Compassion. It has the potential to make the world a better place, brighten someone’s day, or help us make genuine human connections.
Its evil twin isn’t hate; it’s alienation. Alienation is when we see someone as “other” and inferior. Take any derogatory term, and they all have one thing in common: they’re designed to dehumanize — to manipulate us into seeing someone as inferior and undeserving of compassion or human decency.
Do the words we use to describe people influence how we treat them? Is there a difference between calling someone an “addict” versus describing them as “a person with a substance use disorder?” Are we more likely to help a “homeless person” or a “person experiencing homelessness?”
It turns out, there is a difference. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the words we use to describe people powerfully affect our attitudes and assumptions about them.
Language is the lens through which we see the world. Our words shape our perception.
So how does language influence our perception of people?
Separating the Person From the Object
If Susan is holding a cup, do you say “Susan is a cup,” or “Susan has a cup?” Hopefully, you recognize that Susan is separate from the cup she’s holding.
We process language quickly, and the way we speak influences our perception. So using the phrasing “He is X” causes our brain to draw the conclusion that that’s all we need to know about the person. We’ve got the most important piece of information — no need to look further.
“He’s a bad kid.” Really? Is he a bad kid, meaning his entire existence is bad, or is he a kid who engages in bad behaviors? His actions are separate from who he is at his core.
How many kids get labeled as “bad” in school, then get shunted into the “Behavior Disorder” classrooms their entire school career? Everyone treats them like they’re inherently a bad person instead of someone with behaviors that can be corrected. Labeling them as “bad” causes us to give up on them — because our language leads us to see them as a lost cause.
“He’s an addict.” When you hear someone’s an “addict,” what other mental associations pop into your head? Needles, dirty, criminal, a burden to society, lousy parent, worthless, junkie? Guess what? That “addict” is someone’s son/friend/father. I know people who, even during active addiction, would go around the neighborhood picking up used syringes and dispose of them to make sure no one’s children found them. You know why? Because they were more than “just an addict.” They were a good, kind human being who had an addiction.
We, as human beings, are greater than the sum of our parts. To reduce anyone, including ourselves, to one aspect is a disservice.
So now we know how language can skew our perceptions, but what do we do about it?
Putting the Person First
Using “person-first” language primes our mind to focus on the most important piece of information — that they’re a human being first and foremost.
Here are a few hard lessons I’ve learned over the years about how powerful language can be — for better or worse.
A Story About Addiction
When I started doing therapy, I didn’t want to do addiction treatment. I’d had negative experiences with family members struggling with it, and I thought people with addictions were just mentally weak and didn’t care enough to do better. The term “addict” was a slur to me. I only wanted to help people who wanted to help themselves, and “addicts” didn’t meet that criterion. Then I was forced to provide addiction treatment as part of my training.
I met Rebecca, whose mother dropped her off downtown in a city when she was 13 and abandoned her. She got picked up by a pimp who injected her with heroin to control her and prostituted her out for the next ten years. She sat in the chair in front of me, shaking and sweating from heroin withdrawal, pleading for us to help her — she knew if she didn’t get away from her pimp and stop using drugs, she would die, as many of her friends had already.
How different would your life be if you had been shot up with heroin and prostituted since 6th grade? Not that you would’ve finished school — most pimps don’t want their “property” educated. Think of how formative our teenage years are and how much soul-searching and identity development we go through; now throw severe, repeated trauma and drug use on top of all the usual chaos of adolescence.
Learning about her life, and confronting my own biases about people “like her,” was like being drenched with a bucket of ice water — it woke me the fuck up.
I worked with another guy, Jared, who had been addicted to pain pills; his dentist had prescribed them after he’d had some teeth pulled. He took them as prescribed. But when his prescription ran out, he became violently ill — his body had become dependent on the pills. So he started buying them off the street. Then he moved to heroin when pain pills got too expensive. He wasn’t using to get high; he was using to avoid withdrawal.
