“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
~ Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The language that we need to learn and to know, not so much as to explain things (see this post, Explanaholics), but to point and describe it, is to figure out the language of our inner life.
Language matters. If you come to a hawker centre or a coffee shop in my home country Singapore, if you can speak the local dialect or Mandarin and order your food and drinks in that language, you are now an insider. Go to France, and if you can speak the language, you are more likely to be regarded differently, even if you don’t speak French fluently. The key here is that you attempt, get corrected by the locals, and re-calibrate (i.e., a form of immersive learning).
This is so important for therapists, whose job is to help give voice to the invisible. We need to learn the languages and the dialects of the inner life. It’s not a foreign language that we have to learn, but rather, it is a state of alertness in order to embrace what is ultimately a familiar landscape. Our inner life is the most personal and yet also universal.
Here’s the challenge:
We must be ever so careful not to impose our native inner language, dogmas and ideology onto another person. Even if thinking and applying the ideas from this school or that school of thought has saved you from the bellies of hell before, be careful not to impose. Instead, we must embrace immersive learning, attempt, get corrected, and re-calibrate.
(A technical note: Even if you subscribed to an evidence-based approach of therapy, you must remember, these studies indicate its effectiveness on a nomothetic [group] level, that is helpful on average, as compared with a no-treatment or comparative group). On the other hand, on an idiographic [individual] level, there is often a percentage of folks, maybe even 20-50% of people who did not yield benefit from the intervention group of a well-designed randomised control trial (RCT). Further, in a clinical trial, patients are carefully selected to have a mono-problem for which the study was designed to target. Let’s say if the study was aimed to examine the impact of a treatment on depression, patients with depression AND anxiety are often excluded from the RCT… how many of our clients actually have only one specific problem in their lives? Also, do most of us have the liberty to exclude patients who have co-morbidity like in those clinical trials? In sum, even the “best” treatment approach will not work for everyone).
Words matter. We need to continuous catch and weave another person’s inner life, give it voice, and allow it to enter into conversation. And use the metaphorical dimensions that each client bring.
It’s very tempting—and perhaps easier—to school our clients with the language of our treatment approaches.
Our job is to penetrate and expand our ability to language the inner life. Our first step is to train our ears and mouth to the native language of the other person.
One time a university lecturer was sharing about her students reporting that their clients come into therapy with no goals. Upon viewing their recordings, she hears the clients explicitly stating what they want, like improving a relationship, or reducing their depressive symptoms. But the trainee response was, “Yeah, but what is your real goal?” The trainee was scouting for a type of “therapy language” that the client might say something like, “I want to change my dysfunctional thinking style,” or “I want to deal with my critical-self.”
Finger or the Moon?
Going further, Shunryu Suzuki (194-1971) reminds us that
Language is the finger pointing at the moon. It is not the moon.
Schools of therapy has sometimes been compared with religion. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who was involved in early Christian-Buddhist dialogue, said of religions,
[E]ven where there are irreconcilable differences in doctrine and in formulated belief, there may still be great similarities and analogies in the realm of religious experience … cultures and doctrinal differences must remain, but they do not invalidate a very real quality of existential likeness.
Don’t obsess with the finger pointing at the moon. We just might miss the moon.
Related post: Myths About Myth
Photo by Jeremy Perkins, Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, United States.