Language – Prisoner or Liberator?

“It is inherent in our intellectual activity that we seek to imprison reality in our description of it. Soon, long before we realize it, it is we who become the prisoners of the description. From that point on, our ideas degenerate into a kind of folklore that we pass on to each other, fondly thinking we are still talking of the reality around us.” ~ Aneurin Bevan, British statesman.

John (not his real name) is a childhood friend. We grew up together in a small little town in Malaysia. When he was in his early adults he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. He went through periods of trauma and ?nally stabilized with the help of medication. He has been stable for more than twenty years now. He is physically healthy and mentally ?t. However, every time I see him he will says he wish he can have a normal life with family and children of his own. “Who will want to marry me? I have no hope”. On the hand, I have a neighbor living upstairs and also suffering from Schizophrenia. He will occasionally show physical symptoms like shouting and singing out loud. So I thought, “who will marry him?” Lo and behold, suddenly I notice he got married. He even has a kid!

We give meaning to events that happen in our life and represent it through language. As Bevan says, language can imprison us and stops us from doing things. In NLP, there is a category of linguistic patterns called Generalization that can be particularly limiting or empowering. Statements such as “He is always late?” “This country is not safe?” “She is always nagging?” are some examples of generalization. A person who holds this generalization and responds to the world in this manner can sometimes limit the potential for choices of actions. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to notice successful people saying to themselves “there is no failure, only feedback”. This is a generalization that empowers people to continue to progress. Simply replacing the word failure with feedback allows the person to continue with the process of pursuing goals or outcome. As soon as the process is labelled as failure, it becomes an event with a label of ?nality. The process is implicitly stopped. The word feedback turns the event to process again and therefore there is hope for achievement. Is like magic!

In the context of coaching, language becomes a tool that opens possibilities for the client. In the hands of an expert, it can unveil the cloak of darkness with just a word or a question. Sigmund Freud, musing on the origins of language in his introductory lecture in psychoanalysis in 1915, wrote, “Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power.” Beware of what you say to yourself. Slow down your thoughts and notice the language you use in your head. You may catch the culprit that has imprisoned you for a long time. Change the language and change your life. We all deserve a great life!

Simon Wong, NLP Trainer and Coach