As we all know, life can sting. People come to us with all sorts of hurts and challenges in their lives, seeking to heal but just don’t know how. There is no shortage of reasons and ways people feel broken, and besides support and having a safe place to “unload,” they need new tools to move forward. In an earlier ACA blog post, I wrote about use of metaphors and how they can help in the healing process. Metaphors help unlock old habits of thinking and coping, and encourage flexibility in learning new ways to tackle old problems. When methods of coping no longer work, even if it had worked or at least seem to have worked in the past, the role of the therapist as teacher of a “new language” is vital for therapeutic success.
Using this metaphor with my clients has been opened doors that were stuck, and has given countless clients hope and a path for healing. It just makes sense. While learning a foreign language at school might be hard for some and easier for others, everyone can relate to the concept that even if you pick up a new language relatively quickly, the first language is still very much ingrained in your habits of thinking and speaking. Consider people who have come to live in America from another country as a youngster, and even after decades, they still have a distinctive foreign accent. Even if they are fluent in English, that first language is still their “default.” Even though some people have only a trace of an accent after being assimilated in the US, they claim they still think or dream in their native language. As some people become old, especially if they experience dementia, the old language from the recesses of their brain becomes more prevalent in the way they communicate. The first language is the “default” and thus in times of stress, this default becomes prominent once again.
Often our client’s emotional first language might have led them to faulty conclusions about themselves. They might still “carry the torch” and describe themselves in judgmental terms, since that might have been the language their parents and others used in raising them. That first way of seeing themselves and making interpretations and conclusions about their self-worth was their default. Labels such as “lazy” “loser” “stupid” and “selfish” “fat” might be so much a part of the first language, that it has hardened into perceived fact rather than pure fiction. As therapists, by educating our clients that the first language actually might be faulty, we can give them a gift of hope that healing is possible if they learn a new, healthier language.
The following are 5 crucial benefits that your client will get in their “language” education:
1.The understanding that their primary psychological language might have been quite faulty – as in the case of emotional, verbal or physical abuse. It can be likened to having had learned Pig Latin and finally they can switch from this
non-sensical language to a legitimate one!
2.If they get impatient with their progress in therapy, reassure them that it is as if they learned pig latin for 18 years or more before coming to therapy. Thus, developing the habit of replacing the words they tell themselves with others that seem “foreign” and unfamiliar is no easy task. It’s hard to break old habits! It will help clients be easier on themselves using this analogy as they realize that learning a new language is no easy task for most people.
3.In exploring a new language, you are exposing them to a new culture, a new style of living, and this creates a tremendous opportunity to think flexibly, reinvent themselves and open up a new world of possibilities!
4.This concept can help clients see things more clearly if you are experiencing conflict with a coworker, friend, family member, such as with a child or spouse. Have they ever thought they might be having problems because they are not speaking in the same language? After all, you can not really comprehend what someone is saying when you can not speak the same language! Hearing them speak does not mean true listening! Thinking others think like you and that they speak the same language is one of the main pitfalls and obstacles in relationships.
5. Learning a new emotional language gives clients hope in the aftermath of shattered dreams, relationship break ups, making peace with their own shortcomings, and other causes of emotional derailment. The attitude of “Hey Self, I’m a work in progress – I’m learning a new language” can be quite comforting. Your clients can be comforted that virtually anyone can learn a new language if they keep working at it. Although some of us are on the fast track and others are more like in the remedial group for language class, anyone can learn. It does not matter what speed we go it, it matters that we are moving in the right direction.
Seeing yourself as a therapist who is serving as a psychological and emotional translator, interpreter and language teacher rolled into one will help your clients heal and grow! The key to reinforce is that no matter how difficult it has been for them learning languages in the past, anyone can learn a language if they keep practicing!
Judy Belmont, MS is a psychotherapist and mental health/wellness speaker and author. She is the author of a best selling practical handbook for therapists with reproducible handouts, “86 Tips and Tools For The Therapeutic Toolbox.” Her web site is
Judy Belmont is a counselor, mental health speaker, and the co - author of "The Swiss Cheese Theory of Life: How To Get Through Life's Holes Without Getting Stuck In Them!". More information at www.judybelmont.com