‘Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.’ (Angela Carter)
In her challenging and ground-reclaiming polemic, Drop the Disorder, psychotherapist Jo Watson comments that, “The counselling profession (and in that I include psychotherapy) is helping to endorse a medical understanding of emotional distress that is based on ‘What is wrong with you?’ and not ‘What has happened to you?’” I heard a similar-but-different reframing of the issue from Paul Kelly at a Leading & Influencing Trauma-Informed Change workshop today, advocating a shift from “What’s the matter with you?” to “What matters to you?”
The striking feature of both these examples is the profound impact of language on reflecting and reinforcing the ways in which people and situations are construed and responded to. In Jo Watson’s case, the first framing regards an issue as some form of dysfunction in an individual. The alternative looks beyond the individual to explore wider potential influencing factors. As radical social reformer Martin Luther King noticed, what appears at first glance as dysfunctional behaviour is sometimes a normal response to dysfunctional circumstances.
In Paul Kelly’s case, similarly, the first framing locates a problem within an individual. It’s a form of pathologizing, implying that a person’s behaviour is a consequence of some internal defect. The alternative invites an exploration of the person’s underlying values and motivations. Behaviour that appears dysfunctional could be a natural response to healthy, unmet hopes and needs in a dysfunctional environment. Kenneth Gergen offers a stark warning here, pointing to risks of a medical model applied uncritically: ‘a diseasing of the population.’
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
Like what you read? Simply enter your email address below to receive regular blog updates!