A year ago, while presenting a project I wrote to a client at work, I said something unintentionally funny. There in the middle of a long conference table, in a serious-looking office, I responded to his frown at what I had written with … counseling words.
Before I could pull the words back, I heard myself exclaim to him across the table,
“Let’s unpack that frown.”
It makes sense that I would use “unpack” as a verb that way, I’ve been to four counselors in the last ten years. I’m kind of a pro at this point. I mean I don’t sign autographs in the lobby or anything, but I know my way around a comfortable couch and a room with soft lighting. And consequently, I am fluent in the language of counseling.
Maybe you aren’t though. Maybe you’ve never been for a variety of reasons but you would still like to talk as if you had. So here, is a quick guide on:
How to talk as if you’ve been to counseling:
1. Use “I statements instead of you statements”
I love this phrase, which is usually employed to indicate that you can’t control how other people feel, you can only control how you feel. Here is what “you” statements look like: “You ate my last Hot Pocket. You need to stop being so selfish and not eat all the Hot Pockets. You have a real problem with hogging all the Hot Pockets.” And here, are “I” statements: “I felt disappointed when I realized there were no Hot Pockets left, because I, much like comedian Jim Gaffigan, love the cheesy, meaty goodness that is the Hot Pocket. I would like to talk with you about the lack of Hot Pockets and understand where you are coming from on the whole Hot Pocket situation.” See how much nicer that is?
I think this word got picked up by the counseling community because if everyone has emotional baggage, then naturally they would want to unpack it. It’s the best way to describe the process of understanding and getting rid of things from your past. Imagine if instead of “unpack,” your counselor said, “I know that conversation hurt you, but let’s lose that emotional baggage on a connecting flight from Nashville to Oklahoma City.” That would just be awkward.
3. Verbal Reality
A verbal reality is this fantasy world people try to create with lots and lots of words. It’s the belief that if I say something enough times, it will magically come true. They might even believe it at the time with all their heart, but without action, without real change, it’s just a verbal reality and more words, piled on more words. For instance, when I was in my early 20s and told my parents, in front of all their friends, that I would send them to Europe as an anniversary present, and then proceeded to never do that, I had created a really massive verbal reality. I thought that just announcing the trip, with some pretty fantastic words, would make it happen, but apparently airlines no longer accept verbal realities instead of tickets.
A mask is exactly what it sounds like, a façade that someone puts up so they can pretend to be someone they are not. And usually people have more than one mask. In my own life, when I am nervous, I instantly get sweaty and throw on the “funny guy” mask. I just fire off jokes of decreasing quality until I am eventually out of the nervous situation or everyone else has walked away from my barrage of not funny humor. I’m like a pun machine gun.
I think this term was made popular by the book series Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. Which I really loved. A boundary is a border you establish to help you know where you end and someone else begins. This is probably the best word on the planet to throw out if you want to appear that you have been to counseling. Here’s an example of how you can use it, “While I enjoyed the Awesome Blossom at the Outback with you tonight, I have a firm boundary in my life that says I won’t date people named ‘you.’ To continue this relationship would be in severe violation of that boundary. So, razzle dazzle, dude, razzle dazzle.”
6. Safe person
A safe person is someone that you can tell your junk to that won’t then make a billboard of it for everyone in town to see, that won’t give you instant, horrible advice and won’t just wait until there’s a pause in the conversation so that they can talk about themselves. They’re hard to find, in part because if you go up to someone and ask, “Are you a safe person?” you sound like some sort of International spy about to hand them secret codes to nuclear devices.
Man, oh man, I used to get this one all the time in counseling. Basically, your counselor will tell you, “I feel like you’re reporting to me on what happened this week in the life of Jon. That’s from your head. I want to hear what you honestly feel right now, which is from your heart.” And I do that sometimes. I sit on the couch in the counselor’s office, like some sort of meteorologist reporting live on the scene, “This was a big week for Jon Acuff, we had some slow moving clouds of criticism coming across Tuesday and then on Thursday there was a great lunch with friends and on Saturday the skies opened up and dinner was a lovely time of smiles with his wife. Back to you Chet.”
There are a million other counseling words and phrases you can drop into normal conversation to make it seem like you’ve been before. And some are sillier than others. I think everyone should go to Christian counseling, not because it’s some sort of silver bullet that fixes everything. Not because every counselor is great, there are some whack counselors out there for certain. But when you find a good one, I think it can be a huge opportunity to grow and be vulnerable and learn about God. And at the bare minimum, you’ll be able to amicably solve Hot Pocket disputes, which we will all face at some point in our lives.