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Context and Language

© 2013, Mark deLeeuw, M.A., Candidate for M.A. in Counselling



Ten years ago, I shattered my lower left leg snowboarding, and personally experienced being medically broken.  I immediately knew that there was something very wrong with my leg; the protruding bones made that obvious.  The large tree beside where I lay in the snow helped me understand how the injury occurred and why my body was no longer in working order.  These contextual details played an integral role in how I made sense of the situation.


It seems obvious to examine the context of medical injuries.  Doctors and patients need to know how the body was hurt, how the bones were broken, and how the wound was caused.  This information is critical to the medical response.


In a similar vein, it is important to ascertain and analyze the context of interpersonal injuries, linking thoughts about ourselves directly to our social contexts.  What was the scene of the grievance?  How did the hurt happen?  What are the indicators of injury?  How are we responding to them?  What meaning are we gleaning from what has occurred?  How are others responding to what has happened to us?


It is also important to be sensitive to the language we use to think and speak about ourselves.  While medical language is helpful to simplify communication regarding physiology, I wonder if words like damaged, hurt, scarred, wounded, and broken help us deepen our self-understanding as holistic beings, or confuse it.


Medical language inherently internalizes problems.  Just as cancer resides within a person’s body, my broken leg was an internal physiological problem.  Rightfully, medical treatment is uniquely geared to respond to these internal injuries – as the metal rod in the center of my tibia now attests. 


From a psychological perspective, however, problems are rarely the fault of one person.  When psychosocial injuries are examined within a socially-enlightened context, problems are seen as external to people, located within the relationship between parties.  This approach avoids internalizing problems within one person, thus dodging the contemporary quandary of interpreting social problems as personal dysfunction.  The relationship may be broken, but not the person.


This perspective, of course, changes the treatment.  Clients are no longer problems to be fixed, but active agents working toward overcoming problems external to themselves.  The result is a hope-filled approach in which clients can examine their hurt within a relational context and re-interpret their identities, embrace their personal value, and make more sense of their lives.  It even allows for multiple parties to work together to solve the same relational problem.


I wonder if the language we use to describe ourselves is more broken than we are.  If it ignores context and refuses to recognize and embrace that we are relational, complex, and completely unique beings, it probably is.

Mark deLeeuw, M.A., Intern at Arbour Counselling in 2013-14, is completing a practicum for his Masters of Counselling at City University, in Langford, BC.

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