Therapists often get caught up in trying to find unique ways of expressing fairly common ideas. On the one hand, this can be a great way to get clients to recognize a simple truth by, for example, visualizing it in a new way. On the other hand, expressing an idea with some catchy, novel phrasing can have unintended consequences, frequently making the idea or its expression off-putting or even comical.
A short while back, I was watching a video feed of a seminar where the speaker, discussing elements of couples and family therapy used the phrase “we-ness.” The first time he said it, I was jarred out of my passive viewing of the seminar. Did he just say what I thought he did? I scanned the image of the PowerPoint slide projected on the wall behind the speaker. There was nothing there that could sound like what I was relatively certain I had heard.
Now, for those of you who don’t immediately recognize the hilarity of the phrase, say it out loud. If that doesn’t work, take a moment to have any eight-year-old read the word, and check his/her reaction. If need be, ask them to follow up with an explanation of what is so funny.
For the non-eight-year-olds (and those completely out of touch with their inner-eight-year-olds) who might be reading this, “Weenis” or “wenis” is one of those ultimate insult-sounding non-insults. It combines “weiner” with “penis” yet doesn’t actually mean anything ‘dirty’ at all. Depending on the source, some claim the word refers to one’s elbow, or the skin of the elbow. At any rate, it’s one of those words you (or your eight-year-old self) could say again and again, even with adults around, as you protested that you didn’t say anything wrong. “All I said was ‘weenis.’ That’s not a dirty word. I don’t know why he’s so mad that I called him an elbow.”
The seminar speaker used the phrase “we-ness” again, but clarified by contrasting it with “me-ness,” which I suppose could be confused with “meanness” to those of us using actual words. The we-ness/me-ness (weenis/meanness?) divide essentially means that members of couples or families have to recognize their connection to one another, and make decisions that are mutually beneficial, not get caught up in their own individual and frequently selfish needs. A quick “Google” search led to the knowledge that “we-ness” is really a ‘thing’ (pun intended?) in certain therapy circles. Or perhaps it’s some sort of maturity test for couples. If a therapist uses the phrase and gets no giggling reactions, the members of the couple are mature—or perhaps not paying attention. If the couple has a sudden, jarred reaction, they weren’t paying attention, but now they are, if for no other reason than to wonder what the hell the therapist just said.
But the phrase immediately got me to thinking of other botched ways people could present concepts. The following night, I was discussing with a client how she was closing herself off from each possibility of how to resolve a particular issue by saying, “yeah, but…” or “I could do that, but…” For each route she could run, she was predicting a negative outcome, so refusing to even try. There are plenty of clinical and non-clinical ways to explain this kind of thought pattern, and I used one of those go-to explanations involving cognitive distortions and how to get past those, but it occurred to me that I could have engaged the following explanation, perhaps to much more memorable effect…
We are always and forever at the intersection of many roads, like at the hub of a wagon wheel, forever faced with the option to go down one road or another. Even when you have nothing pressing to do, there are all kinds of roads…read a book, take a bath, watch a TV show, clean out the closet… It is only when we become aware of a decision we have to make that we really begin thinking about the roads. The more important the decision, the more deliberately we need to consider the roads. But also, with the increasing importance of a decision, the more likely it is that we are going to cloud that decision with doubts, fears, or paralysis of some sort, the more likely we are to mentally block some of the options.
Now, each time we look down a road, we have the option to take that road, or to consider that road as one among many choices. As long as we have not closed that road off, the path is clear. But as soon as we shut ourselves off from a possibility, as soon as we say, “I could take that road, but…”, we have decided that that road is no longer a possibility. It becomes obscured, cut off. A fog settles on that path, blocking your view, a fog you have place there with a “but.”
Each road that you look down and say, “I could do that, but…” becomes yet another road, obscured with the fog of a but. This road gets a but so it becomes fogged. That road gets a similar fog of but. That road gets blocked by but fog as well. Pretty soon, we find ourselves standing at a hub that was once a center of possibility, but is now just a point from which we cannot see anything. We are at a point of loss and confusion, surrounded by the fog of buts.
Now that we are all fogged in by buts, though, we need to remember that fog is not permanent, fog is not solid, fog can be lifted. We don’t even have to commit to a particular path to lift the but fog from that path. We just have to shut down the but. Shut down the but, and the fog will lift. The path will become a possibility again.
Certainly some paths will be better suited to our goals and needs. However, it is much better to consider the pros and cons of each decision, leaving all of our options open so that we can make an informed choice, rather than fogging ourselves in with a bunch of buts.