Today's post was written by Malcolm Dayton on his blog Coaching Your Self Healing Now . Malcolm has spent the last 15 years as a clinical couselor and coach, enabling people with chronic illness to maximize their daily living performance.
You may remember the 70’s ad campaign for the Un-Cola: It touted the praises of a soft drink made from “rather larger”, “prettier”, “juicier” UNcola nuts (lemon and lime); superior to those other drinks made with the lowly cola nut.* That drink of course is 7-Up, and those uncola ads kicked off what Time magazine would years later call “The Uncola Wars”.
A similar comparison can be made in our language of healing as it relates to chronic illness. Through the language we choose, we sow either healing or unhealing seeds: The fruit of each are diametrical opposites with regard to the consequences to our health and wellness. One serves us; the other limits us. One can empower us; the other, dis-empowers. One is a reasonable use of language; the other, results in language Alfred Korbzybski (the founder of General Semantics) called “unsane”.
This article briefly addresses one extremely powerful, root source of unsane and unhealing language. It is a pervasive misuse of language common in our culture from early childhood; and it is misapplied by doctors, nurses, parents, and likely even you! In my clinical experience, it is a prominent feature in the talk of virtually every client facing chronic illness with whom I have worked.
It is so outside our conscious awareness and so habituated, we don’t even realize what we are saying when we express it. Yet, like a virus, it creeps into our lives and quietly takes over our perceptions, our experiences, and finally, our identity. We then go about spreading it on to others.
What is this language virus? It is a habituated misuse that occurs as we share symptom experiences – both when talking with others and, significantly, during self-talk. Consider:
Upon awakening one day, you realize you feel different than usual; maybe experiencing a bit of a sore, scratchy throat and a cough. While preparing for the day, you notice a dull, achy feeling throughout: You grab the thermometer, and sure enough, you are experiencing a low grade fever. Additionally, you notice a twinge of nausea. Then, you recall having seen a news article about an increase in swine flu in the region, and you decide to contact your family physician for an appointment.
Remember what you are experiencing includes sore throat, coughing, fever, nausea, and aches. Yet, at the doctor’s office, you are queried (not about what you experience), but about “your” cough, “your” temperature, “your” aches. In short order, you leave with “your” diagnosis to go get “your” prescription. And so, so subtly, you have gone from a person experiencing symptoms to a patient who owns symptoms.
Yeah, so what?
Korbzybski clarified how you and I talk about experiences is an abstraction, and distinct from experience. To experience all the symptoms described above is simply not the same as “having” the flu: Another person may experience sneezing, runny nose, headache, yet they too are said to “have” the flu – two widely distinct experiences, same language (and possessive language at that). Flu then is a limited abstraction of unique experiences – none of which we possess.
Furthermore, Korbzybski cogently noted, if the experience of symptoms is considered the actual territory, then the words we use to describe those experiences make up nothing more than a map of that territory. Succinctly, Korbzybski spelled out “the map is not the territory”!
Confusing the language we use (the map) with the actual experience (the territory) is just the beginning of sowing unhealing. Even more problematic, is what Korbzybski identified as “unsanity”: This occurs when we go beyond simply confusing language with experience, to actually misidentifying-with the map that represents those experiences. It occurs in a 4-step process:
1. A rich felt-experience becomes a boxed-in, black-white (and often judgmental) label about experience, which
2. We mistake for the experience (e.g., symptom experiences become “flu”);
3. We then begin to talk about that label as “mine”(i.e., “my flu”); and
4. Once possessed, we almost automatically misidentify who I am with what we possess (i.e., I am . . . ) – just think about the billions of dollars spent each year on ad campaigns helping you to better identify-with that which you are encouraged to buy!
In short, you no longer experience flu symptoms: You have flu. You own it. It is now yours! Indeed, you are flu-ish.
It is this habituated misuse of self-reflexive language that leads us in the direction of unhealing rather than toward healing. Take pause for a moment and experience the profound difference between experiencing symptoms of cancer as opposed to “my” cancer; or symptoms of chronic pain vs. “my” pain. Do you really want to possess an illness? And once possessed, how does one go about unpossessing it?
Even more crucial, we tend to identify-with that which we possess. Do you really want to identify yourself with an illness? Do you want to “be” cancerous? Once identified-with a disease process, how do you go about unbecoming that process?
It is this slippery slope from experiencing to owning to identifying-with that adds an entirely new level of emotional overwhelm to the experiences of chronic illness; AND, it can even escalate the experience of symptoms because we have such a powerful and negative judgment attached (not only to the disease process) but to who I am! The language we choose in describing experiences is critical to the actual experiences of health and wellness. Unhealing language simply does not serve you well: Indeed, it can hinder and further impair your health.
So, please, begin to pay attention to the language you use when referring to your experiences around the symptoms of illness. Drop the label. Drop the possessive “my” and “mine” attached to the label. Stop the self-reflexive mirroring of self with illness; especially when self-talking within! You do NOT possess an illness: You experience symptoms richly. You are not an illness: You are the unique and wonderful person experiencing!
Begin today to make this simple change. You will be surprised in the days and weeks to come, the remarkable changes that seem to magically occur as you expunge unhealing, unsane language. Leave that for the UnCola wars.
This is just a beginning step regarding how you may implement healing language: For more Self Healing language tools, watch for future articles in this Self-Healing Chronic Illness series.