The Power of Words

Long before Freud said “words were originally magic,” nearly everyone already knew that words, language, and gestures were emotionally powerful. Perhaps this is why someone eventually made up the famous (and not evidence-based) “Sticks and stones . . .” saying. Using words to deny or disempower other words is an age-old social and emotional strategy. But generally, if you have to use words to disempower other words, you’ve probably already felt the pain.

In Montana, some politicians are especially sensitive to words. We’ve seen efforts to eliminate particular words from the lexicon. Instead of—or in addition to—banning books, banning words is in vogue.  I’d give you a list, but I’d rather not waste my words on the efforts of others to limit my words.

Although efforts at prohibition have nearly always ended badly (no citations needed here), people who crave power still act on the idea that prohibiting others from using certain words or reading certain books or attending certain parties will achieve their ends.  

Words are also powerful in shaping identity. Identity labels are motivating, popular, and often limiting. When I worked as a mental health consultant at a Job Corps, most of the students had absorbed labels like bipolar, learning disabled, clinically depressed, suicidal, and attention-deficit for the better part of a decade. When I told them that we believed they were much more than any label, they would either look at me with confusion or elation. IMHO, when we free young people from limiting labels, we increase their chances of thriving. But letting go of negative labels can be difficult.

Another common label involves victimhood. Some people label others as victims—even though the so-called victims view being labelled as a victim as insulting and limiting. Ironically, other people like to play the victim, taking on the label for particular purposes. What seems especially puzzling about this is that some people who play the victim have plenty of justification for feeling like a victim, while others embrace victimhood, despite appearing more privileged than anything else.

The obvious and immediate example of a wealthy, white man playing victim is the former president, Donald Trump. He seems to see himself as a victim, and regularly complains about it. This is in contrast to many young adults with whom I’ve worked in counseling; they eschewed the victim label. In one way or another, they would tell me to stop feeling sorry for them. These young adults came from poverty, were members of underrepresented and generally oppressed groups, and had experienced suffering that Mr. Trump has likely never imagined.

The Trump phenomenon—we might call it “representational victimhood”—is the traditional enigma wrapped in a mystery. He brags about his accomplishments. He asserts that only he can save the country from its imminent demise. His fans idolize him as a sort of superhero. All the while, he whines and complains—and then hops into a golf cart to ride around golf courses—that he happens to own. That’s a pretty rough scene; it’s easy to see why he claims great oppression and victimhood (n.b., the preceding is complete sarcasm).

Trump’s song and dance was old and worn years ago. Rather than being cryptic, in this moment I hope you can feel my effort to use words to call Mr. Trump’s schtick boring and onerous. That he continues to be over-covered in the media is banal tedium (more words). This week on NPR they noted he was engaging in a media stunt—and then proceeded to thoroughly cover his media stunt, in depth, and repeatedly, all week (and it’s only Wednesday!). Jon Stewart described the Trump and media relationship back in 2015. Trump is like a train wreck in a dumpster fire; the media cannot look away.

Trump is unquestionably a sore loser, a liar, and willing to say anything to retain or regain power. He’s also probably a serial philanderer, sexual predator, Russian comrade, and card-carrying racist and sexist. To top it off, he’s become enchantingly boring. . . so much so that I can barely force myself to write 500 words about him. Although I hope he gets arrested, I’ve also stopped caring much. Mostly, I want him to slip quietly into the night. But since he’s completely unable to embrace his quieter self, I keep rooting for the press to start giving him the attention and number of words he deserves . . . which is none, zero, nada, zip, or nil. 

2 thoughts on “The Power of Words”

    1. Hi Anne,

      If you Google the longer version of the Freud quote, you’ll find a link to a pdf of his Introductory Lectures, and the quote is on page 4 of that book.

      Below is the longer version of the Freud quotation as we placed it in the context of our chapter on constructive therapies (from our Theories text).

      “Constructive approaches to counseling and psychotherapy also have roots in traditional talk therapy. As an example, Steven de Shazer, a co-originator of solution-focused therapy, used a phrase from Sigmund Freud (Words were originally magic) as a title for one of his solution-focused books (de Shazer, 1994). In the 1915 writings from which de Shazer was quoting, Freud wrote,
      Nothing takes place in a psycho-analytic treatment but an exchange of words.… The patient talks.… The doctor listens.… Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him to despair.… Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men. (Freud, 1961, p. 17)
      As Freud noted, the magical power of words began long before psychoanalysis. Ancient healers, storytellers, and religious evangelists knew the power of words. Regardless of your particular religious or spiritual beliefs, it’s difficult to argue over the word and story power included in the I Ching, the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the sayings of Confucius, the Book of Mormon, and other religious documents.
      Early philosophers who contributed to constructive theory and therapy include Immanuel Kant and Hans Vaihinger. Kant’s view was that knowledge of reality can only be approximated. Vaihinger’s believed that there were many individual fictional realities. Both of these claims are at the root of contemporary constructive theory. Constructive thought is in opposition to modernism or objectivism. Both constructivism and social constructionism hold that individuals actively construct reality based on either their own perceptual experiences or jointly held social agreements. Both these perspectives make reality quite flexible. In contrast, objectivism holds that individuals know reality by passively receiving sensory information directly from the environment (aka: the real world).

      [End of excerpt]

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