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Using E-Prime and English Minus Absolutisms to provide

self-empathy.
"Each person thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves."
--Leo Tolstoy
"First, find at peace with yourself. Then at least some peace in the world occurs."
--Thomas Merton

Our self talk, when describing ourselves, can have a significant effect on our health and well-being. Can it make us sick?
According to Stephen Levine "If we heard a couple at a table to us speaking to each other in a way we speak to ourselves
within our minds, we wouldn't find an ability to eat our meal when our waiter brought it. We'd feel too nauseated." (1)
Last semester, I created an upper-level undergraduate course on Compassionate Nonviolent Communication. I came up
with an idea after noting how frequently I heard students naming, blaming, and shaming themselves--saying things like
"I'm a moron" or "I'm lazy" and labeling themselves with words such as "ugly," "stupid," "slow," and "foolish." They
seemed to take their labels as facts. One student who frequently said "I'm stupid" started to see himself as "stupid" and
another who frequently said "I'm ugly" began to think of herself as "ugly." This young woman later told me she had slashed
her arm with a razor.
Out of curiosity, I asked my students how many knew someone who engaged in self-mutilating behaviors. Each student
raised a hand. I asked about eating disorders and most students said they knew of someone with one or more eating
disorders. These students also admitted to frequently describing themselves with negative labels when talking to others or
to themselves.
I decided to begin this course by focusing on these judgmental labels. If peace really begins at home, I figured I would try
to change how students spoke about themselves. If we could learn to speak about ourselves in more discerning, nonjudgmental ways, imagine how much changes would naturally occur in ourselves, our families, ours communities, even in
our country and earth.
I chose a model for nonviolent communication (NVC) provided by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Founder of Center for
Nonviolent Communication, author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. NVC process teaches people how
to resolve conflicts peacefully. With help of NVC, we learn to work out differences between people, groups, and countries.
(2)
NVC follows a simple four-step process--observations, feelings, needs, and requests:
1. Observations "concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being."
2. Feelings involve "how we feel in relation to what we observe."
3. Needs, a key part of NVC, deal with "the needs, values, desires, etc., that create our feelings."
4. Requests refer to "concrete actions we request in order to enrich our life."
NVC enables us to meet needs of others without sacrificing our own. As its title (A Language of Life) Rosenberg's book
indicates, such nonviolent, compassionate communication represents not only a skill and a language, but also a way of
thinking, and a way of living. It involves moving beyond black-and-white thinking to seeing sentient beings as alive,
interrelated, and worthy of our concern.
The first edition of Rosenberg's book contained no chapter on speaking to ourselves with empathy. His second edition
includes one chapter on this subject, but less than two pages deal with how to speak to ourselves in empathic ways. In this
brief section of his book, Rosenberg teaches readers how to empathize with both our "chooser" and our "educator". Our
"chooser" acted in, past situations, ways we now regret. Our "educator" deals with present feelings and needs. (3)

