Minding Our Language


At the start of any new year, most of us look forwards with ideas and plans for the future. 

We may reflect on what is past and decide to let go of what doesn’t work well for us and invest a little more effort in what we think we can and want to change.

Sometimes our resolutions are effective and we can be pleased with what we achieve. Sometimes they’re less so, in which case we may need to move on and try something else.

The one thing most of us don’t do, however, is look back and dwell endlessly on the past. Reflecting and learning from it is good, holding on to a grudge is not. In the end, it’s usually we who suffer, not the person or people with whom we feel furious.

I wonder if that’s why there’s been so much astonishment at the recent publication of a certain royal person’s memoir. The revelations within are extraordinary, of course, and way too much, but the readers’ response has been almost visceral. Commentators are appalled and, for every one person who still supports the once-admired prince, there are dozens more who are not at all happy with what he’s written.

As a lay person, I’m pretty shocked at all he’s offered out there to people who he doesn’t know from Adam and who may not have his best interests at heart.

For example, what about the republicans who don’t like the Royal Family and want to see the institution gone? I wonder how Harry would feel if one day he found he’d played a big part in the downfall of something that he still maintains he admires? The Royal Family has a private and a public part but it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the two and Harry’s book has not helped.

That’s one of the many feelings I have about the situation in a private capacity.

As someone who spent years training – and now practising – as a counsellor/psychotherapist, I’m even more upset. I find it all quite demeaning.

I feel Harry has taken the language used in therapy that can be truly beneficial in a private client-counsellor relationship and incorporated it into a world in which he is at the centre and a laughing stock. I’m not sure how that truly helps mental health.

To be fair (and part of me doesn’t want to be), it’s not just Harry. It seems to be more generational and probably came about when key words were “discovered” by journalists who had limited awareness of their significance.

Unfortunately, what this means is that specific words and phrases, used in therapy between client and counsellor, have been taken out of context and picked up for use in general terms. Words like “denial” and “narcissism” are bandied about with only a vague notion of their clinical meaning.

Another example: a “safe” space, in terms of therapy, means a place where you can reveal your deepest and darkest thoughts and know you are not going to be judged and the counsellor with you should be doing their best to help you in your psychological exploration.

However, that “safe” space definition is not the same as the definition of a “safe” space at a university. That phrase is more than likely to be used by a person or group who is opposing a cause to close down any discussion or argument. How does that benefit anyone? And who says my beliefs are more worthy than yours? Do I have the right to shut you down publicly because of it? No I don’t.

There are other words – narrative, journey, “my” truth – that have been turned inside out to mean the opposite of what was intended. In a therapeutic relationship, “my” truth is used to understand the client’s point of view. It doesn’t mean it is actually true – it’s his or her belief or how they see the situation. That gives the therapist the chance to explore and question that particular belief in a thoughtful way that is trying to understand where the client is coming from.

A good therapist will work in an empathetic way with a client to clarify and question their client’s beliefs. The therapist’s job is not to swallow whole all that the client says or believes – that would make their role pointless. It would be the equivalent of an echo chamber (another alternatively interpreted phrase) which would be likely to reinforce the complications the client is already experiencing.

Clients come to therapy for various reasons but often it’s because they want to talk about a problem they are finding hard to get past. In all cases, the therapist needs to get to know their client, to listen to what they are saying and, when appropriate, reflect back or indeed challenge them. A therapist who is in tune with their client may pick up words and feelings of which the client is unaware. Reflecting it back to them is a way of checking that’s what they really mean and, if necessary, allowing them to reappraise their view, often through taking responsibility for their own actions. A therapist should not be used to reinforce a client’s potentially distorted view of the world.

There is so much more to the therapeutic working relationship between client and therapist that can bring deeply rewarding results. But it takes time and trust.


Recollections may vary – wedding fever for Meghan and Harry


It’s also a private matter and best kept that way. I get the sense that Harry’s using the telling of his story to shut down any criticism of himself and his wife. He’s put those people he insists he loves in positions where it will be hard for them to answer back without more aggression coming their way. Silence, if they can bear to keep quiet, will continue to be the best option.

I can’t help feeling that Harry’s book and his casual use of therapeutic terms is not doing himself, or the therapeutic community as a whole, any favours. Less is more, although it’s probably too late for that now.

What a pity he didn’t use his words more carefully. Words are what separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom and they matter. They really do.


Photo 1: Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Photo 2: Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Photo 3: King’s Church International on Unsplash