What’s in a Word


I’ve been thinking a lot about language.  This is nothing new.  Having been a writer since the third grade, as evidenced by the four-page position papers handed to my parents when they said ‘no’,  to diary entries worthy of a Pulitzer (Dear Diary, why doesn’t Richard Frankel like me as much as I like him?) to truly, painfully bad poetry in high school, once again centered on my parents incomprehensible rules or Jeff or Rich or Ben or Mitch who inexplicably did not return my affections, and finally, to embarrassing entries for major prizes (Hopwood) or publications (The Writer), it’s no wonder that finding the right word sometimes unfolds for me as a religious quest or at the very least, perfectionistic obsession.  The right word makes the sentence flow as music, with just the right cadence and a lilt and flow of emotion, be it poignant, joyful, or somber.  A simple preposition can make the sentence sing or fall flat. Mark Twain wrote, ‘the difference between the right word and the almostright word is the difference between lightening and lightening bug.’  I rest my case. If you can quote Twain, you win.

When my kids were little and got a scraped knee, we’d have to spray it with a bit of Bactine, which stung, and they’d scream.  My husband got the idea to call the antiseptic ‘cooling cream’.  Genius.  Not only did it no longer sting, but these kids would ask for it between sniffles, ‘I need the cooling cream, daddy.’  And somehow, the exact same medicine went from stinging to soothing.  Go figure.  Tells you something about the power of language, no?

This is why I fell in love with the power of CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  In short, the stories in our heads effect the behaviors we choose. If we change the negative loop into a more positive one, we can change our behaviors to serve us, not limit us.  So, if I tell myself I can’t, I probably won’t.  If I tell myself its possible, I’ve got a better shot.  And if I challenge a fear for evidence that I shouldbe afraid and find none, perhaps I can act in a way I wouldn’t have before.

This theory became clear to me long before I was trained to be a therapist, when I quit smoking with a program called Smokenders.  There were many powerful components to the program but I remember the instructor challenging our sense of ‘a good cigarette’, the ones we liked so much after a meal, or sex, or with coffee, or after not having one for a while.  He explained that the moment we put out a cigarette, we went into nicotine withdrawal.  He stated that withdrawal began as you put out your cigarette.  So, the next ‘good’ cigarette was merely a ‘relief from the pain’ of withdrawal and not an actively ‘good’ anything.  Think of it this way:  you have a headache, you take an aspirin, the headache goes away.  Do you ever say to yourself, ‘Man that was a good aspirin!’  Of course not.  So, for smoking, and really any addiction, once you’re hooked, there is no good drug, only a relief from pain, and that is very different than the story I told myself. When I told myself the new story, the behavior of quitting became easier.

In Cooking Therapy, I always name my recipes.  When you’re in session with me the metaphors are powerful, but as with any activity, the farther away you get, the less ‘glue’ it may have.  That’s why it’s important to remember that instead of a refrigerator roll, we made

‘You are not an Icebox Cake.’  Language, once again, imprints and cements.  And if you’ll let it, can help with health and happiness.

Finally, every time I back out of a parking spot I remember my dad teaching me how to drive.  When it came to backing out of a parking spot he’d say, ‘That’s good, back up enough to clear but don’t take more than you need, there’s less chance for a problem that way’.  I remember that every time I back out.  Now I also try to live by it.

Don’t take more than you need.  Less chance for problems that way.

Thanks, Dad

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