The words to say it

One of the questions people often ask is ‘how can talking about myself make any difference?’ It is, on the face of it, a reasonable question. Someone suffering from anxiety, or depression, or repeated negative behaviour, or an inability to engage sexually, or suffering from abuse, will naturally wonder how such an ordinary human thing as talking can work. The answer to the question is quite simple: it is not just what is being said that is important. It is also about engaging as fully as possible in the act of speaking and how that can bring lasting psychological benefits.

Being able to speak about oneself in a considered, criticism-free way is a sign of health. It denotes a desire to try, no matter if it occasionally misses the mark, to put words on who we are and what our experiences of life have been. It means that an enquiring drive is at work somewhere within us to put words on parts of our experience that have never had spoken words put on them. For that very reason, these experiences may have long been the unnoticed root-cause of guilt, anger, shame, frustration, embarrassment, panic, sadness, confusion, anxiety, and so on.

Speaking in this way allows us re-visit and re-examine events, ideas, experiences that were often poorly understood when they first occurred. We get a chance to reclaim something of them for ourselves, and stop them belonging to others. The putting of words on these moments engages another part of our mind – the powerful associating agency that links single ideas together in combinations and networks which can bring newer meanings and understandings for us. This is the foundation on which real change is built.

Speaking is also a way of re-establishing our often ruptured relationship with memory. The famous French psychoanalyst Dr Jacques Lacan put it succinctly many years ago when he said: ‘We do not remember because we are cured. We are cured because we remember.’ And what is it we are required to remember? The answer is the past, our individual past, the past that no one except us has had, the personal history that makes us unique and different from everyone else. In particular, the parts we overlooked, either purposely or accidentally, as well as the parts we have tried to bury. Why? Because in the realm of the human mind, nothing we bury ever stays buried.

Many people shirk this challenge. Many want to simply run away from it. And so, speaking will naturally be difficult for them. They’d prefer a therapy that does not require them to speak about themselves. For this way of doing things, there are many alternatives to choose from. Some people prefer medication, because that doesn’t require them speak about themselves at all. That too is a choice.

And, of course, outside of therapeutic settings there are many other ways we can keep memory at bay. Unfortunately a lot of them are ultimately harmful and self-destructive. The harm which alcohol and drug abuse do to memory is no mere coincidence. What all this tells us is how difficult the seemingly simple act of speaking can be for some people and the variety of ways they use to try and avoid it. Speaking opens us up to ourselves and to our history, our story. For some, that is too risky.

There are many, many people who have genuine difficulties in speaking about themselves but who still engage in the ‘talking cure’. The courage they display is evident. Just because someone has difficulty finding the words to say it does not mean they cannot access what psychotherapy has to offer. The desire to speak in as open a way as possible becomes a clear signal of well-being and health. Seen in this light, we could argue that it now becomes a tool for self-empowerment and fundamental change, rather than just a whimsical choice of maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Sigmund Freud, who invented the talking cure, paraphrasing Frederick the Great, said that every man and woman must ‘find out for themselves in what fashion they can be saved’. He was putting the responsibility back onto us whether we choose to work through our issues using the uniquely human power of speech or not. We have the choice.

* “The Words to Say It” is the title of a 1975 book by novelist Marie Cardinal about her personal experience of psychoanalysis. It has sold 2.3 million copies and has been translated into 18 languages. It won the Prix Littre in 1976.