All About the Word:
Language, Choice & That Damn Dress


That damn dress. It’s everywhere. And, just as much as anyone, I’ve gotten sucked into staring at the computer screen for way too long from all dress-7different angles, and relentlessly reading all the articles that have popped up to explain the phenomenon involved. I’ve repeatedly beckoned my kids (and their friends) to the screen, and have been fascinated with the fact that they (son, 12, daughter, 3) both seem to see the dress as black and blue, while I just can’t get past seeing it as white and gold. Much to my husband’s color-blind dismay, I’ve also been pestering him to “look at it now…” and “what about now”… (He sees it as green and white, but never mind.)

I’m as curious as most are to understand the science behind it. However, this week’s water cooler distraction from the horrors of reality has uncovered something that I find much more relevant than simple perception of color. On February 27, Business Insider published an article called “No One Could See Blue Until Modern Times.”  This article (inspired in its way by the color-driven talk of the dress) details some of the history of color. For example, based on a review of literature and various other markers, it’s apparently believed that most ancient cultures (save the Egyptians) did not differentiate blue from green. The article then goes on to detail a study performed with members of the Himba tribe in Namibia. In short, their language does not have a word for blue, and so, when presented with an image of one blue square among several green, they struggled to pick out which one was ‘not like the rest.’ Conversely, the same tribe reportedly has several more words for various shades of green than most other cultures, and as a result, had a much easier time of picking out the ‘different’ green box in the bunch than would most Americans.

Here’s what’s most interesting about this (at least to me): The underlying theme of the article was essentially that having a word for something plays a substantial role in allowing one to see what that word represents.   Now, I spend a lot of time talking about language … and thusly, a disproportionate amount of time defending talk about language. Of course, there are many ways to discredit the language conversation. Here’s but a few examples:

That’s just the new ‘PC’ (politically correct) word: When someone says this, it’s often a way of saying, “We might have to use this word to appease you, but we don’t buy that it has any deeper value or meaning.”

No one will understand me if I talk like that: This particularly misguided retort almost always immediately falls flat on its face given that the push to shift language is almost always in favor of moving toward easy-to-understand, every day words (although admittedly that does have the potential to go awry, too) over clinical jargon.

It makes it hard to speak if I’m always worried I’ll say something wrong: This one’s usually more about the inevitable discomfort that comes with being asked to maneuver through the clumsy process of change than anything else. It’s also about the shame or denial that descends when people feel like they’re being asked to change because they were doing something ‘wrong,’ which is hard for some to swallow without protest (even when feedback is offered kindly).

You’re just the language police: Translation: “You’re trying my patience,” and/or, “I don’t take you seriously,” and/or “I don’t have time for this,” and/or “Please, shut up.”

It doesn’t matter what words someone uses, it’s what they mean that counts: This is often the last bastion of resistance offered up by people who are feeling defensive. It’s also got some truth to it in some contexts (as do all of these points, I suppose), but in many instances it’s simply not true enough.

But, back to the article. Here’s a key quote:

“It’s about the way that humans see the world, and how until we have a way to describe something, even something so fundamental as a color, we may not even notice that it’s there.”

If this is true (and it certainly appears that it is), then what does it mean for the way that people make meaning of their experiences of emotional and mental distress? We live in a culture that virtually imprisons its citizens within a one-size-fits-all way of interpreting humanity, and force feeds medicalized language on a daily basis. People are not generally exposed to the many much more nuanced ways of understanding hearing voices, suicidal thoughts, deep demoralization, self-harm, and other various extreme or unusual experiences. The mass majority have no idea about the real potential impact of trauma or nutritional sensitivities and have never heard phrases like ‘spiritual emergency.’ For those of us for whom this sort of talk has become commonplace, it’s critical we not lose sight of the fact that our perspective is closely related to our living (at least in part) in a “Mad in America” (or other similar) bubble.