Let's look at an example. You painted your new apartment until 3:00 am. When you got home, you screamed at your wife.
Our chooser might say, "I felt exhausted and overwhelmed because I needed rest and understanding. I felt angry because I
wanted acceptance." Our educator might say, "I now feel angry at myself because I prefer to act with respect and
cooperation."
Rosenberg has developed a useful model for giving ourselves empathy. He provides effective ways for speaking to
ourselves less judgmentally. Many books recommend that we speak compassionately to ourselves, but few indicate how to
do this as Rosenberg does.
While teaching Rosenberg's method of speaking to ourselves with empathy, I also told students to imagine that a friend said
to them exactly what they said to themselves--how would they respond? In short, I taught Golden Rule in reverse: Treat
ourselves as we would treat others. Speak to ourselves as we would speak to others.
Still, I found this problems sheer magnitude quite overwhelming. Even after learning Rosenberg's method of giving
empathy to our chooser and educator, several students almost daily told me they existed as "horrible," "disgusting,"
"foolish," "nerdy," and so forth. These students fell into a major trap; their word structure implied a one-to-one, direct,
factual relationship between a subject (themselves) and a predicate (horrible, disgusting, etc.). How else could I teach
students how to speak to themselves with kindness and in a way that reflects reality? Here, some methods that evolved
from general semantics came to my rescueespecially techniques of E-Prime and English Minus Absolutisms (EMA),
which help to reduce judgmental terms. I felt confident that if we succeeded at finding more ways to teach students (and
ourselves) how to stop naming, blaming, and shaming, then we can really say, "Peace begins at home."
E-Prime involves writing without using forms of verb: "to be." As I found with my students, saying "I am stupid" results in
equating one's self with stupidity, leaving no room for other possibilities. Note difference between "I am a jerk" and "I feel
jerky." (4)
One reason for speaking or thinking in E-Prime stems from an assertion that using verb "to be" results in identification and
a sense of permanent, final, complete, sameness, which leads to rigidity and stagnation of thinking. Such identification
leads to dogmatic conclusions and generalizations and to confusing words with things. E-Prime, by eliminating "to be"
verbs, forces speakers to use active verbs, and changes what we say from a statement of "fact" to descriptions of processes
or conditions.
"Positive" labels have problems that "negative" ones do. Saying "I'm beautiful" rather than "I'm ugly" still causes people to
identify themselves with their looks. Saying "I accept myself as beautiful" fits a form of E-Prime, but not its spirit:
"beautiful" becomes a fact rather than an evaluation. I have less concern about positive labels, however, because in my 26
years of teaching, I have not heard a single student say, "I'm beautiful" or "I accept myself as beautiful" while I've heard
scores of students say, "I'm ugly."
Certainly, problems result when people identify themselves with their appearance (or any other quality). I've read of
models and athletes who cannot deal with normal aging processes. Had they not defined themselves by their physical
attributes, they might have had fewer of these problems.
English Minus Absolutisms (EMA) involves avoiding uses of all-inclusive absolute words such as ("always," "all," "every,"
etc.) and all-exclusive words ("never," "none," "nobody," etc.). When students say, "I'm a jerk," they usually imply
"always." Consider different messages given by "I'm a jerk" versus "I acted like a jerk last night at that restaurant."
Replacing absolutistic language with specific details orients statements in time and place, providing context. Deleting
absolute terms gives a more precise portrayal of reality, acknowledging that we never know everything, reinforcing that
words and people change over time, and moving simplistic ideas closer to their actual complex realities. Removing implied
always term prevents labeling (positive or negative) from crystallizing into identification. Changing our verbal
construction also changes cognitive processing and psychological effects inherent in verbalization. (5)
Finally, I advocate deleting loaded words such as "idiot" or "stupid" that communicate judgment. Combining deletion of
loaded words with E-Prime and English Minus Absolutisms gives us a three-step model which helps us make observations
of experience--what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell--rather than leaping to abstractions not relating to facts. Replacing
loaded words with less emotional, more precise words forces us to distinguish between subjective opinions and verifiable

facts and to think in gradations rather than in black-and-white terms.


Consider an example, an incident that actually happened to me. When I cut my finger while peeling a mango, I said to
myself, "How stupid! I'm a jerk! I'm always screwing up." Later, when I used my three-step model, I said, "Last Thursday,
when cutting a mango, I inadvertently pushed a knife into my finger; and I now have an infected finger." Once I started
noticing it, I recognized that I labeled myself or called myself names far more often than I expected. While one incident of
labeling may have limited effects, considering cumulative effects over time.
Look at these differences in wording examples:
** "I'm a pig" versus "I ate twice as much as I usually do at dinner tonight."
** "I'm slow" versus "I missed a green light on Main Street today."
** "I'm such an idiot" versus "I burnt my toast this morning."
** "I'm such a loner" versus "No one has sent me an instant message for two hours."
** "I'm too needy" versus "Sally chose not to get together with me tonight."
** "I'm a failure" versus "I received a grade of D on this chemistry test."
** "I'm such a klutz" versus "I knocked over a plant this morning."
** "I'm ugly" versus "I look tired today because I slept for only three hours last night instead of my usual seven."
** "I'm selfish" versus "I bought myself an extra pair of shoes at a mall today."
We can see by these examples that E-Prime and English Minus Absolutisms allow us to take a more empathic view of our
own behavior, aligning our evaluations more closely to natural life processes.
General semantics moves language study away from philological concerns and towards psychological ones. We study an
instrument, and also people using that instrument. We realize that we live in a process-oriented world with an everchanging environment. We understand that a word's meaning does not come from something in that word, but from how we
speak and hear and feel about it.
Giving ourselves empathy by using E-Prime and English Minus Absolutisms helps enable two of Alfred Korzybski's
"extensional devices"--indexing and dating. Indexing (Student[.sub.1] does not exist Student[.sub.2]) helps us to notice,
accept, and respect differences by indicating individuality despite similarities. Dating (Suzy Student[.sub.2005] differs
from Suzy Student[.sub.2000]) helps us to orient language in space and time. Steve Stockdale, Executive Director of
Institute of General Semantics, writes about "13 Common Symptoms of Language Mis-Behavior." Using E-Prime and
English Minus Absolutisms allows us to sidestep most language mistakes he describes. (6)
At times, Dr. Rosenberg's nonviolent communication model does not work for me because I do not want a heart-to-heart
relationship with some people. But, we need a heart-to-heart relationship with ourselves. We have little choice. We cannot
make our inner voices shut up. Our lives will function more smoothly and happily when we develop a heartfelt partnership
with ourselves. E-Prime, English Minus Absolutisms, and avoidance of judgmental words provide important steps in
embracing and empowering our self.
Speaking to ourselves in judgmental, loaded, or derisive ways takes a cumulative toll. Name, blame, and shame make
living a no-win game. When we act as our own enemy, we cannot see our unique qualities that make us special human and
humane beings. Rosenberg quotes Murray, a main character in play, "A Thousand Clowns," arguing with social workers
about placing his nephew in public school: "Before I give him over to you, I want to make sure he won't learn how to
become a dead people.... I want him to get to know exactly how much of a special thing he exists to me or else he won't
notice it when it starts to go. I want him to know about a subtle, sneaky, important reason he got born a human being and
not a chair." (7)

