It’s instructive during a therapy session to pay close attention to the words that people use. Words, of course, reveal a lot. Sometimes there are slips (as Freud so famously pointed out) that reveal some of what is unconscious. Other times there are words that exquisitely reveal the pain or pleasure a person feels.
I particularly pay attention to words like “never” and “always.” And I have come to find that “never” is rarely never, but instead reveals something about the quality of the speaker’s experience. For example, a client might indicate that a spouse “never” compliments her. Another client may be “always” making reparations to a hurt partner. And often it turns out that the never and the always don’t exactly match with reality.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy these words are said to be indicators of distorted thoughts. These thoughts, like those not distorted, have an impact on the thinker. If I think that I never get sufficient attention from someone, I am probably inclined to feel a large amount of disappointment and to feel negative about him or her. CBT challenges the person to see these distortions and to check and change them. While it may seem that I don’t get the attention I want from that person, and I do want more, it’s helpful for me to see that there are times when that person does deliver. My attitude and my feelings will thus be different when I think this way.
While I employee aspects of CBT in my work with clients – it is important to recognize the thoughts that we have and how they effect us – I like to go further than just talking about correcting those distortions. When the client is talking about “never,” it’s important that we identify the feelings behind the word. On one level, this word is an indicator of the level of feeling: it seems “as if” the person never gives sufficient attention. This is an indication of what the client’s inner world experiences and feels, and it’s very important that we look closely inside.
When clients tend to use these sorts of words, it usually indicates to me some of their own contribution to the experience. Probably based on a lot of past experiences, some which may not have anything to do with the person in question but have occurred long before, the person is bringing their particular lens to the experience. If I never feel recognized, I am no doubt contributing to that experience and bringing with me into the present significant times in the past when that experience of not being recognized occurred. So in this way, these markers – the “nevers” and “always” – can help point to powerful lens and templates that we must address in psychotherapy.
Of course, listening closely to the language that a client uses is the chief task I have as a psychotherapist. And from these words, I get access into the issues to be worked on. I can say when this happens, it is “always” – ok, almost always – a great privilege and rich experience.