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How Can Language Trap Us?

Steven Topper LCPC

One of the key differences between us and all other animals is our ability to talk. Scientists have observed other animals using vocal sounds to communicate, yet something sets our talking apart from all the rest. Importantly, we are able to connect all words with all other words. We call this arbitrary relational responding, but that strange term belies a pretty simple game we can play: Not up, but _____. Not left, but ______. The moon is _____ than the Earth. Notice how in each instance, your mind is able to fill in the blank with not much of a problem. How? Well, it’s because one of the key ways our language works is by relating words to others. We can’t understand where someone else is without distinguishing where we are. We know when to look for opposites, for similar, for earlier or later, for there or here relations. All of this information is embedded in our language. As a result, we’re able to do really cool things that no other animals can do. If I tell you that I am older than Staci, and Staci is older than Mike, you already know how my age relates to Mike’s. 

This has helped our species solve so many problems. It’s nearly ubiquitous with our growth on this planet. The relational quality of our language allows us to make maps, to perform math equations, and to build civilizations. And like any tool that has given us so much, it often goes unchecked. These relational qualities to language can go unnoticed when we have a constant stream of language while going about our day. We can easily lose track of what’s important or what is functional because we get caught in those relations. 

I’ll never find a partner who can support me. 

No one can understand what I’m going through

I’m so worthless. No one actually cares about me.

If I can’t get rid of this stress, I must be a weak person. Everyone else can manage this but me.

These thoughts can illustrate a really powerful and very sneaky aspect of language: It can dress up arbitrary relationships (never, understand, worthless, weak are all relating to things that are absent: the future, being understood, worth, and strength) as the real thing. This often results in getting stuck in thoughts that we can’t possibly prove wrong, so that they are constantly being proven right. How do I prove something will never happen? Well, I’d have to wait a very long time! 

What can we do about this? One strategy that is often employed is called cognitive defusion. This is a term that comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and asks us to practice separating ourselves from the content of our constant stream of verbal thinking. Instead of taking those thoughts so literally, we can engage with them differently. One major way to engage differently is through functional analysis. If we look back at those four thoughts above and instead ask ourselves what function they might serve in our lives (or put another way, how could those thoughts actually be designed to help us?), we may see some surprising data points. For that first sentence, this may be functioning to encourage us to get out there and meet new people. In the second, this may be a hope for coherence, for things to really make sense both within and without. The third sentence could be a deep yearning for connection. While the fourth one may be asking us to seek help and support! While those functions aren’t clear to us when we’re focused on what is being said, taking a step back and acknowledging that these language traps are actually attempts to help us can orient us to act in certain ways. Maybe whenever that first thought shows up, I can notice how closed off I’ve been to dating lately and reengage authentically. What if the fourth thought leads me to doing something really brave, reach out to my counselor?

By defusing from the content of our thoughts, we can begin to see how scary and maladaptive thoughts are trying to help us. From there, we have much more freedom to do what works, and we gain the perspective that just because my mind is giving me a thought, doesn’t mean the content of that thought is helpful to me. We all get caught in these language traps because that is how language is designed. It can be enormously helpful to have some support when we’re especially trapped. If you’ve found yourself getting stuck in difficult and painful thoughts, Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our Chicago counselors in-person or via online counseling.

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