Language has both the power to be extremely liberating and also very limiting. Think of how much power words have over our lives. Whether it be external communication or internal dialogue, our thoughts, feelings and sense of self have become so identified by the words we use that we fail to recognize that words are not absolute. Table, chair, sky or water are examples of words that serve a practical purpose. We even have additional words to enhance the description of such things. If I say oak tree, then each and every person who reads this is going to create, or attempt to create some image of an oak tree. Maybe you’ll recall an oak tree that grew outside your house as a child. Or you will imagine the unique shape of an oak tree’s leaf, or the image of an acorn will come to mind. What meaning do the words oak and tree have other than to help us identify and classify a specific type of life form we find on this planet? But what if the International Tree Foundation suddenly announced that an Oak tree is now going to be called a Bock tree? Silly? Maybe, but what difference does it truly make? Why is oak any better a word than bock?
Granted, this is an oversimplification. Word origins can be quite complex, but the principle remains the same regardless.
Why even consider this? Because when we begin to discuss words that are tied to descriptions of ourselves, then the waters can become very muddied. Mother, father, son, and employee are pretty innocuous. How about sad, furious, anxious, stupid, pathetic, loser or asshole? These words have the power to impact the way we feel and perceive ourselves.
An entire field of psychology (Relational Frame Theory) is dedicated to the way language and our relationship to language impacts our ability or inability to be psychologically “flexible.” We become so fused with our thoughts and feelings that we believe we ARE our thoughts and feelings. Remember, thoughts are just words that have an attached or assigned meaning to them, yet we sometimes give so much power to our thoughts that our feelings and overall sense of self is severely impacted by the voice in our head.
ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is the third wave in behavioral therapies. Where CBT attempts to replace or dispute negative thinking, ACT attempts to just notice and create some space for our thoughts. The point is to just “be,” without judgement. Individuals can move beyond this egoic sense of self through acceptance of thoughts and feelings. In addition meaning and purpose can then be identified and pursued as one chooses to move in a valued direction regardless of what those thoughts and feelings say.
Human consciousness is evolving, but this process will not be achieved through thought, words or feelings. It will be achieved by presence and acceptance.