from Mahia

Words are never enough – but does that stop us?


Pain may be said to follow pleasure as its shadow; but the misfortune is that in this particular case, the substance belongs to the shadow, the emptiness to its cause. CHARLES CALEB COLTON, Lacon

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning. HARUKI MURAKAMI, 1Q84

But pain … seems to me an insufficient reason not to embrace life. Being dead is quite painless. Pain, like time, is going to come on regardless. Question is, what glorious moments can you win from life in addition to the pain?  LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD, Barrayer

Language is not just words, but what those words symbolise. We use movements of lips, tongue and throat to produce symbols we relate to other things. We then use the relationships we learn through symbols to frame or structure our experiences – language is a “form of cooperation that builds on the social nature of humans groups and enhances a culture of eusociality in which humans thrive” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016. p. 28). What this means is that humans learn to connect concepts together through language which represents concepts only because of a shared social understanding – and in sharing this understanding we feel connected.

Why am I talking about language? Well, relational frame theory is a theory of human behaviour that helps us understand how language can exert an influence on us through the way we understand symbolic relations.We learn symbolic relationships by interacting with our world – children learn concepts of  “I – you” (that you and I are different, but that I can take your perspective by imagining I was in your place); “here-there” (that here is where I am, but there is another place – and I can move to that place); “now – then” (what is happening now will become then soon) by handling objects, ultimately understanding that the concepts only make sense within the context of “here”, or “I”, or “now”.   To be empathic, we need to learn to take the perspective of another, see and feel things from another person’s point of view, and be willing to experience those feelings (Villatte, Villattee & Hayes, p.32).

To be empathic to another’s pain, we need to take the perspective of another, to be willing to experience “what it might feel like” from the other person’s shoes.

Why are symbolic relations important?

In Christchurch, as many people know, over the past five years we have been through over 10,000 earthquakes of more than 3 on the Richter Scale. The thought of having an earthquake, to someone raised in NZ, is a distinct possibility. We have small ones all the time. Then in September 2010 we had the first big earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night (early morning), when all was dark, and it was violent! Later that day we had many aftershocks, and I can remember my heart pounding and feeling anxious in the aftermath. What has happened since, though, is that I’ve learned to associate the word “earthquake” with a whole lot of concepts – a rumbling noise from a truck driving past, the deep rumble of earthworks, EQC (our national insurer), road cones, detours, heritage buildings being knocked down, having no water or power. I keep a look out for exits, I brace at the rumble of a truck, one of the topics of conversation is “how is your house” and I remember the fatigue of constant aftershocks in the middle of the night.

Learning the associations (symbolic relations) between the experience at the time of an earthquake and all these other things such as words, movements, actions and emotions means that as a person living in Christchurch, the word “earthquake” and the sight of road cones and the rumble of a truck have all gained additional meaning or salience to me.

Simply by remembering a particular day (for us it was September 22, 2011), or by looking at a road cone, or diggers operating in a trench in a road, I have emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses. This is the power of a symbol, once learned.

And once learned, that association will never be unlearned – I will always remember that trucks rumbling by sound a lot like the start of an earthquake, and I will probably always have a quick little bracing response that I may not even notice (but hitch me up to biofeedback and I’ll be skin conductance will be increased).

What does this have to do with pain?

In the same way that I learned about earthquakes being associated with a whole bunch of things that hadn’t been connected before September 2010, from the time we are born we develop associations between our experiences of pain and other things including language.

For the most part we learn that pain is associated with something not so good happening to our body. We learn that it’s something we don’t really want to experience, and so we try to avoid it (mainly). We learn words that are associated with that experience – “ouch!”, “hurt”, “painful”, “ache”. We also develop emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses to this experience. We learn that certain movements bring pain on, while others alleviate it; we learn that some people respond with sympathy to our words or movements while others don’t respond.

The thing about symbolic relations is that “the simplest act of remembering by using names and symbols … means that anytime, anywhere, we can remember past painful or difficult events based on a few cues…the past can become present through symbolic relations” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 33). While nonhuman animals can become fearful in situations that are similar to those they’ve felt threatened in, humans can experience the same emotions and responses even when a word is spoken – like earthquake for me brings on a heightened awareness of how vulnerable I am when the ground shakes.

What this learned association means is that for all humans, there are many cues that will elicit the same response as the actual event. And given the ubiquity of pain and the words we use to describe pain – and the associations we develop since we’ve been children – it’s no wonder that changing some of the more unhelpful associations and responses we have to the experience is a challenge.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about relational frame theory and how this theory can help us understand why words can be used to help – and harm – and how to implement useful verbal strategies in sessions to help our clients see their pain from a different frame.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061

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