The Dangers of Language

“So, how do you feel?”

“I feel like I’m grinding through life, sort of like I’m pushing a heavy boulder uphill.  Every day I’m grinding forward, but it feels relentless.”

“So how does this feeling of ‘grinding’ actually show up in your body?”

Pause.  Interesting question.

I was receiving supervision from one of the most respected therapists within the ACBS and the question threw me for a moment.  I scanned my body as mindfully as I could.

“I notice I feel a bit tired.”  Pause.  “And I notice that I have some tension in my shoulders”.

“OK.  Anything else?”

“Hmmm.  Not really.  The tension is certainly there but it’s not that severe.  It’s actually pretty bearable.”

“OK.  So what would the person you want to be do next?”

Another long pause.

“I guess I would take a few more breaks, but other than that nothing, actually”.

And there we had it. For several weeks my mind had been telling me about the grind; how tough my life was and how relentless.  But on closer examination that story turned out to be based on feeling slightly tired and having slightly sore shoulders.  From where I was now – skillfully led to a different perspective – my life was actually going really well.  I was doing the work I wanted, with people I liked, whilst making my own small dent in the universe.  If this is a grind, then it is the kind of grind I would definitely have chosen.

This is a clue to one of the most powerful lessons within contextual behavioural science; that part of our lives (or ‘context’) is shaped by the words that we use to describe it.

If we get it wrong, language has the capacity to sell us a version of life that is not particularly accurate or helpful and which may leave us feeling shortchanged.  In my case this was certainly true as it was detracting from the joy and privilege I felt when doing my job.

This was a timely reminder that whilst language is incredibly useful and powerful, it should come with a warning.  Checking in on the accuracy of the metaphors we us  in everyday life is really useful (as the brilliant Yvonne Barnes Holmes makes clear in this talk about constructing effective metaphors).

But every now and again it also pays to connect to our actual ‘felt’ experience of life, and separate this from the language we use to describe it.

13 thoughts on “The Dangers of Language

  1. Wouldn’t the counter-argument be that there is a danger of reductionism – ignoring what may be a tentative, seemingly overly languaged, yet still potentially meaningful sense of angst by reducing it to body sensations? I.e., in all the ACT-style unpacking, might the baby sometimes get unpacked with the bathwater? (Sorry for the mixed metaphor). I’m not saying that was the case in this instance – but maybe sometimes it could be? I say this after having read threads on the ACT professional list, as well as elsewhere, in which sitting with something like “pushing a heavy boulder uphill” rather than pushing it away by deconstructing or unpacking it might lead to a different sense of possibilities.

  2. I totally agree with you and thanks for your comment, wholesight! As I was writing I was worried I might come across as a bit down on language. But I wanted to write about that specific example (which was real and recent) and how this was a reminder to me to step outside of language every now and again. And how easy it is not to…

    Thanks for your comment though. I hope everyone reads your comment along with the post, because it’s so spot on.

  3. An excellent post Rob. The elegance of ACT in action. An eye-opening perspective; looking forward to checking it out.

    (Since moving to Australia it has struck me how Aussie lingo (“No worries” being the classic) sells us exactly this, “a version of life that is not particularly accurate or helpful and which may leave us feeling shortchanged”…. there’s also “You’ll be all right” and “She’ll be apples”. Interesting history to this one–means “This will be easy, no problems”).

    1. Hi Catharina,
      thanks, as ever, for your support, comments and observations! I do think you’re onto something there and it’s an interesting idea that nations might have perceived characteristics / narratives that add to psychological inflexibility.
      best wishes to you, Rob

  4. I should add, in the bigger scheme of things Aus is a beautiful and very lucky country; relative to the problems of some other countries it really is all apples 🙂

  5. Hi Frank,

    good question. Yes, that picture was very deliberately chosen. The Sisyphean idea of things seeming endlessly difficult and ultimately futile is something that I felt was being invoked by my mind’s choice of language. The ‘grinding’ idea, the pushing a boulder uphill, the relentless challenge… all of this was playing in to a story that my life was tough and unrelenting. As you say, Sisyphus also never reached his goal. So this metaphor which my mind offered was also offering an unspoken conclusion of my own chances of success. In RFT speak, I was ‘relationally framing’ my experience of work with unrelenting struggle and probable failure. This happened without my really noticing it, (such is the way language works).

    On closer examination, particularly when I examined my situation from different perspectives, I saw something different and much more helpful and I could see how language was adding to and amplifying my stress unhelpfully.

    I hope that makes sense. It resonated for me very much, so I hoped it would for others.

    best wishes,

  6. I recognise this completely! Your talk on the UK conference gave me a biiiig smile, it was like hearing all about myself! Great to have met you there again! We’ll talk soon!

  7. Hi Rob

    I linked to you today from I hope you will visit and enjoy the read. I have been thinking alot recently about the impact that language can have on our lives and I was looking for something to include in my post about the “dangers of language” . Your article was just what I needed to read and it was great to be able to pass the link on to my readers.

    I shall be returning to your site again. Lots of food for thought!



  8. I am so glad Corinne and thanks so much for linking to this post.

    I just visited and love what you’re doing. I agree with you, there is a beauty to ACT that moves people. It is important to celebrate that and your blog nails it.

    thanks again, Rob

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