When I teach medical students on psychiatry posting I emphasise how important it is to avoid words that convey a dim view of patients. It goes back to a consultant’s advice during my own training.

Consider the difference between:

She claimed she hadn’t been using substances recently.
She said she hadn’t been using substances recently.

Same idea—but an ever so subtle difference in tone.

Some would say it’s “just words”. Well, words themselves are “just” sounds. Except we’ve attached meaning to those sounds. So also, words aren’t just words, they’re ideas. And ideas have power—sometimes lifelong. So here’s an idea:

Every trait has upsides and downsides, strengths and weaknesses, circumstances where they’re helpful and others where they’re not. None is simply “good” or “bad”. It’s all in how we use—and describe—them.

The mirror-image exercise

For any trait, good or bad, imagine its mirror image: the exact same trait, but better or worse.

For example, know someone who’s “stubborn”? (Usually not a compliment.) Imagine reframing that as “strong-willed” or “gritty”.

Think someone is “manipulative”? Well, it’s the same trait that can in other circumstances be viewed as “persuasive”.

A generous person? Well, not if they’re so “generous” to strangers there’s little or nothing left for those most dependent on them—in which case we’d call them irresponsible.

You get the idea. But what’s the point? Well, it’s that a hammer is great, but not for cooking. Traits can be like that—sometimes people just need help figuring out where—and how—theirs are useful.

The right words can help.

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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