When we try to explore our experiences, there’s expressive language that can act as a wall-- but also a door!-- to further reflection. When I find myself or a client using this kind of “edge” language, I invite them to explore it so we can see what’s on its far side.
This word functions as a wall because it’s a very vague adjective, so without any elaboration it’s hard to analyze further. To call something “interesting” is, literally, just to say that it catches our interest. It’s not unlike remarking that something is “remarkable”-- we’ve spoken but we’ve said basically nothing.
The word can function as a door into some basic invitations to unpack it. “What interests you about it?” “Interesting good or interesting bad?” “I see it’s of interest to you but ‘interesting’ is really vague; could you give it a more specific adjective?” I try to use these invitations anytime I hear the client say “interesting,” and over time they move to elaborate before I pose the question.
This word functions as a wall because it is rather vague as well, though it usually is backed by a new and/or bad experience. We call something “weird,” when it makes us feel “weird,” which gestures at some kind of unclear and/or uncomfortable feeling.
Like “interesting,” we can use it as a door by asking for elaboration, pretty much using the same questions as above, replacing “interesting” with “weird.” It’s helpful to point out the possibility of unclear/uncomfortable feelings, so the client understands why elaboration
can be difficult since we often avoid naming (and possibly amplifying) negative feelings.
“I don’t know how to feel about this”
This phrase functions as a wall because the client knows that a feeling should be part of their experience, but vague/confused awareness is as far as they’ve gotten. Why is this as far as they’ve gotten?
A few overlapping possibilities:
(1) Alexithymia - the fancy therapist term for "not having a word for a feeling." Alexithymic people may experience emotions purely in their body, or might just say they feel “off.” By their language, they may be indicating not knowing “how” to go about finding words to express feelings. The client is hitting a wall in their vocabulary.
(2) They are assuming their emotional state must be captured by one emotion label - I’m not sure how this happens, but maybe it’s because the question “How do you feel?” seems to call for a single/simple answer instead of a multiple/complex one. I’m actually not sure. Regardless, the client is hitting a wall by not yet seeing that it’s appropriate and ok to have multiple feelings in response to something.
(3) They are assuming there’s a right way to feel - We may not know how we feel, but we’re often quite aware of how we’re expected to feel; this can be especially guilt-provoking when our multiple emotions appear to be in conflict.
So how can this phrase function as a door? I make tentative observations to the client: “People usually say this when they’re having more than one feeling. Would it be easier to try to name a few emotions instead of needing to settle on one?” “People usually say this when they’re struggling with an uncomfortable conflict of emotion. What do you think is the conflict?” Instead of asking “And how did that make you feel?” (a therapeutic cliche), I just encourage the client to use as many resonating emotion words as possible.
Exasperated Rhetorical Questions
Rhetorical questions function as a wall because they are firm opinions masquerading as questions. “What’s wrong with them???” means “What they’re doing is wrong and unjustifiable!” “What were they thinking???” means “What they did makes no sense!” Rhetorical questions indicate a current dead-end in thought and communication-- despite posing it as question, we’re not really curious.
Rhetorical questions can function as a door by taking them at face value. “Wait, let’s really ask that question-- what indeed were they thinking?” It’s important here to help the client appreciate the distinction between explaining and justifying. They feel more open to being curious when we assure them that the phrase “But that doesn’t make it right!” still gets to be part of the interpretation.
This word functions as a wall because… well, it’s (“literally”) an expression of the wall metaphor. A wall impedes progress. If we are committed to understanding and action, and we don’t know how to pursue it... yeah, we’re stuck.
The word functions as a door because it’s an opportunity to play with metaphors to aid our exploration. “Stuck between what?” “If we can’t break through the wall, maybe we can go around it?” “How can we turn this wall into a door?”
Beyond the door metaphor, “stuckness” could be a way of saying “I want conflicting things,” or “I want something but I’m afraid.” In this case, I might challenge the client to identify the pros/cons of their options, to consider them as various package deals, and to consider which cons they are willing and able to tolerate.
There are definitely other examples out there, but five felt like a nice and digestible number. I hope that now when you hear yourself or a client use this language, you can help them keep on going!