We tend to use language against one another, and occasionally ourselves. Whether phrases are colloquial, or clinical in nature, they are lost to perception once stripped of original context. We pass them on anyway; we can’t seem to help it. And since perception varies as widely as each person’s incredibly unique life story, so then, does the meaning and takeaway.
When I worked in psychiatry, every appointment became an opportunity to screen closely for misperception-based thinking errors, in other words, wounds inflicted by loosely cast phrases. Simple communication errors, and hasty interpretations passed through the wrong filters, well, they can stick. And if we do not take care to make the context for our words overt, then we are setting them loose into a jungle of such abstraction.
We pathologize, without giving tools. Labeling something makes us feel capable, and competent. When our competence is built upon the entrapment of others, however, we are not building competence–we are building dependence, and codependence.
When “Don’t eat your feelings,” becomes “I am a bad person for eating when I am sad,” and then becomes, “I am bad for eating,” which becomes simply, “I am bad,” we have failed.
When “Exercise is at least as effective as medication for depression, if not more effective,” becomes “I am weak because I can’t get it together to exercise,” becomes “And now I am here for medication, I am a total failure,” we have failed.
When “Take better care of yourself, and you won’t burn out,” becomes “It is my fault I am failing, but no one sees how hard my job is,” and then becomes “No one cares, just keep doing the job,” and ends as, “No one cares,” we have failed.
When “Thank God for low maintenance friends,” becomes “…because high maintenance friends are not worthy of my love,” and then becomes, “Don’t reach out. Never reach out,” we have failed.
But given in context, or with an invitation to make a new and more personally powerful context:
“The urge to eat (or not eat) is natural when we are nervous or uncomfortable. It is a short term coping strategy that doesn’t really fix the thing that made us uncomfortable, though. Instead, are there other strategies that help you feel more comfortable, that might work better for the long term feeling?” Or, “It’s ok to eat when you are emotional. Do you have a system in place for tuning in and understanding what your body really wants, instead of what makes it ill, and how to give it that, knowing you are taking good care of yourself during a hard time?”
“Exercise is at least as effective as medication for depression, if not more effective. What about walking during our appointments, to start, and then we can try to figure out what it is that is keeping you from exercising? Maybe you’ll start feeling better along the way and set up a routine that works for you, or maybe you won’t.”
“Take better care of yourself. You are doing really hard work, and because you are pouring the best of yourself out for those around you, you deserve to be treated like a queen. You get to treat yourself like a queen. You matter to this community, and to me, and to those you serve, so much!”
We all catch ourselves, some of the time. We share memes, or launch into divisive monologues. If you are lucky, and catch the impulse to pause, please do. Think it through. Is this about Me, Me?
Is this about a need of mine right now, to feel more *something-y*? Is this useful for status, approval, or other social constructs? Is this an ego entitlement rearing up? Does it feed old, bad social stories? Am I trying to validate my own bullshit schema? Am I trying to sound eloquent, or intelligent, by repeating this phrase or dogma, out of context?
If so, is there another way you can lift yourself? A more useful, or personally powerful way to do that? I propose it’s worth the minute or two of reflection, anyway, to prevent that energy from cutting even one person down unintentionally.