shouting ‘tenetz’ all the time, they might assume ‘tenetz’ was the name of the activity. But if that's true, surely tennis would be known as <grunt> by now?
It took a while for tennis to become the racquet sport we're familiar with now, which was first demonstrated in 1873 by Maj. Walter C. Wingfield. He named it after the ancient greek for ball skills, sphairistike. Apologies if I’m not pronouncing this correctly, but in my defence, nobody else used to pronounce it correctly either. Not being Ancient Greeks, they’d pronounce it sphairis-tike, or even sticky, so it was soon rebranded lawn tennis. To distinguish this newfangled tennis, devotees of the old handy tennis called it 'real tennis'. They just want everyone to know they liked tennis before it was cool, alright?
That's tennis, brought to you by Animoto, which you can use to make videos really quickly and easily. Select some backing music; drag photos and graphics and video clips into a timeline, add captions if you want, rearrange them to your heart's content, and there you go - a video! Which you can share wherever you want or download for posterity.
I hope you watched my previous Animoto effort, which to go with the last episode about emoji was a compilation of curious antics found in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Despite that description, it is NOT SAFE FOR WORK. It’s at theallusionist.org/emoji. This week, spurred by the episode about brunch, I’ve used Animoto to compile a video of some of your suggestions for the worst portmanteau words, and you can see it at theallusionist.org/portmantNO.
Give it a whirl - Visit Animoto.com/words to sign up for their free, 14-day trial. Then if you want to treat yourself to an annual pro subscription, you can get 15% off by using the promo code WORDS.
On with the show.
HZ: Words hold a lot of power. I don’t mean kitten or buttercup or syllabub should have you cowering, but thanks to your own brain, words have the capacity to become your worst enemy.
JG: It could just be a random word, something attached to something you know, or something that you happened to be thinking at the time you were feeling awful so it became the word that means something bad.
HZ: No words are safe.
JG: No! Because that part of our mind just mashes things together in different ways, and if it mashes two things together at a time when you’re feeling a certain way, that connection sticks, which is where the therapy comes in - unsticking those things.
HZ: That's Dr Jane Gregory, she's a clinical psychologist who specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT.
JG: Traditionally in CBT, the idea was to take those thoughts and challenge them in some way, and if you look at them more rationally you feel differently. But often people get stuck on those thoughts because you can’t stop them popping into your mind. And that part of the brain learns from experience rather than logic or information, so if you’ve had an experience of telling someone your whole life you’re not good enough or you have to do things perfectly to be acceptable, then that’s what will always feel true, or that’s the story you’ll continue telling yourself. And you can’t stop that thought popping into your mind, but you can choose whether or not to respond to it.
HZ: So how do you do that? How do you make the words tormenting your brain behave themselves?
JG: It’s basically stripping it of any meaning at all, reducing it back down to a series of letters or a string of letters that don’t actually have to mean anything. If you have a random thought that doesn’t mean anything to you, eg the sky is orange, you don’t latch onto that and think, “What’s wrong with me, thinking the sky is orange?” or “The sky must be orange, because I had that thought”. But if you had the thought, “I’m a failure,” when that pops into your mind, for some reason you pay attention to that as if that’s true. So the idea of the type of therapy that I do is taking away any meaning those words have.
HZ: What if you needed those words for other things in your life but you’ve stripped them of meaning?
JG: It’s not removing the words entirely from your mind!
HZ: It’s not going cold turkey.
JG: The technique is called cognitive defusion - DEfusion as opposed to DIFFusion. The idea being, if you are emotionally fused with a thought, you will have an emotional response to that thought, you’re taking that thought as true or having some kind of power. So to defuse that thought, you take away the meaning of that particular thought.
The way I do that in sessions is to first of all identify what the thought or word is, then to work out whether it’s heard or seen in their head. And then choosing a technique that fits with the way they experience in their heads.
There may be a trigger word, e.g. ‘hate’, so they can’t read a newspaper because if that word appears in an article, the letters will trigger that feeling.
JG: Yes. And that’s sometimes the point people come to therapy, because it’s getting in the way of living their life.
HZ: Jane uses various different techniques to help patients remove the meanings of words.
JG: I’ve done, for people who see the words in their heads as letters rather than hear the words, they picture the word, then picture rhyming words and stack them on top of each other. Like the Pixar lamp taking the place of the 'i', they get the rhyming words to bounce up and down on top of the trigger words, squash it down till it’s really small, and the rhyming words are normal size and the trigger word is reduced to tiny letters.
