Words are powerful. They have the ability to create perceptions, to spur actions and solidify beliefs. Approaching the COVID-19 pandemic with the same old worn-out, militaristic metaphors that we seem to apply to every major health scare—from AIDS to cancer to coronavirus—will keep us from healing and learning what the virus is here to teach us.
This is long overdue, so can we please change the conversation?
And, can we start by actually having a conversation—one that’s not violent? Let me explain.
If I approached you in a stressful time for both of us (kind of like right now) and said to you, “I am going to fight you and win. I will overcome you no matter what it takes.” What would happen?
Do you think you would feel at odds with me? Separate?
Would you feel scared?
Do you think we’d continue the conversation, or would it be immediately shut down?
And, what happens when a dialogue, and relationship, is shut down like that? Does it get stronger? Or grow and deepen in its ability to resiliently move through future challenges?
“We are at war with everything we relate to.”Kevin Brown, LPC of Austin Mindfulness Center and Courage to Awaken
No. It doesn’t. Them are fightin’ words and they immediately cut off any chance for connection, creativity or resolution. And, they certainly don’t build resiliency or engage our capacity to learn, form new neural pathways or change our response in the future.
So, why is it that we collectively have a habit of turning every scary unknown that impacts us as a global family into something to be fought, to be eradicated, to be completely killed-off or overcome? Why have we pervasively made every major health scare into a competition where the outcome is so black and white? Where there will only be one winner here—the rest lose?
“It’s how we respond to our fear and our sense of vulnerability, rather than reacting to it, that will define us and this extraordinary time for decades to come.”Carolyn (Koa) Elder, Conscious Content
Violent, militaristic metaphors are pervasive across major news organizations and in our health community
Think about it, and I welcome you to do some Google searching as well. Every major health scare we’ve been through as a nation and a global family—from HIV/AIDS to cancer to the ways we talk about and approach our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing—triggers a flood of media coverage all using militaristic language to “get rid of,” “fight,” “protect yourself against,” and the list goes on.
I’ve collected examples over the last few weeks, to give you some perspective on the pervasiveness of this issue. Take a look at some of the most widely-read news sources out there and how they talk about COVID-19.
Select any image below to view it in a gallery of news headlines using military metaphors to talk about COVID-19.
That’s a lot of headlines using violent, militaristic language, right? So, you might imagine that at least organizations and thought leaders in health and wellness may take a different approach. For example, those in human resources, medical, mental and organizational health and psychology.
Well, take a look at the coronavirus conversation within the online health and wellness community below—from global HR/People Ops organizations meant to make work happier to wellness networks, local healers, University health systems and Harvard Business Review.
Select any image below to view it in a gallery of health and wellness headlines using military metaphors to talk about COVID-19.
And lastly, what about some of the most visible mental, emotional, spiritual health and wellbeing magazine covers at the local grocery store? They surely aren’t using violent language to talk about health. Think again.
Out of a magazine rack of 36 magazines, six were focused on psycho-spiritual health and wellness. Can you guess how many of them passed the non-violent language test from their front covers? (Hint: look below.)
Select any image below to view it in a gallery of health and wellness headlines using military metaphors to talk about COVID-19.
That’s right, four of the six, or two-thirds of the mental-emotional and spiritual health and wellness magazines use violent language to refer to topics from meeting fear to understanding how thoughts can impact our DNA to how to manage procrastination.
So, if everyone—including those who are meant to be trusted experts leading the health and wellbeing conversation—is using this violent language, then it’s okay, right? Well, other than the fact that our physiology and brains don’t respond well to this kind of militaristic language. Let’s explore what actually happens when we use fighting words.
How our bodies and brains respond to fighting words
Violent language creates tension in the body. Tension in the body creates restriction which can look like holding or bracing. You can be unconsciously squeezing your shoulders in toward your neck, holding your own breath or your stance and physical structure can become rigid as if bracing against a heavy wind or preparing for an attack.
“Tension, holding, not breathing well by nature is activating the fight/flight reaction,” explains Kevin Brown, who does mindfulness, anxiety and trauma-focused therapy as a Licensed Professional Counselor of Austin Mindfulness Center and his private practice, Courage to Awaken. “Overcoming is inherently not helpful because it’s in that same ‘me versus them’ paradigm of fight-or-flight. It’s inherently flawed. You’re trying to find a peaceful state of calmness through violence and that will not work.”
“If we’re trying to bypass, suppress or restrict energy, action or information in our body or in our psyche, knowing or being, it’s … inherently disconnecting ourselves from ourselves and from each other. It perpetuates the cycle of violence.”Kevin Brown, LPC of Austin Mindfulness Center and Courage to Awaken
And, what happens when our body engages its own fight-or-flight reaction? Well, now we’re fighting our own experience, explains Brown. “So, I’m compartmentalizing it, pushing against it, bracing myself from my own emotions, disconnecting from a feeling or energy or a part of my experience.”
Our minds may be racing or strategizing. They may go blank. Either way, this fight-or-flight reaction cuts us off from our own experience, our emotions, our gut, our heart—these essential parts of who we are.
