The answer seems straightforward: It all depends on what we mean by our words. It’s up to us. We’re in control. But are we?
I had my doubts recently, when my head felt full of rabbits, ‘word’ rabbits. They could do everything I can do and even more: They drew me into their story and got to my feelings, as I found when reading Watership Down. I was in that warren with those rabbits.
Am I going on again about words and their power over us? After all, we know it’s the author who tells the tale. So who has the power? Yet whether author or reader, to believe we’re in control of the words could make us even more vulnerable to their power. It doesn’t take much for them to seize control, as my examples show.
The way they make us manage ambiguity! It’s known that Frankenstein and his creation, the monster, quickly established themselves as one and the same in the public imagination. So Frankenstein is now the monster, which shows how easy it is for a ‘word creation’ to assume a life of its own in people’s minds. Perhaps feeding the belief that a monster in a name-cage is safer?
The way words make us cope with impermanence: In the 19th century, it was reported that on his deathbed, Balzac called out for Bianchon (the doctor he created in his Human Comedy), a ‘word creation’ come alive in the creator’s mind. Perhaps allaying his fear of death as no other doctor could?
Bianchon, Frankenstein: What’s in a name? Names are just words. True, but words make pictures in our heads, turning stuff into reality, their reality, as only words can. How do they get this power? Maybe when words no longer stand for something, but become something, they start living in our heads, feeding on our fears and desires until they’re more real than we are and more powerful.
They’re hard to catch by ear, because they use our voices so we don’t realise what’s happening. Let’s say I’ve made a mistake and shout ‘Stupid!’ I laugh about it, but even as I’m laughing, ‘Stupid’ has set to work on me. I forget about ‘Stupid’, but keep making the same mistake. ‘Stupid!’ shouts back at me. Why do I keep making the same mistake? Does ‘Stupid’ live in my head?
What other unkind word creatures live there, waiting to get to my feelings, my thinking, my behaviour? They’re quick, these words, vanishing with our breath. But they’re always in on the act, even if it’s loaded against them. When I want them to be quiet, it’s them that say: ‘Stop talking and make yourself useful!’ Or: ‘Actions speak louder than words.’
Can nothing lessen their power? What could do that? ‘Listen to what we say.’ ‘Explore what we mean.’ ‘Understand what we do.’ ‘Change what we’ve become.’ I can hear this as I’m writing. Where do these words come from? Do they live in my head, as well? What do they want?
It’s almost as if they’re inviting me into a therapeutic alliance with them, which makes me wonder: Could it be that it’s only when we enter into a reflective dialogue with our words that they can help our mental wellbeing?
I will have to write more to find out if it’s as absurd as it sounds.
Adams, R. (1972) Watership Down, Rex Collings Ltd., London.
Shelley, M.W. (2006) Frankenstein: or ‘The Modern Prometheus’, H. Colburn & R. Bentley, London.
Balzac, H. de (1984) La Comédie Humaine, Editions Gallimard, Paris.
Therapeutic Alliance: The relationship in which a collaborative, positive affective bond exists between therapist and client (Hovarth & Bedi, 2002).
Rizq, R. (2013) Therapy Today, Vol. 24/Issue 2, ‘The language of healthcare’ (‘the language we use to describe and report what we do can begin to dictate how we work with our clients’).
Williams, C. (6/4/2013) New Scientist, ‘Lost in translation’ (‘What your body language really says about you’).
Leader, D., Corfield, D. (2008) Why do people get ill?, Penguin, London, (‘Words can shape our experience of the body and of medicine, and certain physical symptoms may even be made from words encoded in the body’, p.6; see Chapter 5: Words and Beliefs).
Leader, D. (2013) Strictly Bipolar, Penguin, London (‘As one of my patients put it, The right words were just there, I didn’t have to think any more’, p.21).
Leader, D. (2012) What is Madness?, Penguin, London (‘We learn words through [our caregivers] and if we accept that thinking relies on verbal structures, our thought, at a certain level, derives from them too’, p.95).