Why Words Matter
Updated: Jan 5
Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue. – Zeno
Many words have lost their essential meaning in American culture. Everything is “awesome”. Any negative experience can quickly and carelessly be labeled “traumatic”. If someone does or says something you don’t like, they’re “toxic”. In the counseling business, words are incredibly useful and meaningful. I don’t know what counseling would look like without them. About five to seven years ago, I began to notice a subtle shift in how and what my clients were saying. Their speech was becoming increasingly vague and ambiguous. I constantly found myself saying, “what do you mean by that?”. However, they weren’t able to accurately describe what was happening in their lives. They would use words that didn’t seem to “fit” in the broader context of the conversation. I found myself continually asking for clarification or reframing pieces of their dialogue. I began to think that, along with my humble collection of clinical books, I should have a dictionary handy at all times as well. It seemed that everyone had forgotten what words meant. This phenomenon has only intensified with time.
Like free toys in a Happy Meal, too many words have become cheap and useless. An ever-increasing number of people seem to have no idea what many words mean anymore. This, along with other contributing factors, is taking a serious toll on our mental health. People can’t make sense of the world around them. This produces a cyclic pattern of anxiety and/or depression. If the pattern isn’t interrupted, it increases in its severity and frequency. In part, this is a result of word inflation: redefining terms until they’ve lost their original meaning and usefulness. Here are a few victims of word inflation that I hear on a regular basis:
The list goes on and on. I’m sure if I sat down and really started to think about it, I could get to a list of 100 words in no time. That isn’t good.
Narcissus was originally a character in Greek mythological literature. He traveled Greece looking for a wife as beautiful as he thought he was, but was unable to find one. Deeply saddened by this, one day he caught his reflection in a pool of water. Absorbed by his own beauty, he was unable to break his gaze. Then, realizing he would never find a woman as beautiful as he was, he began to cry. As the tears rolled down his cheeks and dripped off of his chin into the pool of water, they disrupted his image and he flew into a violent rage. He spent the rest of his life vacillating between obsession and violence and never left the pool, eventually dying at the water's edge.
Psychologically speaking, narcissism is a severe personality disorder, only affecting about 3-5% of the population. It’s rare. It also primarily affects men. It is characterized by clinically significant levels of grandiosity and there are often criminal behavioral elements. I’m not saying your ex/coworker/boss isn’t a narcissist, but I am saying that it’s highly unlikely. Not everyone who thinks highly of themselves is a full-blown narcissist. Slapping everyone with the narcissist label who refuses to apologize or admit fault is shortsighted and reckless. It devalues the term and demonstrates your ignorance to those who know the difference.
Trauma is a highly fractured and dysregulated emotional response resulting from severe emotional or physical distress. I worked with a client who was taken hostage by terrorists in South America and was held as their prisoner for three years in the jungle. I worked with another woman who was raped by her mother at 14, ran away, and became a drug mule moving drugs from Florida to various other states. I worked with a woman who had an identical twin sister that was murdered in a drug deal gone wrong. My client had to go identify the body. So here she was, essentially staring at her dead self. I’m currently working with a young woman who was adopted from another country at five years old for the expressed purpose of being sexually abused. She was sexually abused by her father until she ran away at 18. What these people endured defies rational explanation.
Not every uncomfortable event in your life is traumatic. Someone yelling at you is uncomfortable, it isn’t traumatic. Almost getting in a car accident is scary, but it’s not traumatic. These experiences (and many others like them) are tough, but they’re not catastrophic. Please don’t misunderstand me, I know many issues in life are difficult and I’m not trying to take away from that, but you cheapen the meaning of the word along with the lived experiences of people who really have had the terrible misfortune of experiencing trauma when you use it in that context.
The various contexts I hear the word violence used in are equally egregious. Violence isn’t hearing or seeing something you don’t agree with. Words aren’t violence. Neither is silence. Violence is an action, and it usually involves leaving a mark. Violence hurts you physically. Something that’s scary to you isn’t violent (even though it might lead to violence).
Phobic comes from the Greek word phobos, which means an irrational fear of something – like arachnophobia – which is a fear of spiders. Like the word violence, phobic has been diluted into a suffix added to the end of anything someone doesn’t like. People who disagree with the gay lifestyle aren’t homophobic; they’re not afraid of gay people. They just don’t agree with their lifestyle. By that logic, are gay people then heterophobic? I don’t like musicals. That doesn’t make me musicalphobic. I also think smoking marijuana has zero upside, that doesn’t make me marijuanaphobic. If I say that 78% of people hospitalized with Covid were overweight or obese, that’s not fatphobic, that’s a fact. You can’t change the structure of reality by trying to redefine words, all it ends up doing is warping your view of reality and narrowing the range of collective human thought.
What Words Do (to You)
Words affect you – and those around you – in profound ways. Their significance cannot be overstated. Let’s look at the negative ways the misuse of words affect you.
One way to think about a lie is to think of it as saying something that you know isn’t true and you say it anyway. Another way to think about lying is to think of it as organized thinking in the wrong direction. A lie is a deceptive map; it leads the follower in the wrong direction. A lie also changes you into something that is in the direction of the deception you spoke. And it doesn’t just change you psychologically, it changes you physiologically too. It rewires the neural networks in your brain in the direction of the lie. You’ll begin to believe the lie you told was true in all sorts of ways that you aren’t aware of. You’re changing yourself neurologically. That’s a very, very bad thing to do. You want to avoid doing that because once you’ve changed the neural networks in your brain, well, that’s that. It’s very hard to come back from that. It can be done, but it’s very difficult.
When you participate in word inflation that’s exactly what you’re doing – you’re reorienting yourself in the direction of your lying. Your lie is particularly insidious because it changes you and everyone affected by it not only at a psychological level, but it also changes you at a neurological level. Like tectonic shift, the changes are gradual and nearly imperceptible in the short term. Only after much time are the changes noticeable.
I think words can be used to take you and others where you want to go. If that’s true, then you hold the power to take people to divine places or hellish places dozens of times every day. Words can also be understood as the essential building blocks of relationships. When you distort them, relationships become exponentially more difficult to establish and maintain. Is it any wonder why this generation is the most technologically connected in human history while at the same time the most isolated and starving for sincere human relationships? Refuse to participate in word inflation. Instead, choose to speak words that are the most accurate representation of the object/experience/person you’re trying to describe.
If you can change the world by changing your words (and you can), let’s all collectively agree to change it for the better by being accurate with the words we choose to speak.
 Reframing is a common therapeutic technique where a counselor will take something a client says that isn’t an accurate reflection of reality and “reframe” it into something that more accurately reflects reality. I continually use this technique with great effect to present different perspectives to clients.
 If you know someone who consistently turns tough situations into catastrophes it’s highly likely that they don’t have enough healthy ways to fulfill their need for uncertainty and are fulfilling this need in maladaptive ways. Put differently, many people find a sense of significance by having a significant problem.
 Here’s a hard argument to defeat for the person in your life who does think smoking mary jane is a-okay: no one sits around and says, “Man, all I do is sit around and do drugs all day and my life is really great! I got a promotion at work because of my drug use, drugs have really helped all my relationships – everything is just going awesome thanks to drugs!” No one ever says that. Ever.
 Proverbs 18:21 says, Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.
 I suppose you could also say a lie infects those around you. The irony of the many similarities between lies and viruses isn’t lost on me.