words


I became aware of Google’s Ngram Viewer a few days ago when Reanna read me the essay “Isn’t the word “feminism” itself gender-biased?” The author used this image:

What? You can do that? Yes, you can, apparently. You can search the frequency of words in all of the books Google has digitized

This is really fun, but be aware that you can sink a lot of time into it. Here are a few randomy ngrams I made. Sorry, but you might have to zoom in to see the text. That’s control-plus for PCs and command-plus for Macs.

I’m reading Whitaker and Malone’s 1951 book The Roots of Psychotherapy, an early attempt at a general theory of therapy. Whitaker was a psychiatrist who started working with families in the very early days of the family therapy field. It’s a good book, though not an easy read.

My favorite of his ideas so far is that of the social therapist. He says that since everyone has troubles, and everyone has some capacity to help others through troubles, everyone is a potential “patient” (therapists still called their clients “patients” back then), everyone is a potential “social therapist,” and every interaction between people has the potential to be therapeutic.

What causes a potential “patient” to become an actual “patient,” and go ask a professional therapist for help is a failure of that person’s social-therapy community to help with their troubles. That, and the “patient’s” overcoming their own fear of change and their fear of the stigma our culture places on getting therapy.

Whitaker also tackles the sticky question, “What is a cured patient?” and concludes, “In short, the patient gets access to other human beings and, incidentally, enters the community as an adequate social therapist, no longer so concerned with himself that he cannot get and give therapy to others in a social setting.” (p. 79)

The co-counseling leadership has decided that co-counselors should start saying “male domination” instead of “sexism.” I think it’s a great idea. Calling the oppression of women by men “sexism” has always confused me. I actually made it into my early twenties before I realized that “sexism” referred only to the mistreatment of women by men, and not to the mistreatment anyone by anyone on the basis of gender. “Male domination” calls it what it is. “Sexism” is a euphemism by contrast.

Perhaps it is also time to call racism what it is. We don’t use “racism” to mean race-based discrimination. Racism is when a White person oppresses a person of color. The other way around is “reverse racism.” It’s confusing and verges on another euphemism. Why don’t we call race-based oppression by Whites what Victor in The Color of Fear calls it: White supremacy. That’s what it is.

Eunoia is the shortest English word containing all five vowels. It comes from the Greek for “well mind” or “beautiful thinking.” It is also a rarely used medical term referring to a state of normal mental health.

Reanna sent this to me because Eunoia is also the title of a set of univocalics by Canadian poet Christian Bök. His book consists of chapters written using words limited to a single vowel: “A”, “E”, “I”, “O” and “U”. Read more about it in the new issue of Front Magazine.

I’m learning a lot about child abuse this term. It is no fun. It’s got me feeling sad–depressed, even–pissed off, and creeped out. Did you know that 1 in 20 American men sexually assaults a child? That’s 15,000,000 men! I’m having trouble with that.

I saw a documentary last night called Playground, about child sex traffic in the US. I’m still feeling heavy about it. One of the points it made: If someone broke into a woman’s room and raped her, a video of the crime would not be called “pornography.” It would be called “footage of a crime” or “evidence of sexual assault” or something like that. Footage of a child being raped shouldn’t be called “pornography,” either. That gives it too much legitimacy, like it’s just one of the more repulsive niches of that booming industry, pornography. How about we call it “footage of a child being raped”?

Normalization is one of the primary techniques of a family therapist. Most family therapists do not put much stock in traditional ideas of “mental illness,” preferring instead to believe that the behaviors that their clients complain about are understandable reactions to tough circumstances. Normalizing is just pointing that out. People come in thinking they (or their kids) are crazy, broken, or bad, and once the therapist understands the situation, they can say something like, “Wow, you two are under a lot of stress! It’s no wonder you’ve been fighting lately. That’s a lot to carry around,” or “Actually, the latest research shows that adolescents need at least nine hours of sleep at night. I don’t think Johnny’s behavior is out of the ordinary…”

Normalization isn’t always verbal, either. It can be expressed by the therapist’s demeanor while hearing about the problem–no shock, no worry, just calm understanding–and in their easy willingness to talk openly and frankly about it. This part isn’t always easy, of course. It takes a lot of self-examination and your own therapeutic work to find your own triggers and ameliorate them.

The idea in normalization is both to educate clients about the situations they find themselves in and to take the pressure to change off of them. Often the stress that they create by ruminating on, arguing about, and trying to fix something that isn’t really the problem has become their main problem. Whether or not it has become their main problem, it isn’t helping.

My favorite new term from my family therapy program is parataxic distortion, coined by the “American Freud” and one of the grandfathers of family therapy, Harry Stack Sullivan.

A parataxic distortion is when a current situation or person reminds you of something from your past, often without you knowing it, such that you behave to some degree as if you are in your past, dealing with that situation or person. Parataxic distortion is an umbrella term for confusions like Freud’s transference (client gets inappropriately emotional about therapist) and countertransference (therapist gets inappropriately emotional about client). It is also very much like to co-counseling’s “restimulation of distress.” Most likely every psychotherapeutic school has its own name for this phenomenon.

