Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

His "Biological Cock": On Three Decades of Collecting Freudian Slips (Part 5 of 7)

How therapy clients can unintentionally entertain their therapist.

Unconscious Hilarity

Th't & pt Without the slightest awareness, clients have sometimes expressed themselves to me in ways that made their utterances far more memorable than they ever could have imagined. From listening to them talk about "lugging their luggage" to their explaining how their spouse didn't really "mean it mean," I've been unexpectedly entertained by their accidentally novel--even catchy--verbal constructions. Here are some examples of what (as a person formally trained to be sensitive to language) I experienced as inadvertently humorous:

• "He was always cracking jokes, even with his broken English." Here the client was describing her Ukrainian father, totally oblivious of the word play between "cracking" and "broken." But--former English professor that I am--the comical link between the two words jumped out at me. And in the moment I found myself simultaneously distracted and delighted by her fortuitous pun.

• I once asked a client if she saw herself as indecisive. She reflected on this for some time, and then finally responded (without at all perceiving how her word choice gave her away): "Well . . . yes and no."

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• "It's been an up-and-down roller coaster." Here the client was attempting to capture how he'd been feeling since his last session. What he didn't realize was that the redundancy of the compound adjective "up-and-down" immediately made me wonder what it'd be like for roller coasters to go sideways. (The problem with adding a modifier that doesn't actually modify anything is that it can prompt a vigilant listener to start a "hunt" for how such a "qualifying" word is meant to alter the word's basic meaning.)

• A client once brought in a eulogy she had written for her deceased mother. Although I was moved by how she articulated her loving attachment toward her, I couldn't help but have my attention temporarily diverted by the misspelling in the sentence: "My mother experienced many different rolls in her life." Nor could I avoid the speculation that perhaps this client had also been attached to her mother's cooking (?!). Doubtless it was nothing more than a misspelling. But my hybrid psychologist-English professor self couldn't help but wonder whether the client's nostalgia for her mother was partly tied to the very real physical nurturing she'd received during her upbringing.

• A client discussed with me the dilemma she and her husband originally experienced in having to sell their home--though by the time a viable buyer appeared and the house was in escrow, they had pretty much resolved their ambivalence. How, exactly, did she convey their ultimate acceptance of having to leave the house they had for so long lived in and loved? In a way that could only revivify my lifelong fascination with linguistic paradox: in her own words, "We were open to being closed" (!).

• An ex-marine sharing with me how badly his pride was wounded when his wife told him she wanted a separation. He expressed his reaction thusly: "It was a blow to my eagle." A true--even zealous--patriot, he reacted to her as though not only had she shamed or disgraced him, but somehow dishonored his country as well. (And now that I think about it, this example could probably also have been included in my "Freudian Slip" section. For substituting "eagle" for "ego" definitely revealed a deeper level of meaning. Still, in this particular case it doesn't appear that he betrayed anything personal that consciously he felt a need to camouflage.)

• This one (like the one immediately following) I've already used for this section's lead-in. But it's worth repeating here. This was a client who talked about her having to "lug all her luggage." Her inadvertently humorous wording had a funny-bone-tickling effect on me--at the same time I felt obliged after the session to check whether the word "luggage" might actually derive from the word "lug." And what I discovered was that, etymologically the word literally means "pulling or dragging." So, strictly speaking, the phrase "lugging one's luggage" is curiously redundant (unless, that is, the suitcase is on wheels . . . or happens to be empty!).

• "I tried not to let it bother me, ‘cause I knew he didn't mean it mean." Here's an example of one of the great oddities of the English language: that is, a homonym--two words identical in sound and spelling but totally distinct in meaning. Inwardly, when I heard the words "mean it mean," I inwardly gasped--not just at such a rare linguistic construction but also by the fact that the client seemed completely oblivious to her coincidental phrasing. (But then most people aren't inclined to react to language as I do. . . . Perhaps I should envy them.)

Now for my all-time favorite verbal mishap. This one caught me so off-guard that I struggled for several minutes not to laugh out loud. I still can hardly believe that the client seemed totally unaware that for several minutes I was struggling to suppress my amusement--during which time I bit my tongue so hard it actually hurt. This example speaks so eloquently well for itself that I'll refrain from supplying any commentary. May it "tickle" you even half as much as it did me:

• I once worked with a flight attendant who, for the past couple of years, had been living with a pilot many years her senior and who flew for the same airline. In one session she wanted to emphasize that although her employment status was certainly far below that of her live-in boyfriend, he didn't treat her as an underling but as an equal. To reinforce her point, she attempted the following analogy--which didn't come out quite as she'd planned (note the unconsciously "reshaped" last word). Defending their relationship as egalitarian, she firmly declared: "It's not as though he's the king, and I'm the pheasant" (!!).

Note 1: Earlier sections of this seven part post include "Introduction," "Most Memorable Freudian Slips," "Verbal Screw-Ups and Forms of Words Never Before Heard," and "Idiomatic Screw-Ups." Later segments include "Linguistic Creativity" and (my personal favorite) "Unexpected Client Wit." Hopefully, each of these parts, in their own way, will afford you some of the "innocent pleasure" I myself have experienced being privy to them.

Note 2: Please follow my psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter.

 

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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