• Dean Middleburgh

Are You Having a Breakdown?

How the words and terms we use can be potentially be doing us more harm

“Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.”
-Alan Moore

Have you ever wondered why words are so powerful?

Why do words have a habit of lingering long after the conversation has been said and done?

In short, the answer lies in the meaning and association we attach to a word or phrase. In turn, this group of sounds sparks a memory, a picture, a physical sensation, or a mixture of all three to a specific idea. Over time this slowly empowers a phrase, word, or term to take on a life of its own. The meaning can create a feeling of joy and satisfaction just as easily as creating a chronic sense of sadness and dread.

The association applied to a particular word is deeply rooted in a specific feeling. In this way, it isn’t easy to separate the experience without thinking of the term. On the flip side, it is just as tricky thinking of the word without reliving the experience.

When these words become linked to happiness, joy, and jubilation, a person will hold on to the feeling it brings. Nothing is more satisfying than capturing its essence and bottling it up in a little trinket to sample on a rainy day. Yet when these feelings become linked to sadness and emptiness, people leave the lid off and quickly realise how difficult it is to put the genie back inside the bottle.

There are plenty of words that have such negative connotations, many of which people are entirely unaware of. Many of us use words willy-nilly without having little to no idea of their origins. In this way, we all need to pay attention to the words we use. Through a lack of awareness, people unknowingly empower words that could trigger negative emotions within themselves and those close by.

Some people talk about previous incidents in their lives and use specific words without realising the power it has over them, especially when discussing traumatic experiences. Every time they use that particular word, they are transported back to that time and place. Their mind relieves it, again and again, only strengthening the link between the word and the experience.

Before you know it, the word is part of the furniture and used in daily life. The one word that I want to focus on in this article is ‘breakdown.’

What does the term breakdown mean to me?

Whenever I think about the word breakdown, I think of a person close to the edge of despair. The pain and suffering they are experiencing are so great that the condition stops them from performing daily activities.

When I think of the word itself, I picture a car stranded in the middle of a motorway with the hazard lights flashing in the dead of night. The driver inside the vehicle rests their head against the steering wheel — the beams of the cars passing by highlight the tears cascading down the driver’s cheek. The car doesn’t start, broken wires are sparking, and a steady stream of oil leaks over the tarmac.

Although I have never experienced this type of episode, it doesn’t stop me from associating with the word and creating a representation in my mind. Each person reading this article will have their unique meaning created by what they have seen and experienced.

This description doesn’t inspire hope, nor does it breed confidence in finding a way out of the predicament they face.

As I think of the term breakdown, I can not only see the danger and the sadness, but I can feel it too. There is a heaviness when it flashes across my mind. I am then confronted with a horrible feeling in my stomach as my intestines tie in knot.

Suppose this term can have a physical effect on a person that hasn’t been diagnosed with this medical condition. What impact could it have on those who live and experience this condition daily?

Replace the word

One way to approach a subject differently is to remove the word from your vocabulary. Many argue that this approach might empower the word further, and in other circumstances, this would be true. However, it is vital to recognise that it is not my intention to ignore the word and sweep it under the carpet.

First, the person should try to use a different word so that approaching the subject feels less threatening and scary. Confronting the word and its meaning is no small feat. The result of changing the word to a more child-like term creates an entirely different mood and feeling to the topic.

In this specific case, I would look to exchange the word ‘breakdown’ for the word ‘wobble.’

Let me explain why.

Many years ago, I worked for a pharmaceutical company that made life-prolonging medicines. The shift’s dynamics meant that bar one, the crew, ranged from ages 32 to 65. I was the exception only just turning 22. Interestingly, this group had an incredible camaraderie that involved making fun of each other and cocooning people in duct tape so they could not move or speak.

I took many valuable lessons from this group of fun and wonderful characters yet one of my biggest takeaways came from the more serious sides of life. Men in my social settings back in the 2010s rarely talked about their emotional health but surprisingly it was one of the few topics they didn’t make fun of.

