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Word! The Language Column
Does That Trigger You, Too?

Illustration: A man with a poster that says “yeah cool”
People take the liberty of diagnosing themselves and others | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Jagoda Marinić has had her fill of psychobabble. We’re overdiagnosing mental disorders, putting too much pressure on ourselves to self-optimize. How are we to find happiness by quantifying and tracking our every move? Marinić calls for more freedom to be ourselves and lead a simple, unquantified inner life.

By Jagoda Marinić

There was a time when the growing popularity of therapy was a source of widespread concern: we worried about turning into a “therapeutic society”. Nowadays, pick up books from back then and you’ll find them downright antiquated – because the therapeutic society has long since become a reality. There are too few rather than too many mental health services available to those who really need them. So much for the pathological side of the story. On the linguistic side, on the other hand, there’s a glut of “psychobabble” these days, and this trend, which is catching on in what are not exactly homeopathic doses, is driving me ballistic.

Personal narrative giving way to on-the-spot diagnosis

“Have you ever really listened to yourself?” is a frequently asked question lately. As if there weren’t good reasons why we use our auditory canals to pick up the sounds of the outside world and not just the noise of our internal organs and our own trains of thought. The ideal of the self-optimized society has come to be taken for granted – and so much so that people hardly stop to consider whether mental health doesn’t actually tie into something the ancient Stoics were already preoccupied with, namely the search for a meaningful life.

It’s as if armchair psychology had hijacked the way we see ourselves and others and the way we talk about our life experiences. Our everyday conversations are now peppered with what are supposedly terms from psychotherapy, regardless of how imprecise they may be. Whatever the experience reported, what counts nowadays is not the subject’s account of what happened to them or the power of the language used, but to formulate a diagnosis on the spot. So people take the liberty of diagnosing themselves and others: “That triggered me so much!” Or: “That traumatized me!” Or: “What a narcissist!” And when we ourselves feel the magnitude of the triggering event doesn’t quite live up to the words used to characterize it, then we say our feelings were triggered by “microaggressions”.

Technocratic acts of self-quantification

It’s certainly good for us to find out how our hearts and brains presumably function, but the knowledge dispensed nowadays, especially on social media channels and in magazines, fixates our attention on individual dysfunction and deforms the way we talk about how we’re feeling. Whatever the symptoms seem to be, the same panacea is usually prescribed: mindfulness or meditation. The instruction we receive to achieve the meta-level of self-organization almost turns talking about ourselves into a technocratic act: a matter of body scanning and breathwork.

As a German philologist, I’m open to changes in the language. After all, language is always evolving. But the technization of everyday functions in the interest of optimization is suddenly turning my own language against me. As if everyone were Edward Scissorhands in their own garden, snipping away at the flowers and hedges inside themselves with clumsy psychobabble. Only seldom does this process give rise to imaginative dreamscapes as in the film with Johnny Depp: instead, we end up quantifying ourselves to satisfy our apps – all of which is of course “evidence-based”, a sort of MOT test of our prospects of salvation.

Mindful meditation vs. old-fashioned daydreaming

People have always made themselves miserable by striving to maximize their happiness. Seldom before, however, has the language of the quest for happiness been mangled as invasively as it is today. Rather than using philosophy-based terms that allow for individual interpretations, it’s all about the “quantified self” now. “Train your mind” – but what the hell is this “mind” anyway? We’ve got apps now that pat us on the back if we manage to meditate mindfully for ten minutes a day. In the old days, we’d stare into the street, lost in a daydream. Was that mindless meditation – and therefore less effective? Or was it actually more deeply relaxing because we went about it without any intention?

Optimizers hijack the language

Intention – oh yes, another optimizer term: “What is your intention?” Anglicisms, which otherwise never bother me, really rub me the wrong way in this German New Ageism. But the term that triggers me most these days is “manifesting”. “Manifesting” is what they call it when, say, some rich guy is sitting in his infinity pool, working on his “mindset”, using positive thinking to will the universe into getting him another villa in Bali. Folks use say rather unpoetically that “das Leben ist kein Ponyhof", literally “life is not a pony farm”, i.e. life ain’t easy. But nowadays the universe will grant your wishes in the here and now if you “manifest” them just right. All you need to do is use the present tense to conjure up the world you wish to live in and think to yourself, “I’m rich. I’m swimming in the pool in my villa in Bali. I am calm and relaxed.” The psychobabble phenomenon has even hijacked syntax, for the unconscious mind likes very plain language – supposedly.

Perhaps I, too, should learn to “manifest” my wishes to the universe in a state of utter inner calm. This would then be top of the list: We all go back to speaking as if we still had an inner life and weren’t just working on it. Do you say “amen” at the end of a manifesting session?

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.