And, for better or worse, living in that bubble is perhaps a large part of what allows us to see a fuller spectrum of truth. No, it’s not only perception of color that is impacted by our words; It’s also perception of self (and others). If we follow this line of thinking, it seems we have to accept that using a solely medicalized lexicon is quite literally obscuring the paths that we now know, for some, are life saving. What is it like to live in a world of mentally ill, decompensating, non-compliant, low functioning, schizophrenic, bipolar, borderline, suicidal ideation (etc.)? Many of us know, and it’s not pretty. But what’s even less ‘pretty’ is that so many still aren’t aware that there are so many other words and ways to see and understand, and so they can’t even recognize the grayness with which they’re living.

With this knowledge, all the above excuses fall away. If we do not speak to the different shades of meaning, to the different tools of healing… If we resort to the same, old, black-and-white words we’ve been given by those who are often limited in vision themselves… we are doing no less than participating in the willful blinding of our own people. Perhaps the greatest power behind supports like Hearing Voices and Alternatives to Suicide groups is not so much (or at least, not only) the ability to speak openly about our own experiences, but rather the opening of our eyes to different ways of seeing based on hearing new words and ideas from others.  New and expanded sight can be developed when the world around us presents us with more choices and the space to explore them.  This is something that I hope we can all keep in mind; Especially those among us who continue to use such one-note terminology primarily to gain acceptance in professional circles.

If we know that such acceptance comes at the price of blinding others to the paths that may lead them out of this particular mire, is it worth it in the end?

What do you see because of the words that you know?  What are you missing?


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. People who live in the Arctic have a multitude of words for snow but if you took me there I’d not be able to distinguish any of them unless I were to spend time in there and learn from the people living in the snow. While our sense are able to perceive most of the same reality (with notable exceptions of people who are colour blind, deaf and so on) the way we “see” reality is quite a different matter.

    I think people who shout so much about this or other person lacking insight should ponder a bit on this article…

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    • Thanks, B! It’s amazing just how many people are labeled as ‘lacking insight’ by people who have limited insight themselves and/or have done nothing to even offer up options to those who are supposedly so lacking. Thanks for reading, writing and offering up another relevant example of how words really can shape our world and understanding of it. 🙂 Sera

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  2. Very thought-provoking. This article reminds me again of the power of words, which a lot of people in our movement don’t pay enough attention to, in my opinion. One of the sources of power for psychiatry is this misleading use of words, and the tendency of most people not to try very hard to look for the meanings (and manipulation) behind them

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    • Totally agree, Ted. It hurts my heart that so many people are still so inundated by the ‘one model’ that they have trouble even hearing the new words when they are first used… So much to unlearn and, for some, so little time to learn it in…Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂


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  3. Thought-provoking article, and a good reminder to both speak and listen mindfully, rather than from the hip, when trying to communicate for the purpose of achieving clarity and common ground.

    This reminds me of when I went pretty much straight from graduate school, years ago, into the system for support with healing while tapering from meds (this was before I understood the politics of it all, I was naïve to the questionable and specious practices of the system).

    While I completed my education and training with no social issues, which I’ve never tended to have, those with whom I participated in social services group therapy could not understand a word I was saying. My fellow clients called it ‘gibberish,’ and the therapists interpreted it all so cynically that it felt unsafe to even speak after a while, they were pretty ruthless in their responses. Of course, this harmed more than helped me, as it felt like an ambush of negativity and cynicism, when all I was looking for was healing support. This was my rude awakening into what this is industry is really all about, and I learned by taking the hits big time.

    Whereas in my psychology program, when I was a student, just like when I worked in retail customer for several years, I was perceived as an extremely clear communicator, and was usually considered the one setting the example of clarity and transparency. That was my reputation, as it was one of my strengths as a manager. This was mentioned in all of my evaluations.

    But once I started in the system, it reversed, and no one at all could understand me, and considered me to have some kind of communication issue that was part of my ‘disability.’ My partner, who has always understood me perfectly, the way everyone in life has, was as perplexed as I was frustrated.

    Even the attorney whom I found outside the system to help me with a discrimination suit against a voc rehab agency was able to understand me perfectly and hear all I had to say, which is why I succeeded in my mediation. The agency management, on the other hand, right up to the bitter end, continued to interpret what I said in some cynical way, that was really their downfall, as they were making things up, and it was obvious.