“Emotion is information and energy,” explains Brown. “If we’re trying to bypass, suppress or restrict energy, action or information in our body or in our psyche, knowing or being, it’s not healthy. It’s creating a block. Restriction. Internal conflict. It’s not allowing what is to be. It’s inherently disconnecting ourselves from ourselves and from each other. It perpetuates the cycle of violence.”
“When your internal dialogue is centered in a language of life, you will be able to focus your attention on the actions you could take to manifest a situation that meets your needs along with those of others.”Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD. and founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication
Why is violent language so detrimental to our healing process?
If those of us in the field of health and wellness are attending carefully to how language impacts people in crisis/makes people feel, why do we as a collective—and especially those of us in the business of mental health, behavioral science, general health and wellness and people operations—continue to use violent language and militaristic metaphors when speaking about issues of health and wellbeing? For example, violent and friction-full words like “fight” “battle” “protect against” “get rid of” or even “overcome?”
Words are powerful. They have the ability to create perceptions, to incite actions and solidify beliefs.
(Our violent language) “is a very Western dualistic, allopathic model where you’re targeting, cutting out, removing, bypassing, etc. rather than Eastern non-dualism. It puts us at odds with everything in life.Kevin Brown, LPC of Austin Mindfulness Center and Courage to Awaken
And perceptions, behaviors (actions) and beliefs can make or break our own healing process and that of those around us. Did you know your language can actually interrupt another person’s healing?
It’s because fighting words immediately cut off any chance for connection, creativity or resolution. Violent communication doesn’t build resiliency or engage our capacity to learn, form new neural pathways or change our response in the future.
Unpacking a commonly-used example of violent language in health and wellness contexts
Let’s dive a little deeper into one of the more common fighting words I often see used in the field of health and wellness: “overcome”.
Note that this is a real example taken from a well-respected and thought-leading educational institution in business, management, leadership and health content. I discovered it recently on LinkedIn as it was shared then by another thought leader in the field of organizational psychology speaking to leaders and suggesting this approach as a way to respond better to the unique challenges they and their teams and organizations are facing right now:
“Overcoming your instincts.”
So, what isn’t helpful about the above statement, especially during a highly-sensitive time like a pandemic?
Well, for one, the word “overcome” is violent language.
A simple way to know when you’re dealing with violent communication is to check if there’s an implied “should” or a “have to” in the statement:
“[You should/have to] overcome your instincts.”
1. Violent language supports hierarchical or domination societies
When you find the message/wording does imply a “should” or a “have to” you’ve got what psychologist Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD. calls, “life-alienating” communication. “Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals, to those individuals benefit.”
Are environments full of hierarchy, dominance or control usually supportive to those of us who are most vulnerable? Do you think these environments support our natural process of healing?
2. Violent language creates shame
Violent communication, at its heart, creates a level of self-hatred, self-blame, guilt or shame. It often speaks to “an innate evil or deficiency, and a need … to control our inherently undesirable nature,” says Dr. Rosenberg in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
Shame cuts us off from the kind of nourishment and resources we really need to move through whatever it is that we’re facing with our health and wellbeing. This is where resilience goes to die. For more on the research behind shame and its impacts on our wellbeing, check out University of Houston Research Professor, Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
“Self-judgements, like all judgments, are tragic expressions of unmet need.”Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD. and author of “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”
3. Violent language creates self-opposition
This innate assumption that we should take control of our natural state of being puts us in opposition to ourselves. “Overcome” creates a subtle image of using force or will to physically or energetically overpower something. Self-opposition puts us at odds with our very nature, making us bad and hooking us back in to another shame or guilt cycle.
4. Violent language often assumes our instincts are wrong
The statement above also assumes our instincts are inherently wrong. That we cannot be trusted to navigate our world using our own inherent resources.
Is it helpful for your own growth when you feel you’re being made wrong about something?
When you’re feeling “wrong” do you feel open? Creative? Collaborative? Probably not. Are you self-reflective, receptive and ready to learn? Definitely not.
“Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.”Tara Brach “Reaching Out For Compassion“
Is there a better way?
There is a better way, and it’s through responding rather than reacting. In this case, responding starts by mindfully changing the conversation wherever we engage in it: online and in our everyday lives.
And it looks like holding ourselves and others accountable for perpetuating the conversation—whether unconscious or not.
“When you get caught in one mode, or use, of language it can become a problem. The power of language is that it’s a reflection of our consciousness, but it also directs our consciousness to a particular framework and mentality.”Kevin Brown, LPC of Austin Mindfulness Center and Courage to Awaken
Here’s how to start changing the conversation from one that is innately violent in nature, to one that is life-giving and regenerative simply through your own awareness.
Start by noticing when violent communication is happening
- Where do you have a habit of using violent language to describe your own physical, mental, emotional or spiritual experience?
- Can you start to notice when you see and hear those around you use violent language to speak about health matters involving themselves or others?
Then, employ the five qualities of responding mindfully to the situation
Once you’ve noticed how often you’re using violent language to speak to yourself, others or about health matters, and noticed how it shows up in social and work situations, you’ll want to employ the five qualities of responding mindfully. I summarize them below, but talk more about the five qualities of responding in my article on responding rather than reacting to fear.
- Responding always starts with a pause.
- Responding gets curious.
- Responding makes contact with the present experience.
- Responding tries not to identify with the experience.
- Responding takes responsibility for how it feels.