Do you notice how we say things can change our view of them?
For example, just the other day I heard a parent say about his 13-year-old son, “He has anger issues.” What triggered the comment was an unexplained, and frankly rude, outburst when his grandmother inquired about how he was doing.
There’s a big difference between saying, “Joey has anger issues,” and something more to point, such as, “Joey, that was rude.” Or, “Joey sometimes overreacts.” Or, “Joey chooses to take his stress out on others, and that isn’t right or fair.”
There are numerous other examples. They’re so widespread you hardly notice them, unless you’re really paying attention and trying to be objective.
“I have anger management problems.”
Why not say it like it is? “I don’t control my anger well.” Or, “I have irrational outbursts; I should stop that.”
Of course, a long-time favorite of mine is, “I have attention deficit disorder.” There’s an entire psychiatric, educational and pharmaceutical industry devoted to this one. But without getting into whether there’s such a thing as “attention deficit disorder” — not to mention trying to self-diagnose — why not just say, “I sometimes see something shiny, and I get distracted.” Or, “I try to focus on a lot of different things at once, and it usually doesn’t work out too well.”
And then there’s, “Mary’s addicted to drugs/alcohol.” Well, that may or may not be true, depending on (1) exactly how you define “addiction,” and (2) at what point you consider something addiction.
Instead of raising more questions than answers, why not simply state the facts, whatever they are and whatever is appropriate with the people you’re addressing.
“I abused cocaine.” Shameful? Not if you stopped. It’s actually honorable, because it shows that you have such respect for yourself, and for life, that you took yourself off a very destructive and undoubtedly habit-forming substance.
“I used to drink daily. Now I don’t.” Why not just stick to the facts? People can respond however they wish. Or not. If you’re trying to inform them of something, you’ve done your job.
Why all the labeling? What purpose does it serve? I think we know what purpose it serves. So let me rephrase: What rational, life-advancing, enlightening or empowering purpose does it serve?
I understand that words and labels ultimately refer to concepts. Concepts are the distinctively human method of cognition, understanding and ultimately survival. I’m all for cognition. I’m not against labeling on principle; to do so would be anti-intellectual, and anti-conceptual. It would make us stupid.
However, when labels or questionable concepts — or even pseudo-concepts — are utilized to mask, minimize or cover something up … it seems to me as if everyday life has become the interpersonal and psychological equivalent of George Orwell’s 1984, where words come to mean nothing other than what the authorities want them to mean.
The antidote to any or all of this is simple. It’s called objectivity. Put another way: saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
Stop being afraid to say what’s actually going on. If you’re reluctant to share this information, then just don’t say anything. But if you’re going to say something, don’t engage in vague, mind-numbing, stupid-inducing nonobjective verbal puffery that ultimately says nothing.
The advocates of these soft-pedaling / behavior-masking or behavior-excusing labels will defensively reply that it’s wrong to be “mean and judgmental.”
First of all, being honest and accurate is not the same as being mean. Being mean is when you go out of your way to say something hurtful while a more reasonable, sensitive — and more accurate — alternative is readily available.
Nowadays, most of us inaccurately define “mean” as the effect it has on a person, rather than the content of what is said (or its context). “What you said hurt my feelings. Therefore, it was mean.” No consideration is given to any other factor, aside from the subjective impact on the person whose feelings are hurt. When we talk about “political correctness,” that’s really what we’re getting at. It’s not politics so much as something deeper that we’re rightly recoiling against: the swarmy phoniness, psychological inaccuracy and downright unfairness of leaving all the power for declaring something “mean” in the feelings of the self-proclaimed victim.
This, if you ask me, explains much of the current appeal of Donald Trump — which (in my view) is more psychologically based than political or ideological, since he has no particular ideology and very few specific political positions. Trump’s policy proposals (such as they are) represent a combination of right and wrong, popular and unpopular, irrational and rational. But it’s not really about politics. It’s the fact that someone is willing to say what he means, for better or worse, and then stick by it. This should not be such a rare or unusual thing; but in modern America, it has become impossible, not just in politics, but in the daily situations many of us encounter — the corporate world, public or social events, friendships, etc.
Perhaps you have no respect for Donald Trump, or think he’s just plain awful. But if that’s the case, then consider what he’s the product of: A culture where many people are sick of all this phony eggshell-walking and, at least for now, wish to express that they’ve had enough.
Back to kids and daily life, now: Claiming that Joey or Suzanne have “anger issues” is a way to evade the real issue. Why not just say what you know to be a fact, and assign the appropriate label or even judgment (yes, judgment) to the action when the facts warrant it?
Actually, it’s mean to be vague and dishonest. It’s much nicer to be truthful, because it shows respect for the mind of the person to whom you’re conveying it; and if you can’t take the truth, then just don’t bring the subject up at all.
We wonder why college campuses are reporting record numbers of insane accusations about emotional “triggers” (e.g. studying Shakespeare or unpleasant historical events, such as slavery and war, igniting PTSD or other psychopathological reactions in students unable to cope with such indelicacies); and professors getting investigated, sued, denounced or even fired for hurting the feelings of students they had no way of knowing they were hurting. Many of these kids grew up with parents, teachers and others who walked on eggshells around them and now they expect the same when they go away to college. Imagine what the business world (or what’s left of it, given our economy) will look like in another few years …
It’s considered educated, sophisticated and progressively enlightened to dance around children by never, ever, coming across as seeming that you’re criticizing or judging them in any way. Somewhere along the line, never, ever hurting someone’s feelings or even mildly offending them came to be defined as “self-esteem.”
I studied psychology for 10 years, and have continued to work and live in that field, writing three books, a daily blog and thousands of articles, for the last 25 years. I still don’t know who came up with this idea that self-esteem is the absence of hurt feelings. Self-esteem is the confidence to live in reality and to think and reason to ensure survival in that realm. Hurt feelings sometimes go with the territory; but compared to the bigger quest for confidence, knowledge and mastering reality, it’s a small price to pay.
I fully realize that some parents are downright brutal, and unnecessarily so, perhaps in part because others in their lives have improperly danced around and walked on eggshells regarding their own obnoxious, rude, or simply wrong behaviors.
But the existence of some people who are brutal and obnoxious does not provide a rationale for refusing to call behaviors and attitudes what they are, for being mindlessly nonobjective and living in constant fear of hurting someone’s feelings or — worse still — being seen by others as the sort who might hurt others’ feelings.
I blame the psychology and psychotherapy professions, among others, for a lot of this problem. I am always encouraging and telling people, in my work, not to hesitate to be objective, fact-based and honest when dealing with significant others, particularly their own children. Usually they’re relieved to get this “dispensation” from a mental health professional, because they had always assumed it would ruin a child’s psyche and life forever by ever holding that child accountable in any way, particularly when it comes to feelings.
It’s not a choice between being “mean” or being accurate. It’s a choice between being honest and accurate … or frankly, being stupid.
Don’t be stupid. Stop using these ridiculous, eggshell-walking and authority-honoring (whose authority?) labels. First and foremost, always go with what reason, facts and logic honestly and accurately tell you make the most sense.
Stop using all this manufactured “psycho-speak” and replace it with real-speak.
Most of all: Stop being afraid.
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