Words Matter

“She has food issues”.  “It’s his behavior”.  “She doesn’t listen”.  “They were being unsafe”.  As a counselor, evaluator, and instructor these are phrases that I have heard countless times from clients, students, teachers, and colleagues, as they attempt to convey the struggles, challenges, and pain that eventually lead people to seek psychotherapy, supportive counseling, and/or clinical evaluation.  Such phrases can provide some rudimentary information that can help a person understand such struggles; beyond that, the phrases are generally meaningless.

As a Clinician and a former college instructor, I have often reflected on the function of language in helping people understand and make meaning from their experience.  Often, in order to understand some phenomena, it is extremely helpful to “put a word on it”.  Understanding, of course, does not exclusively emanate from our ability to put experience into words; intuitive knowledge that is gained through art, music, and movement such as dance and even sport is both valid and powerful as a means of understanding and expressing our experiences.  Yet for humans, spoken and written language are exceptionally powerful tools and are often the cornerstones of the change process in both counseling and education.

In counseling, oftentimes people enter feeling confused.  They are aware of their suffering, their dissatisfaction, etc. and associate it with events in their lives, current and past, but they don’t have much insight or clarity about them and the ways that such experiences have reflected their unmet needs, shaped their implicit assumptions and beliefs, conditioned their actions, or recapitulated previous unresolved emotional experiences.  I am aware that unless the counselor, the client, or both develop that clarity, little in the person’s life is likely to change substantially.  The renowned psychologist Marsha Linehan understood this quite clearly when she admonished professionals practicing Dialectical Behavior Therapy to strive in their analyses of behavior for “Clarity, Specificity, and Precision”.

By remaining vague, using euphemisms, platitudes, and frothy, esoteric verbiage that implies much but explains little, people do not confront, grapple with, and ultimately understand the sometimes confusing and intricate dimensions of their emotional and psychological world.  Yet in the mental health and educational fields, we see this all the time.

The clarity for which I ask is not easy, even for the most articulate amongst us.  It is that much harder for children and for those who have limited language ability, and it is especially difficult when a person is asked to convey things precisely in a language other than their native one.  Often, people cannot use clear or precise language because they really don’t know what to say or how to say it.  As a counselor, I recognize that gaining insight and having the language to convey the myriad of life’s emotional complexities is a process that often is repeated many times throughout the course of counseling.  We start off in confusion and (strive to) move to clarity and insight.  At times, the absolute precision of expression is too painful for an individual and may actually become psychologically overwhelming at that moment.  What I challenge my clients, students, and colleagues to do is to use the most precise, specific language that is available to them at the moment.  Don’t be linguistically lazy.  Don’t perpetuate avoidance by remaining vague.  Don’t develop, or allow clients to develop “pseudo insight” by monotonously relying on diagnostic and clinical jargon.  In my view, based on clinical experience of over 20 years, if we want to change in positive ways, and alleviate our confusion, suffering, or struggles, we must start by “saying what we mean” and “saying what it is”.

Jonathan Gilmore, M.S., C.A.S.

Clinician – Maple Leaf Clinic