Words Matter — A Good Therapist Will Help You Find The Right Ones

The heart of the answer to new ways of seeing and being is not novel new ways to cope or a yoga course, says Dr. Sue Johnson. Words are potent.

Woman talking with therapist, letting go of her stored emotions after feeling validated kparis, Chepko, Karolina Grabowska | Canva

There is a lot of said these days about the failings of “talk therapy.” The idea is that people need to do yoga, exercise, meditate, or just snap out of difficult stuff with a distraction or a medication — not just “sit and chat” about issues.

In my English family, a stiff scotch was the medication of choice.

Indeed, ways to ward off anxiety or just make sense of life can help sometimes, but let’s look for a moment at the merits of the oldest strategy of all: talking something out with a safe other person.

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It is true that talk can be a dead end or simply irrelevant.

Ruminating endlessly about why you didn’t get that job simply keeps you depressed. Friends often talk past each other or stay on a superficial level.

One friend might say over lunch, “I just feel really distraught about it,” but keep a smiling face as they say so. They skim over the surface of what they’re feeling and aren’t able to clearly open an emotional point.

Their friend might respond, “It will be fine. I’ve felt the same way before, too. <Awkward pause> Um, are you ready to order?” The cue from their friend isn’t very clear, so this listener skates along on the most surface level possible.


(This can happen in therapy too, a discussion about things, rather than moving into an experience and sharing it with someone else.)

The key, whether it’s friendship or therapy, is the level of the talk. It’s hard to move to a deeper level – to go to the edge of our familiar experience — unless we find someone who can tune in and make us feel safe.

The great scientist John Bowlby said that the main purpose of emotion was to communicate to ourselves and to others the core realities of our longings, fears, and needs. Talk that is useful for growth and change is suffused with emotion. It is embodied, meaning a bodily felt sense that includes sensations, meanings, and action primes.

It is not simply focused on surface factors or intellectual information. It is not reporting from a distance. It has depth and an openness to discovery in it. It takes you somewhere.


As we find the exact words for our inner experience, this experience becomes more visible and more concrete! So we have to be willing to ‘feel’ and explore emotionally, but again we need a safe other to do this.

But let’s just stay for a moment at first base, i.e., with the simple act of putting things into words, or better yet, finding the words that fit and throw light on our experience. After 30 years of watching this simple act shift hundreds of distressed therapy clients into well-being, and having used this as my main coping strategy in the terrifying chaos of life, I still ask, “What happens here?”

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Words are potent.

They define things and pin things down. They capture and frame reality. They orient us in a certain direction. A new word can change someone’s reality.


An example:

Sandy’s frightening feelings about how unlovable she is, her “deficit,” gleaned from her way of making sense of her mother’s constant dismissal, can morph into the word “fear.” The specific fear that if anyone truly saw her, they would be disgusted and turn away. This fear can then be explored as natural, and normal and be accepted by Sandy herself and me as her therapist.

She can then put a name to the new emotion that arises in her chest: “grief” for the dismissed self who was rejected and expects constant rejection even now.

This is again different from the word she has been given to describe herself: “depressed.”


With words, the speaker contacts, examines, and then orders the overwhelming, un-orderable prisms of reality. Order calms us and gives us ground to stand on. A new emotional word also, literally, moves us in a different direction.

Instead of hiding from others, Sandy now weeps, and then seeks comfort. Images are especially powerful for our tuning into inner and outer realities.

“I am down” is very different and resonates inside our skin and with others differently from “I am hiding under a rock and giving up.”

Perhaps this is the reason the psychologist James W. Pennebaker finds that writing about our difficult experiences in a journal really seems to have curative effects.


The fit of the word matters. We search for the exact word to express our emotional realities. Research suggests that specificity also calms us. So I help a client feel safe enough to explore and search for exactly the right word. When she finally finds the word “trapped,” my client Amy looks up at me and takes a deep breath out.

“Yes, that’s it. That’s it.”

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This realization hurts, but it’s manageable and tangible. This is why in therapy the relentless empathy and attunement of the therapist to the client is key. The therapist joins the client in this search to tie down his or her reality.


This is not the classic “insight” of psychoanalysis which is much more abstract and intellectual in nature. This is lassoing the wild complexity of our inner world and taming it. And in taming it there is exhilaration. Amy beams through her tears and tells me, “This all hurts but to say it – and say it right – feels good. Feels powerful.”

Much of modern therapy leaps into teaching coping mechanisms rather than tying down core realities, which are always emotional. The heart of the answer to new ways of seeing and being is not “New Tips on Coping” or a yoga course.

The answer is to find your way into and through your significant experiences and distill their essence.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson from a 9th-century monk writing in his small cold cell by candlelight.

His poem is named after his cat, Pangur Ban, and it goes:


"Me and Pangur Ban my cat, ‘tis a like task we are at, /Hunting mice is his delight. Hunting words I sit all night…/ ‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye, full and fierce and sharp and sly. /‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I, all my little wisdom try. /Practice every day has made, Pangur perfect in his trade./ I get wisdom day and night, turning darkness into light."

A good therapist helps the client “hunt” down the core names for key experiences and so brings in the light and provides the safe emotional connection that allows clients to risk this kind of adventure.

When we share our experience at a deeper level we also feel seen and witnessed, validated as struggling human beings and this also helps us put a name to chaos and holds us steady as we do it.


We can of course, if we have had the experience of safe bonding with another, also conjure up their image – our mental representation of them to help us find the right words and listen to ourselves with clarity. People of faith use their inner sense of a higher power in this way. I use my husband’s gentle voice to guide me at difficult times. I find myself going “Now what would he say?”

May we all find the perfect words to seize and hold our realities and so make them manageable; and may we always find safe others to join us as we do this, in our families and in the therapy session.

Then we can heal. We can grow. We can thrive.

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Dr. Sue Johnson is the Director of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. She is the author of multiple best-selling books, including Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.