There were a few of my colleagues who had a difficult time with mental illness and as a result, took big chunks of absences of leave. They openly talked about these subjects in both relatable and not threatening ways. Whenever someone was off work due to stress or mental illness, the entire shift referred to their absence as a ‘wobble.’

The people who experienced this episode would refer to the word wobble and openly express it without feeling embarrassed or ashamed. Although the subject matter was still the same, the conversation felt much more natural and comfortable to explore.

A wobble was something I could ask questions about without feeling as though I wasn’t impeding on a sensitive subject. Changing the word, the severity of the situation or context hadn’t changed, but my feeling towards what the word meant felt different. It opened the conversation up to those who would typically shy away from the term and its negative association(s).

What does the word ‘wobble’ mean to me?

Whenever I think of ‘wobble,’ I think of jelly. I begin to picture a person riding a bike. Generally, they are balanced and stay in a straight line without a care in the world. Yet a pothole appears out of nowhere, and the bike inevitably is sent off course.

The bike will wobble, and the rider will have to take countermeasures to prevent hitting the ground. Sometimes the rider stays on, and they manage to make the adjustments without incident. Other times they fall and land on their backside. Although injured, they can pick themselves up and dust themselves down. They climb back onto the saddle and ride home.

This description is a lighter image than the example I gave of the broken-down car. This description is far more positive and gives an opportunity for the person to see that this isn’t the end of the road. They can dust themselves off and right the bike and find equilibrium once more.

As I think of the word wobble, I feel lighter and not so bogged down by its meaning. There is a sense that the challenges that lie ahead are far more manageable and achievable and there is a positive way forward. Despite the obstacles, there is plenty of road left to travel.

Adjusting the meaning of a term/word

Sometimes it will be difficult to change the word or replace it with another term. In these cases, the best thing you can do is to change your perspective. The following exercise will require a creative edge, so get yourself into a creative space. In the coaching world, this technique is called ‘reframing.’

Reframing entails viewing and approaching the situation from a completely different angle. How you perceive something could alter massively depending on what perspective you view it from. Switching perspective or reframing the situation could weigh heavily on how you perceive a situation.

Let’s go back to the broken-down car analogy in the first part of this article. Instead of looking at the image as hopeless, we can change the picture to stir different emotions. It is in our power to put a positive spin on the term ‘breakdown’ and make it far less scary and hopeless.

Now imagine the same car from before but picture the story as you read my words. The vehicle is not in the middle of the motorway. With the help of a stranger, the car is pushed into the layby. The driver and the vehicle are safe, and assistance is just about to arrive. The driver is put at ease when the tow turns up. Help has arrived!

The mechanics take a look under the hood and flash a beam of light under the bonnet. They fix the oil leak and put the sparking wires out of harm’s way. The mechanics decide it is best if the car is towed away for precautionary measures. The driver is given a ride back to the garage and supported while the car gets fixed.

The scenario is the same, but the perspective is different. This example is far more optimistic than the one previously shown. It shows how powerful perspective can be if used correctly.

Final thoughts

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”
-Yehuda Berg

There are many words out there that have negative connotations. I understand some words are hard-hitting by design and cannot be changed to sugarcoat an appalling event or incident. Sometimes there is no substitute. Yet, there will be many words in your arsenal that currently do not serve you.

If they do not serve you, then why use them?

With the power of imagination, you can reprogram the stories and beliefs you have told yourself throughout the years. The new programming you install over the old data will be far more of an upgrade than the ones currently running in the background.

I challenge you to go away from this article and think about some of the words you might use in everyday life that could harm how you see or approach a given subject. Take a moment to think about a word that ruins your energy and produces that unsettling feeling in your stomach.

Change the word if you have the power to and if not reframe and position yourself in a way that allows you the time and space to see a subject in a completely different light.

Just remember: Change the frame, change the picture

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