Fun Fact: Most people describe opioid withdrawal like the flu on steroids. Imagine how bad you felt the last time you had the flu, now multiply that by a dozen or so. What would you do to feel “normal” again?
I continually watched as people came to therapy having lost everything — children, jobs, self-respect, relationships, friends — then claw their way back to a better life where they regained custody of their kids, got a job, mended relationships, worked through emotional baggage, and developed self-respect.
People with an addiction. People who, despite what I used to think, do want to help themselves and live better lives.
A Story About Autism
Early in grad school, I took a child therapy class where we learned about different diagnoses kids can have, based on the DSM — the book clinicians use to diagnose psychological disorders. The DSM uses labels (diagnoses) to define a cluster of symptoms; it’s all about putting symptoms into categories. But people can’t be so easily categorized.
As we talked about autism, I would refer to them as “autistic,” and my professor would snap back, “has autism.”
I thought she was just being politically correct, so I kept saying “autistic,” to the point it seemed like she walked around muttering “has autism, has autism” to herself from correcting me so often.
I thought I was immune to the bias language can create, so I didn’t put any stock in her words — until I started working with that population.
One job I had involved helping adults diagnosed with autism navigate college life — studying, socializing, life skills — whatever they needed. I thought they’d all be the same since they had the same diagnosis, but I was wrong.
James was extroverted and spent his time speaking to the community about people with autism.
Brian was always cheerful and loved anything Barbara Streisand or haircare products.
Phil loved comic books and was awkward in the stereotypical “nerd” way, so most people wouldn’t have suspected he had autism. He didn’t need much help from me other than wanting to learn how to flirt. How do you explain the nuances of flirting? It seems simple until you try teaching it. It made for some interesting — and awkward — conversations.
Then there was Michael, who had severe anger issues, neglected to bathe himself or take his meds, and generally didn’t get along with people. I spent most of my time reminding him to take his meds, practice decent hygiene, and stop cussing people out in public.
At another job, I worked with children on the autism spectrum.
Todd loved to be hugged tight, while Devon couldn’t stand to be touched and refused to wear her shoes because of sensory issues.
Daniel would talk your ear off, while Aaron couldn’t even say his name and had to use sign language and an aug-com device (like an iPad) to communicate.
They all shared the same diagnosis, but each was unique.
I learned, through being around people with autism, that they’re people who have autism. They’re not “just autistic.” Autism is a descriptor — it’s a part of them — but it tells you very little about who they are.
P.S. Phil, the nerdy guy who wanted to learn to flirt? He’s now happily married and has a baby.
A Story About Yourself
The same goes for you and your internal monologue.
You may have an addiction, but you as a person exist independently of your addiction. There’s more to you — kindness, intelligence, faith; addiction may cover them up, but they’re still there. You just have to dig them out.
You may have depression, but depression doesn’t encapsulate everything you are, even if it feels like it sometimes. Are you compassionate? A good listener? How do you want to contribute to the world?
You may have infertility issues, but you’re not incapable of being a parent. There are tons of children waiting to be adopted by someone like you who could give them a safe and loving home.
You may have emotional baggage or trauma to work through, but that is separate from who you are. You’re not a broken person. What kind of friend do you try to be? How would you treat a rescue animal? There’s more to you than your past.
Am I getting the point across yet? Be fucking kind to yourself.
This isn’t a discussion on political correctness, because I’ll never win any PC awards. Correct terminology changes constantly. But if we remember to put the person first and show compassion — to others, and ourselves — we’ll be alright.
Remember: you’re a human being, first and foremost. Deserving of respect, love, acceptance, and understanding.
Everything else is extra and doesn’t define you.
This is Part 2 of a series on understanding how the language we use affects us. If you’re interested, check out Part 1: How to Take Back Control When You Feel Broken and Part 3: 7 Positive Self-Labels for an Empowered Mindset.