Doing versus Being

lunchAnyone who has ever studied a foreign language, knows that with new vocabulary comes new ways of seeing and understanding the world. As an example, if you ask a German to describe a suspension bridge, he is likely to say it is a thing of beauty. However, if you ask a Spaniard to describe a suspension bridge, he is likely to say that it an object of strength and endurance. Why is there a predictable difference? Because the German word for bridge, “brücke,” is a feminine noun and the Spanish word for bridge, “el puente,” is a masculine noun. Accordingly, research has shown that language shapes our attitudes and feelings about things.

Even the choice of words from within the same language will alter the way we conceptualize our experience. For example, if your spouse asks you to help with a chore, and you reply, “More work? You are killing me!” then the emotions and attitudes generated within your own mind are likely to be more negative, than if you had replied, “Now is not a good time. How about I help you after I finish what I am doing?” Experiment with this at home. You will find the word choice really makes a difference.

Recognizing the power of words, one day I asked myself, “What if instead of ‘doing’ lunch with a friend, I focused on ‘being’ at lunch with my friend. As I sat and talked, I continued to focus on the word “being.” To my surprise, it caused the interaction to feel entirely different. I was more relaxed, more open, and I felt less compelled to direct the conversation.

Having decided that I might be onto something, I added another set of contrasting words, “praise” versus “encouragement.” Once again, the second word choice, seemed to change attitudes held at an unconscious level. While focusing on the word “encouragement,” I found myself interacting with others in a less judgmental way. I assume the shift in attitude was at an unconscious level because I cannot tell you what those attitudes were, I just know that I could hear and see the difference.

As time passed, I kept adding more and more contrasting words to my mental list. When I mentioned my word list to others, they were eager to see it, so I wrote the words down and emailed it to interested colleagues. Everyone who received it was appreciative, so now I am publishing the version of the list written for therapists. I assume this would also be useful for school teachers, parents, and perhaps spouses.

It is important to recognize that the following word pairs are not dichotomies or polar opposites. Instead, words used to describe seemingly similar social interactions are juxtaposed in a way that highlights nuance and subtle differences in meaning (e.g., being vs. doing).

As you will see, many of the statements (used to illustrate the word pairs) seem to work together, as if the second statement is a logical follow up to the first. However, in all cases, the first comment is entirely adequate for positive social influence. The second statement establishes parameters, thereby decreasing opportunity for further exploration (unless the recipient disagrees with the comment and asserts a counter position, which leads to debate, a form of communication in which one person wins and the other looses).

When social exchanges, and the thought processes behind them, are constructed from an open-ended process, there is increased potential for psychological freedom and autonomy. If you were watching this dialogue occur between a therapist and a client, you would see that the second sentences have the effect of shutting the client down. The second statements are conversation stoppers. They do not encourage further thought or exploration.

Encouragement: You put a lot of effort into this.
Praise: You did a great job.

Compassion: I want to better understand your needs.
Duty: It is my job to help, and your job to be open and honest.

Self-Disclosure: At this time, I do not know what to tell you.
Criticism: You are too resistant for therapy to work.

Perception: I see you have struggled with this.
Judgment: You did the best you could.

Affect Attunement: I can sense your fear.
Diagnosis: Your behavior fits the criteria of a phobia.

Process: Is this something you enjoy doing?
Outcome: You can achieve a lot by doing this.

Eagerness: Would you like to give this a try?
Pride: I think you will be really good at it.

Surprises: You did not know it would turnout that way.
Mistakes: Next time you will know better.

Self-Awareness: See what your gut is telling you.
Conscious Intention: Increased spontaneity is a good goal.

Trust: It is okay just to be who you are.
Control: I will not allow you to act foolishly.

Play: It is okay to laugh during hypnosis.
Competition: I can work around any form of resistance.

Fascination: What do you like most about doing this?
Task Completion: You should consider doing this more often.

Transformation: Something is different about you.
Achievement: You have made great progress in therapy!

As you can see, the first set of statements presuppose the fundamental goodness of self and others. This creates more space for the exploration and expansion of self and of our attachment to others. I am not suggesting that the control orientation (the second column) is always bad. During a time of war, when we are surrounded by enemies and there are no second chances, open styles of being and attachment may not be as adaptive.

The second string of ideas are closely connected to Western models of thought, as they are based on Aristotelian logic, which mitigates understanding by placing everything into categories or conceptual boxes. This is why this form of interaction with self or others seems more logical or scientific and why the second set of phrases are commonly used by those working from a medical model, in which the therapist must establish him or herself as the “clinical” expert.

However, to make sense of a command, our mind automatically contrasts the idea with its polar opposite. If told to be good, one immediately considers the bad he/she must not do. This results in two potential urges to act on. So our energy must be split so that we are able to suppress the negative urge while acting on the positive. Also, with a control orientation, there is a constant vacillation between a state of narcissism (in which there is tension between us and others) and a state of neuroticism (in which there is tension between fragmented parts of self).

Even though a control orientation can be exhausting, impedes creativity, and is more likely to elicit feelings of anger or fear, one should remember that even negative emotions (and negative actions) have a place in our life. Rather than taking options away from you, this list of words is intended to expand your options for relating to self and others. Furthermore, this list is not only a tool for clinical dialogue. You can also use the word sets to enhance the quality of your personal inner dialogue (i.e., the relationship you hold with yourself). When there is no war, and those with whom you interact are not intent on your destruction, then it is nice to know how to be accepting and peaceful, both with others and within our own mind.

Friend having lunch image available from Shutterstock.

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