Listen to and read about this episode at theallusionist.org/behave-rerun
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, step in a pile of language and track it right through the house.
Exciting announcement (for me, anyway): I’m leaving the attic in which I currently live and work, and I’ll be at some live events.
3rd April, at the PRX Podcast Garage in Boston, my husband Martin Austwick and I will be talking about what we’ve learned in the decade we’ve been podcasting. So if you’re interested in learning about podcasting, come along. Tickets are free, you can reserve one at podcastgarage.org/events.
14th April, Roman Mars and I are doing a performance of our new joint live show 99% Allusional - yes, put 99% Invisible and the Allusionist together and you get a portmantshow. It’s happening at the Zipper Hall in Los Angeles, as a fundraiser for Arts for LA. The Arts need funds - and this show will be very fun, as well. Roman has even bought a set of quiz show buzzers for the event. Link to tickets: artsforla.org/roman_mars_april14.
Radiotopia is going on tour. The first stops are this May, in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles - but a totally different show to 99% allusional. Come and see us! I’ll be there! Criminal will be there! The Memory Palace will be there! Mortified will be there! For one night only, in LA, the West Wing Weekly will be there, recording an episode live with composer WG Snuffy Walden - yeah, he did the West Wing theme, but also scored the Wonder Years and My So-Called Life. And 99% Invisible will be there, performing a very special piece with Jon Mooallem and music from several members of The Decemberists. You don’t want to miss these shows. Get tickets at radiotopia.fm/live.
Let’s gear up with some word history, sponsored by Blue Apron: the etymology of the word ‘control’. As a noun, it’s been around in English since the 1580s; the verb has been recorded in English since the early 14th century, when it meant to verify, to regulate. It came from medieval Latin, ‘contra-rotulus’, a register: ‘contra’ meant ‘against’, ‘rotulus’ was a roll. Contra-rotulus: against a roll. What? Get ready from some medieval accountancy systems! Bear in mind in the middle ages, official business in England was conducted in Latin and French.
'Contra-rotulus' begat the Anglo-French term ‘contreroller’, to check against a duplicate account; the English court had been using ‘contrerolles’ since around the year 1200, to keep track of financial transactions. The rolls or rotuli were rolled-up lengths of parchment with one column of text down them, and there were three of them: one for the Treasury, which managed the finances; one for the Chancery, which was responsible for written documents; and a third roll, the responsibility of an official on behalf of the monarch. They summarise what was written on the other rolls and jot down key data points. In doing so, they would check the rolls against each other, to ascertain accuracy and honesty. So it was that ‘contreroller’ came to mean not just checking rolls against other rolls, but also to exert authority. Although there is still that sense of comparison in the terms ‘control experiment’ and ‘control group’. You can thank medieval accountants for that.
And you can thank Blue Apron for taking the hassle out of your dinner. They come up with new meals each week, for which they source responsibly raised meat and sustainable seafood, and they partner with local farms and ranches - and they give you just the right amount of these ingredients, to reduce food waste. They’ll deliver a refrigerated box of food to your door, with an easy-to-follow recipe card; so essentially they’ve gone to all the trouble, and all you need to do is a bit of chopping and firing, and you’ve gone and cooked yourself a fresh, balanced meal in less than 40 minutes. Visit their website to salivate over the upcoming recipes, and if you’re in the lower 48 states you can try them out for zero dollars - that tastes good! Get your first three meals for free, plus free shipping, at blueapron.com/allusionist.
This week, two Allusionist episodes coincided in real life. One evening I was walking along the street in London’s Soho - episode 32 - and I bumped into Dr Jane Gregory. She appeared in episode 14, Behave, in which she explained a little about how cognitive behavioural therapy works. Since that episode, I’ve often thought back to what she said, how to work to defuse thought processes that have a negative psychological impact, and about the power of having the vocabulary to describe and thus validate and start to understand one’s emotions. So I decided to rerun that episode today, and at the end, there’ll be a new word of the day, so stick around, OK? 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 and witty blog about cognitive behavioural therapy, which you can read at cognitivebehaveyourself.com. And she explains more about CBT, and the differences between various types of therapy, at thisiscbt.com.
This episode is sponsored by Mailchimp, who supported Radiotopia right from its inception - because Mailchimp is all about helping small businesses grow, connect with customers, do marketing like a human who enjoys communicating with other humans. In fact more than 14m humans are already using Mailchimp to do these. It offers lots of clever tools, not only to make your email look spiffy, but also to target the right recipients about the right things at the right time, find out what what your customers are really interested in, and tailor products to them. Mailchimp: send better email, sell more stuff.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts around, TWO of which belong to Hrishikesh Hirway: Song Exploder and The West Wing Weekly. And it’s a big month for both shows: TWWW rounds off its second season of talking about each episode of the West Wing, in a really smart and funny and informative way. And Song Exploder hits its 100th episode of musicians picking apart their work. I’ve discovered so much music through the show, and it’s given me a completely new perspective on songs I was already familiar with. Well done Hrishi. Have a cookie to celebrate. Everyone have a cookie, and listen to Song Exploder, the West Wing Weekly, and the rest Radiotopians: you can find all of our shows at radiotopia.fm - where you can also buy tickets to our aforementioned live tour in May.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to the largesse of the Knight Foundation, and you delightful listeners.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is:
aglet, noun, a metal or plastic tube fixed tightly round each end of a shoelace.
Try using it in an email today.