How Words Fail Us – Just When They Matter Most
Dr Emma Loveridge
We have all been there – the moment in the restaurant or café when the coffee arrives and ends up being accidentally tipped over us. What happens to our emotional reactions in that moment? For you, there may be a range of responses – from outrage, voluble anger through to mild irritation. For the waiter, there may be extreme mortification, embarrassment through fear to shame. For both of you, there is a fall from adult competency down the emotional ladder to the reactions of a teenager, or a 10-year old, or a toddler, or a baby in arms. This fall happens to all of us, all the time, and it depends on the trigger as to which level we unconsciously descend.
The main thing about this instantaneous backward journey is that we start to lose our words and the range of vocabulary for the range of circumstances and emotions. As it happens, not only do we lose words because we become emotionally younger, but our syntax becomes less sophisticated, and the vocabulary we do use becomes more aggressive and visceral, particularly if the fall is to the emotional level of teenagers. If the descent is to the 10-year old level, the words and their delivery can be super-polite. If the slip is to toddlerhood, words are used to ‘throw the toys out of the pram’, a kind of wordless anger, or, more simply, to leave. If the fall is to baby-in-arms, we become pre-verbal, and the only thing to do when the need is so great and our words so few is to scream – we can no longer control what we say. The words that do come out seem to be only about us.
The reason for this is that when babies are tiny, they are said to be in a ‘paranoid-schizoid’ state of mind – perfectly natural at that stage – where there are only two states of being and everything is polarised. One state of mind is where the baby feels adequately fed and held and they feel loved. The other is the opposite, where the baby is hungry and therefore feels unloved, which is perceived as an attack. At that stage there is no differentiation between the pain of hunger and the pain of real attack, and they feel unsafe. And the transition from one to the other can be very fast. In this state, survival is paramount, and babies can only be open to one thing – their own survival.
When as adults we collapse to this crisis state of mind, we cannot reach out and be concerned for another, and we lose empathy. It doesn’t matter whether it is your client, your spouse or your child who is in crisis. Anyone around them (including their family lawyer) will unconsciously imbibe some of this crisis state of mind because the person in crisis is communicating in the way that young people communicate – by giving you their feelings, not by putting words to their feelings.
When someone in this crisis survivalist mode cannot reach out to another, their words become all about blame because the baby state of mind is that somebody else is attacking them. The other person may or may not be attacking them, but whether they are or are not, it feels like it. So when the person in the paranoid-schizoid state blames the other for their pain, the other needs to put up a defence because they are now under attack. The real or imagined attack from the other has therefore provoked a retaliation. The lawyer or spouse may then put up the defensive wall and become the figure who has let down the person in crisis, and attacked them.
Once the attack system is in place – the cannons are at the castle walls and the arrows are coming from the parapet – you have a battle zone where every word is deemed to come from the arsenal and is intended to hurt. There is no ‘benefit of the doubt’ – any movement, word or sentence will be assumed to be preparation for the war, as opposed to working with an assumption of a benign – if sometimes challenging – dialogue toward peace. The concept of the other party being a helpful other who can empathetically engage with the experience or bring a different perspective or expertise gets lost.
This is an explanation of why small changes of language can have a major impact, because if you can see what has happened to you or your client in crisis, you can find a way to climb back up that ladder of emotional development. You can begin to ask yourself, ‘how old am I emotionally, and how old is the person opposite me emotionally’, not as a pejorative or judgmental question, but in the knowledge that this slip happens to every single human being in crisis or conflict. This is done as a self-observation to help bring your own mind back up to match your adult physical age, experience and competence. Once you can do that, you regain thinking space and move away from survival crisis mode where you are surviving only, with no spare energy or concern for the welfare of another. Empathy can be brought back into play as you regain the adult state of mind and you can begin to reflect and to think. That gives back the capacity to choose our words – unlike a child – we are back to the level of adult choice over the vocabulary that we use.
At that point, you need to have high in your mind the idea that for the other, every word is a potential arrow and therefore you need to choose your words to prove that you come in peace, in effect. Small changes in vocabulary that try and eliminate blame from a conversation, where circumstance is everything, are important. Stating one’s own feelings, choosing vocabulary that doesn’t claim to know what the other feels (because that lands as an arrow, and controlling), choosing words which can’t be so easily heard as judgmental, words which observe one’s own part in the conversation rather than point out another’s, using words with less aggressive stems or connotations and reframing vocabulary from that being used by person in crisis (modelling) to restate less conflictually.
People can also use words to feel bigger than their opponent, more armoured and protected (sometimes called gaslighting). This often involves diminishing or belittling the other to make them feel or look smaller. So for example, a compliment on attractiveness or young age may be a way of detracting from perceived competence. This is a classic in crisis situations and they fuel battle, though they may be unconscious of the impact it has on another in the heat of battle – they don’t hear themselves. The other can be so hurt, belittled or patronised that they get hooked into feeling small and go down the emotional developmental ladders even further themselves, to a state where they may lose their words. They then don’t push back because they have lost the capacity to observe, think and voice the problem and instead, they act by hitting back or shouting back or diminish back as a retaliation or defence. But at this point, any defence feels like an attack to the other.
Having an awareness first of all of which vocabulary belittles and, secondly, lowering one’s own castle wall so that one is not is not in the schizoid wordless state and that one is big enough and competent enough to manage an attack so that one stays in an adult state of mind with all its associated words is crucial. You can use your words carefully, not to unconsciously attack, defend or belittle or be belittled. Have an awareness also that the other might still be trying to climb the ladder and your words can help or hinder them on their way up. Bear in mind that families with real babies, toddlers and teenagers have conflict and crisis around them all the time because that is the nature of babyhood and teenagerhood. It gets inside families when they have children who are of an age when the natural state of mind is conflict.
It is worth saying here that the brain and the mind continue to develop, so that if you have a child who is under 15 they do not yet have a conceptual framework, they are very concrete. The part of the brain is yet to develop where a non-literalist framework can be put to something. The part of human survival to hunt and procreate is the driver of the late teenage years. Empathy is not developed until we are approximately 25, unless we have already had the experience ourselves. This is why so many family trusts do not allow access to money until the beneficiary is 25 – it is an age-old awareness that at that age a capacity to see future consequences comes into the framework of the mind. Thus in a situation with children in a family, there can be an expectation that they think in a more grown up manner than they can – ie, with empathy – not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. Likewise, when we fall down the trajectory, although we have developed the empathy, we lose the capacity to use it and lose conceptual thinking, self-authority, becoming ashamed and fearing weakness alongside.
It is completely normal in crisis and conflict to fall down the emotional development trajectory. If you can be aware of this and watch it happening in you and others, you have much more capacity to know why words fail us and understand which vocabulary we might need to be aware of to enable change.