Words do matter

Some time ago I was invited to visit a local prison – just for the day you understand – to talk to staff about a programme they were running for violent inmates. They took me to a large, light and airy room in which they worked with those offenders who had shown an interest in modifying how they behaved.


As I went into the room, I was immediately struck (no, not by one of the offenders) by a large whiteboard with ‘feeling’ words written all over it, words such as, anger, peace, frustration, joy, sympathy, boredom, hate, compassion, hurt, love and so on. I enquired what the words were about and was told that the offenders could not express how they felt because they did not have the vocabulary and were limited to a few phrases such as ‘You piss me off’. Without those words they were stuck in a tight loop of, usually violent, feelings.

Now that phrase ‘You piss me off’ is a critical one because it lies at the centre of how violent offenders justify their behaviour. It forms the basis of what, to the offender, is a perfectly rational sequence: you piss me off, therefore I am the victim and you deserve to be thumped – either verbally or physically. The result of this rather twisted thinking is that the actual assailant feels justified in his actions because, in his mind, he was the ‘victim’ and therefore the other person ‘the aggressor’. Makes sense – doesn’t it?

The above scenario begs the question, ‘do things really annoy you or do you just become annoyed?’ And, moreover, is there a decision involved in how you feel – a choice? The difference between the two statements may seem to be a matter of mere semantics, of little relevance in real life but, as I was shown, the difference in outcome can be, and in the case of the offenders was, very serious.

To show how prevalent this thinking is, I recently, read an article entitled ‘10 things that annoy me about…’ well, pretty much everything it seemed. Clearly the writer saw herself as a victim unable to control how she felt even to the extent that the positioning or presence of an inanimate object ‘made’ her angry.

Next time you catch yourself saying ‘S/he made me angry’ (or even more interestingly, ‘It’ made me angry) – ponder whether it is really the case or whether you are allowing others to control how you feel, that you have no choice and see yourself as a victim.

Perhaps the words we use matter after all – especially if we repeat them to the point at which, at some deeper level, we believe them to be true.

Notwithstanding all the philosophical or biological arguments, the bottom line for me is that I cannot abide the notion of someone else controlling how I feel.

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