Some years ago, during the heyday of the self-esteem movement, I was invited to teach at a large weekend drug and alcohol conference. Most of the presenters talked about how critical it was to build up clients’ positive self-concepts to help them stop using drugs. But while everyone seemed convinced that self-esteem was important, when I asked my workshop group what exactly self-esteem was and, more important, how they could help clients enhance theirs, the room went quiet.
“OK,” I said. “Let’s imagine that I’m hooked on drugs. Help me improve my self-concept. Help me out. What should I do?”
“Well, you could use operant conditioning,” someone suggested.
“Great!” I responded. “Condition me. Show me what you can do to help me improve my self-esteem.”
The room got quiet again. “I’d start by helping you heal your past traumas,” another person eventually volunteered.
“OK,” I said. “Let’s imagine that I was sexually abused as a child. Show me how to build up my self-concept in a way that’ll heal that.”
Again, the room went quiet. My point in keeping up this line of questioning for almost 20 minutes was to make a clear distinction between what psychologist and communications theorist Paul Watzlawick called descriptive language—which tells you about something—and injunctive language—which tells you what to do. It’s the difference between describing a meal to someone and handing over a recipe.
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