Using strong language for dramatic effect that ends up causing undue stress.
We all use our imaginative capacity to distort reality. This ability allows us to play with language and convey meaning beyond the simple facts. When I tell you, for example, that my heart is busting out of my chest, you know not to call an ambulance. Being able to use metaphor and imagery makes communication richer, but when this faculty is not entirely in our control, we can get Caught Up in Dramatics that may feel exciting, but can quickly overwhelm us.
Randy was often stressed out or depressed and didn’t know how to get out of her funks:
Chana: What’s upsetting you?
Randy: I hate my job.
Chana: What about it don’t you like?
Randy: The commute is unbearable.
Right away, Randy is using strong language, which creates a strong physiological response in her body. Her muscles tense, her eyes roll, and her face flushes. Let’s question whether she can’t “bear” something she’s been bearing for a while:
Chana: Is it true that you can’t bear the commute?
Randy: Yeah. I hate it.
Chana: I hear you don’t like it. But is it true that you can’t bear it?
Randy: Yeah. I don’t want to be on that bus.
Chana: You’d prefer not to be there. Does that mean you can’t bear it?
Randy: Why do you keep asking that?
Chana: Take a moment to think over my question. Does the fact that you don’t enjoy the bus mean you can’t bear it?
Randy: Huh. I guess not.
Chana: And how do you react when you believe you can’t bear it?
Randy: I get all tight. I don’t want to talk to anyone or look at anyone.
Chana: Take a deep breath. Imagine yourself sitting on the bus without the thought that you can’t bear the commute. How would you be without it?
Randy: I can’t imagine that. It’s like an oven on that bus. And we’re packed like sardines. There’s a guy who gets on at the stop after mine who always smells like sour garbage.
Two challenges have come up. One is that Randy has left Inquiry to go back into her story and build up evidence for her belief. The other is that she’s Caught Up in Dramatics. Her metaphors serve to turn up the volume on her suffering and similarly increase her stress response. Top British therapist Marisa Peer says that dramatic language is quite pernicious because our subconscious takes it seriously. When we say something is “a headache,” it might well lead us to get a headache. So too with experiences we label “a pain in the butt,” “horrifying,” or beyond our capacity to “handle.” Randy’s dramatic language leads her to feel panicky, tired, and upset. We’ll need to reel her back in:
Chana: I see that you’ve left Inquiry and trailed back into your story. Take a few breaths and relax. Let’s explore, just for a moment, how you would be without the thought that you can’t bear the commute?
Chana: Are you okay?
Randy: Yeah, I guess.
Chana: Are you on the bus?
Chana: And it’s moving.
Randy: Of course.
Chana: So you’re bearing the ride.
Randy: Oh. I am.
Chana: How do you know it’s true that you can bear the ride?
Randy: Sometimes I bring a book on the bus and read it during the ride. I can get so caught up in the story; I forget I’m even on the bus!
Chana: What else?
Randy: I could get off the bus if I want to, but I choose to stay on.
Randy: And I’m still alive when I get off.
Let’s highlight other ways Randy has gotten Caught Up in Dramatics so she can further understand her language patterns:
Chana: Keep your eyes closed and watch yourself sitting on the bus. Notice what happens to you when you believe it’s like an oven, and you’re packed like sardines.
Randy: Uch. Right away I cringe. I feel trapped. Like I can’t breathe.
Chana: Is it true that the bus is like an oven?
Chana: I hear you believe it’s like an oven. But is it actually true?
Randy: It’s hot but… No. Not really like an oven.
Chana: Why do you describe it that way?
Randy: Um. I don’t know.
Chana: How does it serve you to describe the bus as being like an oven?
Randy: I feel kind of a rush. I feel powerful somehow.
Chana: This rush… does it feel peaceful?
Randy: No. It’s quite stressful. Anxious. Oh!
Chana: Why did you say, “Oh?”
Randy: I just realized… a lot of the time when I feel anxious, it’s exactly like this.
Chana: Exactly like what?
Randy: This same rush. This same stress.
Chana: What would you prefer?
Randy: To feel relaxed. To go with the flow more.
Chana: And how could you do that?
Randy: It’s like with the bus. I’m already on it anyhow, so I might as well accept that I’m not getting off. I don’t have to make it such a drama. I don’t have to fight it so much.
Chana: What could you do if you weren’t fighting it?
Randy: I’d have space to think. Maybe even to use the commute time to look for a job I like more.
Chana: You’d like to leave your job.
Randy: Yeah. I mean, I think so. But now I wonder if I’m maybe just blowing the things I don’t like out of proportion. Can we look at that next?
Chana: Sure. You said you hate your job. Is that still true?
Randy: I think so.
Randy: Well, first off, the hours are horrific. I have to wake up ridiculously early every morning to get there on time. Randy’s back to her superlatives. Let’s show this drama queen her day-to-day isn’t Shakespeare:
Chana: The hours are horrific, is it true?
Chana: How do you react when you believe that?
Randy: Tight. And… that same rush again.
Chana: Who would you be, standing at the counter without the thought that the hours are horrific?
Randy: I’d just be serving people. Same as before… only different. I’d be more present. I think I’d notice people more. Gosh.
Randy: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever really paid attention to any of my customers. I was too busy hating my job.
Chana: How do you feel?
Randy: All funny inside. I think part of why I hated my job was because I felt so lonely. But that’s because I never connected with anyone. It’s hard to do that when you’re pissed off.
Chana: Then is it the hours or your story about them that makes you lonely?
Randy: My story. For sure.
Chana: Let’s try and turn it around. What’s the opposite of “your hours are horrific?”
Randy: My hours are not horrific.
Chana: How is that true?
Randy: I get to work when it’s daylight. So I don’t have to mess up my body clock or anything.
Chana: What else?
Randy: Okay. This one is kind of embarrassing. Don’t laugh, okay?
Randy: I don’t have to commute during rush hour, so my bus ride is actually shorter.
Chana: Good to notice. Any other reason your hours aren’t horrific?
Randy: Horrific is a strong word and belongs in a scary movie. There’s really nothing horrifying about working 7-3. It’s actually pretty dull and predictable.
Chana: How does it feel to have dull and predictable hours?
Randy: No rush.
Chana: Less exciting?
Randy: Yes. But also more relaxing. I’d rather reserve excitement for the movies.
Extreme words and metaphors can make life feel thrilling and give us an adrenaline rush, but they can also block our ability to be present, see clearly, and think calmly. During our dialogues, Randy learned to pay more attention to her word choices and their effects on her physiological and emotional experience. She gained clarity on what she enjoyed or disliked about her job and, from a centered place, decided to look elsewhere for employment.
Summary of Caught Up in Dramatics
People who are Caught Up in Dramatics learn from seeing the effect their language has on their story of reality and their subsequent reaction to it. It’s important to identify these language traps so you can more consciously choose how you narrate the story of your life.
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