Why your own words really matter in therapy

Some counsellors and therapists pay special attention to the actual words used by their clients. Current fashions focus on behaviour, attitudes and often the effects of our genes rather than the environment we grew up in. Valuable work is being done by researchers using what are now traditional empirical methods. But there are problems with this approach. If we look at the work of the philosopher and medical ethicist, Stephen Toulmin, many of his arguments turn on the far from simple relationship between facts and words. Toulmin argues that one of the problems with current notions of research is the fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between fact and theory. Thus description, content and process are inextricably intertwined with emotion, opinion and feeling; they are not discrete elements of fact, logic and argument.

In Return to Reason (2001), Toulmin argues that the origins of this split are to be found in the wars which tore Europe apart during the Reformation, wars which decimated countries and peoples even more destructively than those of the twentieth century. In his account, the internecine relationship between the Catholic and Protestant religions heavily influenced the ideas of Descartes and the post-Cartesian philosophers; over the centuries this led to an ever-widening dichotomy between mind and body. Thus, in Descartes’ day, it was not just a matter of whether one idea was considered to be better or worse than another, it was also a question of finding a way of removing religion and its concomitant emotions so that the endless bloodshed might finally cease. A word or phrase with the ‘wrong’ emotional inflection could have literally fatal consequences for the writer or speaker. Thus the baby (emotion and feeling inextricably intertwined with bodily fact) had to be thrown out with the bathwater. ‘Desirable’ facts came to be untarnished by unreliable and disturbing emotion of any kind.

Interestingly, there is a similar purging of emotions and feelings in much of the current research programmes relating to mental health. There is a popular wish to ‘prove’ that a host of emotional problems—depression, stress, psychosis, to name but a few—are caused by genes and have no connection with the environment in which we live or our feelings about ourselves and the world. The division is made stark by giving these emotional problems, ‘problems in living’ ‘scientific labels’. Labels in themselves cure nobody.

It is interesting that the vast majority of psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and counsellors of all persuasions focus very little attention in their training courses, research and writings on the role of language—an indispensable component of their practice. Indeed, the last thirty years have directed us away from the importance of attending to our emotions as such and towards an analysis of behaviour as distinct from the nature of the language that produces it. Language, as a vehicle for the display of emotions and often also as an engine of behaviour, is often ignored. 

Toulmin formulates a series of brief precepts which should make researchers of all persuasions pause: 

No formalism can interpret itself;
No system can evaluate itself;

No theory can exemplify itself,

No representation can map itself;

No language can predetermine its own meanings. (Toulmin 2001: 80)

There is a distinct possibility, therefore, that research into isolated properties of behaviour is of rather limited value.

So where does this leave someone looking for a therapist? Psychotherapy can’t be completely measured and offered in measured doses like a drug. It’s about the personal quality of the relationship. You may find it helpful to seek out someone who understands your own personal dilemma expressed in your own words, including, but also looking beyond your behaviours. The words of your therapist can bring relief to your emotional suffering; but also the experience of your own words being carefully and non-judgementally listened to can be immensely helpful.

There are some of us out there who understand the power of words as well as behaviour.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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