How Our Words Make Us Stuck And What To Do About It

Image courtesy of timo_w2s
Image courtesy of timo_w2s

People often feel stuck.

Stuck with a problem, not able to change the way that they think, feel or act because they are depressed, or their relationship is broken, or they can’t overcome their resistance.

One of the ways we keep ourselves stuck in these problems is the way that we talk to ourselves and each other about them.

Freezing The World With Words

Our language can freeze a difficult, but changeable, process into a solid thing that will resist change. Sometimes just a few words can transform a challenging process into an unchangeable problem.

What is this mysterious process of freezing problems and turning them into stone?

Simple, we talk about processes as if they were things.

This morning I took the dog for a walk along the beach, in the sun and wind, long lines of waves ran up onto the shore.

But what exactly is a wave?

We talk about waves as if they were things: “That’s a big wave” or “Look out for that wave”, but waves are not things.

If you asked me to bring you one of those waves I wouldn’t be able to do it. I can’t put a wave into a bucket to show you, it would stop being a wave and become just a bucket of water.

Waves aren’t things they are processes, they are moving bodies of water that are constantly arising, developing, changing and disappearing. Yet we talk about them as if they were solid things.

Our language lets us ‘freeze’ a process turning it into an object. In this process, sometimes called nominalisation, all the process qualities of something are removed to create a frozen idea of the true process.

This happens so easily that we barely notice it. When we nominalise a process in this way becomes solid, stable and unchanging in our minds.

The Downside Of Nominalisation

Sometimes nominalisation is useful, it’s very convenient for me to talk about seeing waves on a beach without having to describe the exact dynamics and motion of each wave as it approached the shore.

Sometimes nominalisation not so helpful, while it can be economical in speech to talk about our complex emotional predicaments as things, thinking about them as things can keep them stuck.

For example, you may have said or heard other people say things like this:

  • “Our relationship is in trouble”
  • “He has commitment issues”
  • “I am full of anger”

Are relationships, anger and fear things?

Can you put your relationship in a wheelbarrow? Could you bring me a box of commitment or a packet of anger?

No, I though not.

Although we talk about relationships, anger, commitment, etc, as if they were things, they aren’t things at all, they are processes.

Each is a changing, and change-able, flux of thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviours. But, instead of thinking of them as processes we solidify them into things, already formed and much harder to change.

Still not convinced?

Try this thought experiment.

Think the thought: “He went to a party”.

Notice what goes on in your mind’s eye as you think that thought.

Now, think the thought: “He went partying”.

Notice what goes on in your mind’s eye as you think that thought.

For most people, the thought: “He went to a party” conjures up a still image of a party. On the other hand, the thought “He went partying” will conjure up a movie of what is happening at the party.

Although sentences have a very similar meaning, how they are represented in our minds can be quite different. A still image is just that: still, fixed, unchanging. A movie has a beginning, a middle, an ending and the possibilities of different endings.

How Do You Unfreeze The World?

If our problem seems stuck and unmoving, how can we begin to un-stick it, to start a process of movement and get more information?

How can we turn our relationships, commitment, anger, etc back into a fluid, changeable process.

One way is to ask questions:

  • “Our relationship is in trouble: How, and with whom, are you relating in troublesome ways?
  • “He has commitment issues”: Who is he committing to, or not, and how is he doing that?
  • “I am full of anger:” Who are you angry with and how?

The answers to these questions can start to unfreeze our descriptions of what is not working for us. It automatically loosens the stuckness of the situation and gives us more to work on.

Enhancing The Thawing With EFT

If you are using EFT you will know that the more specific you can be about your experience the more likely you are to be able to change it.

If you have ever tried tapping on your relationship difficulties like this: “Even though our relationship is in trouble, …” you will know that it is difficult to make progress. Because the word “relationship” is both frozen and does not describe the situation in much detail.

Using the questioning process to unpack “relationship” we might have a conversation something like this.

“Our relationship is in trouble”

“How and with whom are you relating in troublesome ways?”

“My husband and I often fight” (Notice that “fight” is also a nominalisation, you can’t put one in a wheelbarrow and you can have an “ongoing fight”)

“How exactly are you fighting?”

“He shouts at me with an angry face and harsh voice, I take it for a while and then I scream back at him, storm out, slamming the door in his face … then we sulk”

Now we have a much better idea of how they are relating, the relationship is being expressed as a process and we have much more detail to tap on.

The more specific you can be about your experience the more effective the tapping will be.

Once you start to spot and unpack nominalisations you will find that they give you access to a lot of previously hidden and tappable material. The challenging part of the process is being able to spot the nominalisations when you think or hear them.

In the next article I will describe how labelling ourselves with a nominalisation can make change very difficult and give you a simple way to undo that.

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