Nor is there such a thing as courage, love, or relationship!
The hidden danger of nominalizations
I was working with a veteran who had PTSD. He was going to the VA and was doing outpatient treatment there because he had also been abusing various substances in addition to his other challenges. One day he came in and complained that he had woken up depressed that morning and didn’t know why. If you know me, you’ll know that kind of statement doesn’t really cut it, but before we got to fixing what would make it so easy for him to wake up sad, he mentioned that he’d talked about his sadness that day in treatment. I was curious.
“What did your counselor say about it?” I asked.
“She said that that was my addiction trying to take over my life,” he said, looking glum.
I was astonished. That counselor had showed sloppy thinking on several points, the most startling of which was that she talked about an addiction as if it had will and intent! Professionalism kept me from mocking her to the man, but I’ll freely admit I had unkind thoughts in my heart about her and her (probable) lack of training. Addictive behaviors can sometimes be complicated enough to change without being cursed by thinking of the problem as something that’s out to get you!
What makes someone capable of a mistake like this? Judgements towards her aside, there’s an element here that’s actually more common among us humans than you’d think. The counselor had gotten so used to talking about “addiction” as if it were a thing, she began to unconsciously feel that it WAS a thing, something of substance that had force, which is only a step away from effect, which easily leads to imagining it as having will.
Nominalizations like this can be dangerous if sloppily handled. Grammar lesson for non-English majors: speaking simply, a nominalization is a verb that’s been turned into a noun. There’s more to the definition and usage than that, but that’s enough for the purpose of this blog post. When I say, “Running has become very important to me” I’m using the verb, to run, as if it were a noun, the subject of the sentence. English handles this kind of slip and slide between nouns and verbs quite easily, which is what makes it such a trap for people.
How is it a trap? I’ll demonstrate. I’d like you to make two statements, out loud or at least under your breath if you’re shy. The first statement is, “I’ve been having problems with my depression lately.” The second one is “I’ve been having problems with feeling depressed lately.” When you say them, what pictures do you make in your mind? Which one feels more like it’s a real problem? Which one feels like it’s going to be more easily handled? If you’re like most folks, the second statement is less imposing. I find my clients feel more hope thinking about their problem DEnominalized, because the implied action hints at things you can do, while a nominalization like “depression” is harder to wrap your mind around. The trap lies in the fact that we can’t clearly represent the nominalized verb in our mind and it can take on feelings of weight, permanence, or even, apparently, occasionally sentience.
There are lots of these in English, like courage, sadness, love, and that oh! so corny counseling word, “relationship.” “We need to
talk about our relationship,” has a very different feel than, “We need to talk about how we’ve been relating with each other.” How many teenagers talk about their love as if it were an intelligent being, coordinating between them to create all kinds of cosmic goodness? If you want to fix this, then a good rule of thumb is, if you can’t put it into a wheelbarrow, turn it back into a verb.
So try this: how many nominalizations do you hear in speech? Listen for them for just one day. For an added challenge, try turning them back into verbs. Some will be easier than others. “Sadness” converts to “feeling sad” easily. What about “fiscalization,” though? You know, just as there’s no such a thing as addiction, there’s no such a thing as fiscalization, either . . .
Here’s the mind blower: if all that is true, then is there any such a thing as failure?
Give us an email at Bright Mind and we’ll be happy to help you unthread some of the verbal tangles you may have picked up. How much of a relief would it be to let go of some of those nominalizations?