    Then it clicked, and I realized that this was how stigma worked, purely, creating a fictitious character in lieu of who ‘the client’ really is–aka, delusional projection. In this case, it was definitely a negative projection, extremely disadvantageous to me, and based purely on a tapestry of fictional stereotypes, so everyone could see that they were the ones askew from reality, whereas I was the one perfectly grounded, centered and clear–triumphant role reversal, for sure.

    And yes, this was all done with strategic language, that became very apparent to all of us. In the end, they lost, because they were speaking a language of their own, thinking it was universal. So that was not only sweet justice for me, but a lesson in how our interpretation of what others say is really what defines our reality and world. They actually crashed and burned, because they would not face universal reality, and continued to create a cynical reality with their language. Had nothing to do with me, not at all.

    While at first it was actually disabling, I have learned well over the years, as a core component of my healing and personal evolution, to not even in the slightest to relate to this. It’s helpful to have people we can trust around us, when others try to get to us this way, to offset the purposeful ambiguity of certain types of speak.

    Thanks for this one, Sera, I think it’s quite relevant to the process and progress of shifting the paradigm away from systemic abuse, oppression, and discrimination as standard operational procedure.

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    • That is very true and it’s actually a technique of gaslighting. I don’t think most of them do that consciously and maliciously but I certainly know that it can be used this way to make someone doubt his/her own sanity.

      Psychiatry is crazy-making. Not only their drugs but also their demeaning and psychologically abusive attitudes.

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      • I agree that it’s not conscious–at least, not at first. But addressing it is impossible because once they become conscious of it, it’s fight or flight on their part. So even when I’ve attempted to wake them up to what they are doing, it’s a disaster. Yet, I can’t get myself to give up on this endeavor, to wake them up. Whether I–and others– succeed remains to be seen. It may be too big a job for us mere mortals!

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        • Actually, I’m gong to take this back, about whether or not people are conscious of how they try to shame others. Sometimes, no, it is not at all deliberate, and when this is the case, I’d expect a reasonably compassionate response when I say how I feel about what is being said to me, and we’d clear up the misunderstanding.

          However, there have been instances when I’m sure it was purposeful. Although my example of this comes from an interaction I had with the ED of an “advocacy” agency (in name only), who did not like me because I was ‘anti-system,’ and of course, they are funded by systems money (that’s his own self-imposed double-bind).

          I had a strong voice in this organization, so he was always trying to cut me off at the knees, which by this time, I was impervious to, so it was more amusing than not to me that he would try this with me, although still, it would make me angry that he was in such a powerful position to do good and help others, whereas in reality, he had this horribly negative and stigmatizing attitude, true narcissism.

          So once, at a meeting we both attended at the public defender’s office having to do with police “anti-stigma training” (also in name only), he said to me out of the blue, “Alex, have you ever had run ins with the police?” He knew full well I hadn’t, my psychiatric history has to do with anxiety, never even remotely about violence or anything like that. Not even close, and he knew it full well. But he seemed to relish in being able to ask me this question, as a way of stigmatizing me in front of the others. He’d also say things like, “I hope I don’t have egg on my face” after I spoke, to imply that I had somehow, embarrassed myself. It was painfully obvious what he was doing. This is advocacy??? I had turned to them for support with my professional growth, and this is what I got in return.

          Btw, it was at this same anti-stigma meeting where other ‘advocates’ were referring to the defendant as ‘wheelchair man’ because they couldn’t remember his name. Crazy-making, indeed. Or better yet, just plain crazy, sad, maddening, surreal, you name it….

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    • Hey Alex, Sorry I was in a place where the Internet connection was terrible… Hence the delay in responding. I really appreciate your taking the time to write such a detailed comment. Delusional projection is a good phrase. 😉 You say a lot of important things in your comment… How the twisty lens through which people see someone who’s been labeled can seem to alter the very meaning of their words and even silence them after a while… etc. I’m glad you were able to be successful in this situation. -Sera

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  4. The meaning of words is what Szasz wrote about. If two people have a different meaning for the same word, they have problems. The one in power wins. Is it medicine, chemical, drug or poison? Is it a hospital or a prison? All depends on someones perspective. Then the slave must learn to agree with the master.

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