Author: Tara DeWorsop, Ph.D. student in Multi-Sector Communications program
Sawabona is a South African greeting which means, “I respect you, I value you, you are important to me.” The response to this greeting is “Shikoba”, which means “so… I am good and exist for you.” In The Art of Forgiveness, Loving, Kindness, and Peace, Jack Kornfield describes an African forgiveness ritual: “In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.”
The story of the Babemba tribe illustrates the belief that language has power to shape our minds and behaviors in positive ways. Kind words can heal and guide behavior. Unfortunately, words can also be used as weapons, and technology has created a deluge of avenues for cyber bullying and abuse. The onslaught of messaging we get from TV, social media, and the internet is having a real impact on our behaviors and thought processes and we are moving at such a speed that it is difficult to defend ourselves mentally against this onslaught. Youth in particular are vulnerable and it is now widely accepted that social media has negative effects on mental health. For example, students who spend a lot of time on social media have an increased risk of mental health issues, specifically depression, anxiety and loneliness. My questions now are: What is the impact of language on mental health and what can we do to protect our minds and the minds of youth who are particularly vulnerable? Would an early stage intervention like mental health self-defense classes that teaches the power of words and self talk make a difference?
According to Chiu and Krauss in Language and Social Behavior, language is implicated in most of the phenomena that lie at the core of social psychology: attitude change, social perception, personal identity, social interaction, intergroup bias and stereotyping, attribution, and so on. For social psychologists, language typically is the medium by which subjects’ responses are elicited, and in which they respond. In social psychological research, however, language plays a role in both stimulus and response. Language does not completely determine our thoughts, but habitual uses of language can influence our habit of thought and action.
Language pervades social life through self talk and interpersonal communication. Philosophers like Hegel would argue that one self requires another and that the self only exists in its relation to another self. This would mean that self talk is directly influenced and created by our interpersonal communication and habitus. Kurt Lewin’s Interpersonal Communication Theory describes interpersonal communication as the process by which people exchange information, feelings, and meaning through verbal and non-verbal messages. Interpersonal communication is not just about what is actually said – the language used – but how it is said and the non-verbal messages sent through tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures and body language.
When Lewin arrived in the United States, the prevailing psychological trend was behaviorism. Behaviorism says that man is like a black box and that we’re born as a blank sheet of paper. The theory says that others’ influence is what shapes our personalities and makes us who we are. For Lewin, on the other hand, each individual isn’t passive and is able to establish their own interactions with their environment. He also believed that through psychology we could achieve greater justice and equity in the world. What would it look like to focus on language as the tool we used to shape our psychology? Narrative therapy is used to heal mental wounds, but can it also be used to protect against future harm?
Narrative therapy recognizes that each person’s life is a story in progress that can be viewed from a variety of perspectives and that can have any number of outcomes. Change occured when the counselor and the client, working together, find new and alternative ways of looking at things and explore new possibilities about life and the way the client relates to others. The early pioneers of narrative medicine include Harry Goolishian and Harlene D. Anderson. They developed the constructivist theory in the 1970s at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Their primary focus was on understanding the client’s worldview and values through his or her use of language. Psychotherapists tried not to impose their own language but rather would adapt to clients’ points of view. In therapy, the client and therapist worked together and communicated in a common language familiar to the client. Together they created a meaning-generating system. They talked with each other instead of to each other.
But what about how the person talked to themselves? Self-talk is the way you talk to yourself, or your inner voice. This inner voice combines conscious thoughts with inbuilt beliefs and biases to create an internal monologue throughout the day. Self-talk is important because it has a big impact on how you feel and what you do. It can be supportive and beneficial, motivating you, or it can be negative, undermining your confidence. In the 2021 paper An Exploratory Analysis of the Relation Between Offensive Language and Mental Health, analysis indicated that offensive language is more frequently used by individuals with self-reported depression as well as individuals showing signs of depression. This study illustrated how intertwined psychology, mental health, and language are and the ripple effect of a hurting mind: the depressed person lashes outward with language as the weapon.
Imagine a world where we could heal that hurt and break the cycle of hurt people hurting people. If a depressed state of mind leads to negative outputs and negative external forces can lead to a depressed state. Could the reverse be applied? Could providing positive self-talk interventions help alleviate depression? Would external praise, like in the case of the Babemba tribe, impact clinical depression?
In late 2021: Youth mental health was declared a national emergency by pediatric experts across the country, underscoring how children and young adults are left reeling by the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the U.S. education system has no comprehensive, widely adopted mental health curriculum or any coordinated effort to provide youth with the tools to process and protect against trauma. The closest thing to a comprehensive solution to the mental health crisis is the relatively new social and emotional learning (SEL) approach which ties together education and human development. SEL “is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL). SEL provides youth with the language to talk about challenging issues and the environment around them while they are in the process of developing their identities. Unfortunately, SEL based curriculum has been under attack in more conservative states because it often involves talking about controversial topics that some parents feel are inappropriate for young people.
Psychologists have long investigated the question of whether language shapes thoughts and actions, or whether our thoughts and beliefs shape our language. Perhaps it is both but, either way, psychology and language are undeniably linked. Kurt Lewin believed we could use psychology to achieve greater justice and equity in the world. I believe that we can use a combination of psychology and language to positively impact mental health and protect against harm. One way to do this would be to teach young people positive self-talk and provide opportunities for narrative therapy at every grade level so that we can make continuous fixes along the way.
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