Over the last six months I have lost count of the times someone has shared a problem with me and I have felt completely and utterly useless. No mind blowing solutions to offer. No brilliant advice. Just an ear to lend.
And while an ear is sometimes all people want or need, I do like to be of actual help (beyond listening) and I like having something to offer by way of a solution.
For this reason, something I read in a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns (I know, I am such a geek) caught my eye the other night. While the book’s title is suggestive of some very short words having clandestine meetings in bars, what it covers is far more interesting.
It shows that the way we use pronouns (words like I, you, he, she, it, they, we etc) can be indicative of (amongst other things) our mental health. The early chapters of the book focus on studies done by the author (Social Psychologist James Pennebaker) where the use of expressive writing helps those who have suffered trauma.
Pennebaker discovered that when people were encouraged to write about their trauma not just once, but several times over the course of days, if there was a certain kind of evolution in the types of pronouns they used in their writing, there was also an evolution in their mental state. A positive trending evolution.
The people who made no improvement to their mental state? They were the ones who used the same words over and over to describe their situation. Pennebaker says:
“There was no change to the stories, no growth, no increase in understanding. Repeating the same story in the same way is not unlike ruminative thinking – a classic sign of depression.”
Now at this point in time I am going to cannibalise Pennebaker’s findings and replace ‘trauma’ with ‘everyday problems’ to make a suggestion. (Apologies to all you psychologists out there – feel free to tell me I have no idea in the comments!)
You know that person who has the same catalogue of woes to share with you every time you catch up with them? The person for whom nothing ever changes? Lord knows I have been that person myself.
Here’s a suggestion from the book (words in square brackets are mine):
“If you catch yourself telling the same story over and over in order to get past your distress [or to deal with a situation or problem], rethink your strategy. Try writing or talking about your trauma [or problem] in a completely different way.”
Here’s how this might work.
Jenny has been smoking for 30 years and has tried to quit several times over the last five years. She often moans to her friends that she badly wants to give up but cites a lack of discipline and the strength of her addiction as reasons why she can’t. It’s time for Jenny to change the words she uses to tell her story.
On Day One she might sit down and pour out all her thoughts (stream-of-consciousness style) about smoking and why she wants to quit and why she is having so much trouble doing so.
On Day Two she could write a letter to the 15 year old version of herself who is about to try smoking for the first time. What would she tell her 15 year old self?
On Day Three she could write about her smoking from the point of view of her children and how they feel it affects her health and their ability to socialise with her.
On Day Four she might return to writing about smoking from her own point of view and she can see if her story has changed from Day One. And if her story has changed, does the new story provide her with a new direction from which to tackle her problem?
Another way this might work is if you are the friend listening to the same story over and over again for no perceptible change in behaviour or state of mind. If you have endless patience this might work for you, but if you don’t, why not challenge the person sharing their story to change things up.
You could ask them to pretend it is their partner describing the problem. What words would their partner use to sum things up?
Or ask them to pretend they are in a job interview where they not only have to tell a prospective employer the problem, but also show they have a solution at hand.
I reckon these two approaches will have them changing the words they use pretty quickly. And you never know, it might just give them the breakthrough they are looking for!