HZ: Easy for a word like 'hate' which has lots of rhymes, unlike ‘failure’.
JG: But you can do the same thing by visualising the words and shrinking them to unreadable size - or you can picture yourself next to the word, and with every in breath you grow a bit, and with every out breath the word gets smaller. So you’re growing and the word is shrinking, and seeing yourself next to the word getting stronger as the word gets weaker. Blowing them up like balloons, even just shifting them around in your head can help detach the meaning. Then they just become some words you play around with in your head, rather than something where the meaning has to be responded to.
HZ: As well as making the words silly or manageably puny, you can change their context.
JG: Sometimes it’s just changing how the story plays through your mind. Anything that detaches you a little from the thought. If the thought is “I’m a failure”, it’s “I’m having the thought ‘I’m a failure’”, so it’s adding an extra level between you and the thought. Or reminding yourself that’s a story you tell yourself is true even though it may or may not be true. So it’s anything you can do to detach from the thought and strip it of the meaning, so sometimes it’s reminding yourself that it is just a thought, and sometimes it’s actually taking more proactive methods to strip it of its meaning or give it a different meaning. So it might be singing it in your head, rather than thinking it.
HZ: Because that makes it sound more cheerful? [sings] “I’m a failure!!”
JG: It just makes it sound less real, or just repeating it over again till it loses its meaning.
HZ: That doesn’t reinforce it, does it?
JG: I think it depends on the way you repeat it.
HZ: Writing it all over the walls…
JG: But if you’re saying, [sings in different tones] "I'm a failure, I'm a failure, I’m a failure," it just makes it become a series of words or a series of letters rather than a sentence that means something to you.
HZ: So not like a positive mantra, where you repeat to yourself “I’m amazing”, you repeat the thing that’s destroying you.
JG: Yeah. And often in the same way, those positive mantras aren’t that effective. You can’t make thoughts have meaning. You can’t create the story without experiencing it to be true. So those things make you feel good for a little while, but actually it’s your experiences you learn from, rather than the words.
HZ: Are our brains just not that easily tricked by mantras and stuff?
JG: Our brains are just more attuned to negative. We’re meant to look out for danger, protect ourselves.
JG: A high proportion of the thoughts that go through our minds have negative connotations to them; you don’t have to respond to all of them. It’s our brain’s way of checking everything’s OK. A thought can pop into your mind - "this is wrong, this is a disaster" - and sometimes those thoughts are helpful, they force you to look out for things that are wrong so you can protect yourself. Other times, it’s our minds throwing things out there, just testing them out, and we don’t have to respond to all of them.
You also don’t want to strip words of their meaning completely. If there’s something about the word that makes you uncomfortable, and there’s something uncomfortable about that word, you don’t have to change everything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Eg hearing the word ‘paedophilia’ makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and that’s not a bad thing.
HZ: It’s not a random association.
HZ: Some of Jane’s patients don’t speak much English, so she works with them through an interpreter - and she says this can actually be quite helpful sometimes, as the patient is already at a remove from the words. But what if a patient doesn’t have the vocabulary to convey their emotions, at all?
JG: That’s actually one of the things I’ve noticed is a huge hurdle to therapy: people who’ve grown up in an environment where they weren’t given the vocabulary for their emotions, so they just experience everything as a general distress or upset, so not really being able to distinguish emotions. So for people like that, it’s almost the opposite of stripping the word of its meaning: this is providing the language to describe the feeling. I have some patients where for the first couple of weeks, all we’re focusing on is finding the words to describe the feelings. I have sheets with maybe 100 emotion words on, and they look at them till they find the words to describe their feelings.
I think it’s a huge thing to be given as a child, the vocabulary to describe how you feel. It’s one of the simplest things to validate how you feel. Feelings are like thoughts: you can’t stop them from arising, and so if something’s happening that you don’t have control over, and you also don’t have a word for, and nobody around you is telling you it’s ok, you’re suffering in private. Whereas if you have a word to describe it, at least you know what’s happening, and you’re validating what’s happening. Ideally the people around you will do that too, but that doesn’t always happen, so that then becomes my job as therapist, to tell you it’s OK to feel what you feel.
As well as treating patients, Jane Gregory writes a really interesting occasional blog about CBT, which you can read at cognitivebehaveyourself.com
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virga, plural virgae, meteorology: A mass of streaks of rain appearing to hang under a cloud and evaporating before reaching the ground.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. The music is by Martin Austwick. You can extend the hand of online friendship to me at twitter and facebook slash allusionistshow, and pay the show a visit at theallusionist.org.