Many of us are healers of various types. We want to heal with our words, our hands, our songs, our science. We want to heal and help, and this is so natural to us. Or so it seems.
Sometimes, we have a tendency to want to heal others because we ourselves have been wounded. If those wounds are still tender, then we may not be aware when something is triggering us to shut down, even as we try to help them.
Sometimes, I feel that someone can listen to me and pathologize my experience, especially those who are trying to help.
This is something that I must do as well, so I figured we could explore it here and perhaps find some tools for the future!
What Do You Mean, “Pathologize?”
Pathologizing according to the Merriam Webster dictionary is
To view or characterize as medically or psychologically abnormal.
If I say that I’m thinking about something a lot lately, and you ask me if I’m obsessed with it, that is sort of making me appear sick. It is taking something simple and giving it a loaded label.
The same is true if you tell me you are feeling down, and I ask you if you are depressed or worse yet, if I say something like “Wow it sounds like you’re depressed” or another statement that makes it implicitly easier for you to agree, consciously or unconsciously, than to argue with me. Really, there are better questions to ask than that and better ways of going about trying to help someone.
Why Is Pathologizing Dangerous?
Maybe it’s not dangerous. But I do think it gets in the way of a more pure and simple understanding that comes from compassion and empathy. It bypasses the process of curiosity and zips right into labels; and not just any labels. Charged labels, judgy labels, labels that you then have to talk yourself out of.
And the funny thing is, these labels can also make us feel like better healers. That’s right. If I decide that you’re depressed when you say you’re sad, and by the end of our conversation you sound happier, then I sort of cured your depression! in some messed up unconscious way. If I simply talked to you long enough for your natural mood to pass, then that’s less cool for me and my ego, but it might be the reality.
The Value of Curiosity
I realize that I am probably notorious for this process of pathologizing or else I wouldn’t notice it so sharply when other people do it. I must remember that having a curiosity for the reality of someone else is one of the best things that I can do. It teaches me to slow down and to have that same curiosity for myself, rather than to zip from “wow I’m sad in this moment” to “I must have a raging case of undiagnosed depression and I better make sure I don’t accidentally bring others down with me.”
The charged label is simply piling on layers that then become harder to get rid of, especially for those of us that are already hard on ourselves.
But Isn’t there More Anxiety And Depression?
Psychology Today has an interesting article on this topic. According to the article, depression and anxiety are becoming more commonplace because the normal human experience is being labeled as such more often, not because these states of mind are becoming more common. Furthermore, the author talks about how the labels are not meant to be taken as being solid things. They are meant to be used for the therapists to do their job more effectively, not to label people. The article is quite good, I recommend it!
With easy access to WebMd and other sources for self-diagnosis, it’s no wonder that more of us learn these terms and try to use them on ourselves, and on each other. It sounds better if we say “Sounds like you have an acute episode of a semi-psychosomatic illness brought on by environmental stressors” than if we say “I don’t know how to really relate with your experience at this moment, maybe you could call a therapist or just come over for some tea and we can hang out.” Or however it works with your relationship.
Is this from the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, who just love getting their chemicals on your neurotransmitters, or from people eating more additives in their food and having finicky immune systems? Who knows, but one thing remains clear:
We Can Stand Up For Ourselves
I know that personally, when someone gives me an insult, it can stick if it’s something that I already partially believe. For this reason, if someone labels me in a way that I’ve been labeled against my will in the past, then I may get a little triggered. I may feel the need to defend, or an impulse to believe them. Maybe I AM obsessed, maybe I AM in denial, or whatever.
I haven’t spoken to my therapist in years, and if I do, then I can hear whatever words of wisdom she has and take them in. She’s licensed, she knows me, and it’s her job. The people that may mean well but that throw out these loaded terms simply to try and understand something are most definitely not in the same position as she is to be, as they say, “going there.”
If you hear loaded terms from anyone who is trying to help you and is not a therapist, perhaps there is something that you can say back to them. Or someone you can talk to about the situation to see what they think, such as a real therapist. For now, I’m going to remind myself to use this question:
This is easy, simple, doable. Whatever someone says, whether they are my therapist or a stranger on the bus or a person I just met, I can ask them “Why use that word?” if they use a word that I find to be particularly charged.
I don’t know if that’s what you should do. I don’t want to pretend to have advice that I don’t have. I do know that if I get better at using some Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, then I might end up with more creative solutions to this issue.
I also know that trying to do this will help me at least to be aware of when the feeling of resistance or being triggered arises. If I can notice it, I can ask this question, and perhaps help the people I talk to become aware of when they are doing it, and help myself to do the same.
Do you have any experience with this, has someone ever used powerful words to describe your experience when you feel they are out of line?
Do you have friends that offer unsolicited therapy advice? Is it hard to turn it down or tell them to stop, or do you love when they do it?
Are you aware of the words that are most charged for you? (I’m not asking you to share them, though) Do you think that being aware of them can help you when people start using them unskillfully?
I hope you all have a great week!