What is a Word Worth?

by Karen Bartlett

We were in a spiritual direction session and I asked my directee how he felt about talking to God about what he was feeling at that moment. I mentioned the words “God the Father” and his reaction was explosive! “NO, I cannot pray to God the Father,” he said with anger and fear in his voice. “My father was a horrible and evil man, and any thought of father sends me into a tailspin!” His body had gone into a protective posture automatically as he said the words, and my intuition told me he had been horribly abused by his dad in one way or another.

I immediately validated his need to back away from that terminology and we sat in silence for a few moments as he collected himself. After he had visibly relaxed, I inquired as to whether he could pray to a female image of God, as mother. He thought about it for a few seconds and his facial expression grew softer as he said, “Yes, I can do that. I love my mom, she is a safe person for me and cares for me.” With that said, he offered words to God as mother and proceeded to pray a beautiful and sincere prayer that brought tears to both of us.

In spiritual settings, we can often use words that we assume are benign, innocuous, innocent, and harmless when working with others in individual or group settings. Yet what I have realized in the past nine years of providing spiritual direction is that words are worth way more than I knew or gave a second thought to when meeting with a directee.  Words carry powerful meaning and can stir up painful memories for those sitting across from us, and we need to be careful as pastors, chaplains, or spiritual counselors that we are aware of how our words impact others.

For example, referencing the word Father or Daddy can conjure images of violence, control, coercion, or terror, as referenced in the story above. Words and phrases such as “surrender”, “submit”, “Do with me what you will,” and many others that we use in Christianese can evoke unbidden memories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that cause a person to automatically feel the emotions of terror and fear, because their mind has created neural networks that connect the word with emotions, and the body automatically responds with a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Anyone who has experienced a traumatic event as a child or adult is subject to these intrinsic reactions that are automatic and real.

Some might say the reactions are made up, fabricated, over-reactive, dramatic, or for the sake of attention. A response of this kind only reinforces emotions of helplessness or feeling invisible during a traumatic moment, and can severely retraumatize a person who feels alone and abandoned because of what they have experienced. Anyone in a position of spiritual authority or leadership must become aware of the power of words and the potential to harm or heal!

How do we notice the negative impact our words may have on a person? We pay attention to body language: is the person slumping forward, hugging themselves, head down, eyes searching the room for danger, frozen posture, head in hands, or any other indication they are in self-protective mode? We notice a change in tone of voice: is there a note of fear in the voice, has it dropped or gone higher, is it softer, have the words changed to one who is younger? I had a directee whose voice reverted to that of a child when she spoke about her brother, as her mind and body automatically felt the abuse by him and being told to “submit.” We need to notice a change in a person’s affect, or emotion, as we are in conversation. Do they become angry, defensive, hostile, aggressive, insecure, vulnerable, fearful? Finally, we must pay attention to somatic responses, or what is happening within a person’s body: do they suddenly feel sick, gut-punched, a headache has come on, shoulders are tight, or fists have clenched? These are also indicators our words have activated something deep in their mind and soul that needs attention.

What do we do in these situations? We stop, we ask questions about what is going on in mind, body, or spirit, we foster deep respect for how our words may have been activating, we do not defend ourselves, we do not force new meaning, we create space for different verbiage, and we give permission for using alternative words that may make us uncomfortable. In my opening story, I mentioned that the man was able to pray to God as a female; this may upset or not sit well with you, but for this man, it was the only way to connect with God. If we force our views on those we are journeying with, we may lose them or retraumatize them to a point of no return. Is that really worth a “word”?

Words carry power. Let’s be aware of how we use ours to harm or heal.