The next time someone is obviously upset or sad try asking them “are you ok?” or “do you want to talk?” Frequently in our culture, we say “is there something wrong?” or “what’s wrong?” And, while it may seem like we are asking the same thing no matter what words we use, the words we use and how our sentence is phrased can have a big impact.
Our minds are very receptive to language. We connect our sadness as “wrong” when we say phrases like “what’s wrong?” Being sad isn’t wrong, we just don’t feel happy and while that is not ideal, it is not wrong to feel upset. This is all part of the Relational Frame Theory (RFT), which is the psychological theory of human language. The theory argues that the building block of human language and understanding is “relating.” Therefore by saying to someone that is sad, “what is wrong?” they — and you— are in turn relating being sad with something wrong.
Avoiding the ‘freeze up’
Asking “what’s wrong?” tends to make people freeze up and build a wall, and frequently results in a “nothing” response. The phrase itself stigmatizes our feelings, forcing us to only show our “happy” selves. It makes people internalize that the emotions they are feeling are wrong, and in turn, they ask others “what’s wrong?”. It is a never-ending circle. Instead, we should be saying things like “what happened?” , “What’s going on?” , or “How are you feeling?” in a tone that is compassionate and caring.
While we may think what we say is going in one ear and out the other, it is actually being absorbed in the deepest depths of our brain. Same goes with what we say. By telling ourselves things and saying things to others we are conditioning our brain to think and feel a certain way. We are creating relationships between words and feelings that are not necessarily healthy or true.
There is no doubt this is complicated stuff but there are lessons for us all here. By thinking about how we word things before we say them and de-conditioning ourselves to these common phrases we can change our mindset as well as that of the people we are interacting with. Words are powerful tools if used correctly.