The idea is that there is a way in which your memories are categorical, not specific. That is, if your dad hit you when you were a kid, you not only attach fear and anger to your dad in your memory, you also attach it to a range of things, maybe bald men, short men, men in general, authority figures in general, certain kinds of places or rooms, etc.

Mostly, our memories are useful. This ability to generalize, for example, helps us avoid burning ourselves on hot stoves in general instead of having to painfully learn not to touch each hot stove. Neat trick!

But with a parataxic distortion, our unconscious memory keeps us from being able to understand and deal with situations as they are, in the present. It patterns your behavior. It limits your options. Usually without your knowing it, it makes your life more scary, sad, irritating, and ultimately isolated than it needs to be. Most therapeutic modalities have some version of this three-stage recipe for resolving parataxic distortions: 1) Form a trusting relationship with someone who has less distortion in the area you have trouble with. 2) Have a “corrective emotional experience,” where you basically re-experience your distortion-driven emotional pattern while demonstrably safe in this trusting relationship. 3) Have a “cognitive reappraisal,” meaning come to a new understanding of your behavior in light of current reality as it is. Go meta.

Easier said than done, of course, but well worth it!

I don’t really have time to post. I’m busy reading sentences like, “There is ample clinical research methodology available presently, and such interactions can be reliably described, characterized, and codified in a relatively objective manner,” from page 412 of Textbook of Family and Couples Therapy, by Sholevar and Schwoeri.

There are several reasons that that sentence is an unpleasant read, but none of them are unusual in the books and articles I am reading. I think this kind of writing comes from a frustrated desire to have one’s field recognized as “real science.” Many important and useful ideas have been garbled by this desire.

What grabbed my attention here, though, was the use of the word “presently.” I read that and thought, can we really have a word that means both “soon” and “now”? Yes, we can, of course, but it’s a funny thing to do. When I was learning Mandarin by the Learnables method, where you just listen and look at pictures, I was unable to distinguish between the words for “on top of” and “underneath.” I made a big joke out of that. If you’re going to have a homonym in your language, don’t use it for two such closely related but different concepts! It would be like having the same word for up and down.

To a Mandarin speaker, though, the words for “on top of” and “underneath” sound quite different. “Presently” is even worse than a homonym for closely related but very different concepts. It’s the exact same word for them. Silly.

On Friday I had my first Wellness & Spirituality Throughout the Life Cycle class in my couples and family therapy program. We had an open discussion of the meaning of spirituality that got pretty tense. I admit that I was pretty confused about what was making things tense–I was not in the clearest of minds, as I’d just taken comps the day before. It did get me thinking about Ken Wilber’s essay in Integral Spirituality about the four meanings of the word spirituality. In it, he says that there are at least four very common ways that people mean that word, and that if the specific meaning is not made clear it can lead to confusing and confused arguments. Here’s my paraphrase of his four common meanings:

1) Any human intelligence, skill, or ability taken to the highest level. Think Einstein’s intellect, Carl Rogers’ empathizing. In Kosmic Consciousness, Wilber mentions Michael Jordan playing basketball as an example of this meaning of spiritual.

2) Spirituality as its own kind of human intelligence, as in James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Wilber cites Fowler’s stages  as just one example: Humans have a capacity for faith that can progress throughout their lives, from an “undifferentiated faith” at infancy through stages like “mythic-literal faith” and eventually, possibly, to “universalizing faith” as his furthest potential.

3) Spirituality as a state of consciousness, as in meditative states or other meaningful altered states. Also peak experiences.

4) Spirituality as a facet of personality or personality type. People who are very compassionate or loving, for example, might be described as spiritual.

I’m reading a lot of scholarly writing these days. Unfortunately that means that I’m reading a lot of bad writing these days. I have some sympathy with these writers–they are writing about complex topics in a discipline (psychology) which has a long tradition of bad writing. I worked many, many, many hours on my honors thesis and only managed to get it out of the “bad writing” category, not into the “good writing” category, except perhaps here and there. However, there are two very easy things we can all do to make scholarly writing better: Stop using the words “utilize” and “extant.”

“Utilize” means no more or less than “use,” and “use” is a better word because it’s simpler and everyone knows what it means.

“Extant” means no more or less than “existing.” Scholarly writers love to refer to “the extant literature” on a topic. It’s not just bad because most people don’t know what “extant” means, it’s bad because if you do know what it means, you know it’s completely superfluous in the phrase “the extant literature.” That is, unless you are really making the distinction between the literature that exists and the literature that does not exist. And you are not.

It may be that folks who are using these words just can’t help it, in the way that a guitarist who has just learned a bunch of flashy licks can’t help playing them all the time. The thing is, you are a writer. You get to edit. Please edit out these words.