Unfortunately, most of us have learned to label ourselves. As babies, we do not speak negatively about ourselves, we do not
label ourselves, we do not speak violently about ourselves. Somewhere along our way thru life, we develop these
destructive habits. But, what we learn, we can un-learn. We can change how we speak about ourselves in our self talk and
in talking to others.
As someone trying to reduce her own negative labeling and name-calling, I admit that this three-step model I have
proposed takes patience. As with Rosenberg's nonviolent communication process, reducing how often I label myself
involves learning a new language. My model requires ongoing practice, but just think of what could result! I cannot begin
to express what healing and empowerment I feel from my efforts to become aware of, accept, and appreciate myself.
Helping my students to fall in love with their "selves" represents a joy in teaching!
Speaking empathetically to ourselves necessarily translates into speaking empathetically to others. If we speak to ourselves
with discrimination, compassion, and kindness, we will likely speak to others so. In other words, when we no longer speak
to ourselves with violence, almost automatically we extend meanings of "self" as a word. We then see ourselves in others
and others in ourselves. We glimpse an inherent interrelationship of life forms.
I agree with Thich Nhat Hanhs words, a Zen master, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, "We do not born to hold a gun, we
get born to love. Love seems a weapon we need." To his comments I would add that nonviolence begins with loving speech
towards our selves, grounded in reality. By speaking to ourselves in affectionate, non-judgmental, and non-absolutist ways,
we create a ripple effect, naturally creating more love on earth. (8)
When we communicate with love, integrity, authenticity, and compassion, we become less likely to label others and to
speak in dogmatic generalizations. Rather than punish mistakes, we learn from them. We convert our judgments of
ourselves (and others) into observations. How wonderful if E-Prime and English Minus Absolutisms can help us to see our
uniqueness and to speak to ourselves with more compassion and accuracy!
1. Stephen Levine, "Expressing Sacred Emptiness," audiotape, quoted in Margot Silk Forrest, A Short Course in Kindness.
San Luis Obispo, CA: L.M. Press, 2003, pp.94-95.
2. Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press, 2003.
3. Rosenberg, pp. 133-134.
4. See, for example, D. David, Bourland, Jr., and Paul Dennithorne Johnston, eds., To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology.
San Francisco, CA: International Society for General Semantics, 1991; Paul Dennithorne Johnston, D. David Bourland, Jr.,
and Jeremy Klein, eds., More E-Prime: To Be or Not II, Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics, 1994;
and D. David Bourland, Jr., and Paul Dennithorne Johnston, eds., E-Prime III!: A Third Anthology, Concord, CA:
International Society for General Semantics, 1997, now available from Institute of General Semantics. Also, Christopher G.
Wren, "E-Prime, Briefly: A Lawyer's Experiment with Writing in E-Prime," ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Fall,
2003.
5. See, for example, Allen Walker Read, "Language Revision by Deletion of Absolutisms," ETC: A Review of General
Semantics, Spring, 1985, pp.7-12.
6. Steve Stockdale, http://www.time-binding.org/about/13-common.htm.
7. Marshall B. Rosenberg, "Foreword," Don't Be Nice, Be Real: Balancing Passion for Self with Compassion for Others.
Santa Rosa, CA: Author's Publishing Company, 2002, p.7.
8. Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World.
New York: Free Press, 2003, p.57.