Uncomfortable, Unknown, Unfamiliar –Are They Bad Words?

Who would have thought that two little letters like ‘un’ could have such power?

An innocuous little word, no, a prefix in fact but when added to words to make uncomfortable, unknown, unfamiliar – it has the power to make grown men cringe with fear.

Perhaps it’s magic. As Sigmund Freud said “Words were once considered magic…do not despise the use of words” [specifically in psychotherapy in his case].

Or maybe it’s not magic. Perhaps it’s something more visceral. The founder of the field of General Semantics Alfred Korzybski would call a bad physical-emotional reaction to a word or concept – a semantic reaction.

Do people really have bad reactions to words or concepts? I think you know you do (grin).

Just complete the sentence “Don’t talk to me about…?” or “I have a real problem with…x?”

Whatever the answer, especially if it makes you feel un-comfortable(!) – this is the thing with which you have a semantic reaction.

You literally cannot mention some subjects with some people. Ask someone who has been really, really hurt and betrayed to talk about ‘love’ or ‘commitment’ or ‘trust’- and get out of the way of the flying pans!

What people are reacting to are the meanings they have given to these concepts, these ideas. And concepts are built of meanings.

A concept is, essentially, a way for your mind to categorise and recognise items in the world. Your mind creates a category description such as ‘cat’ and then you build up a list of criteria by which you recognise it.

Take the example of the concept of a ‘loved one’.  How do you know they are who they are?

Because they respond to their name? That is not enough. Because they look like the person you love.

That’s not enough either because my wife gets confused with her sister all the time: it is the fine details which makes the difference. It’s the exact pitches of their voice, the exact creases around their eyes, the way they say your name.

And then there’s the more abstract concepts such as ‘success’. How do you define success? It’s an important question which most self-help books will ask you? Why?

Because someone else’s concept of success might not work for you.

What about Howard Hughes, who died with millions in the bank, hiding in a filthy room with a chronic dirt phobia and fingernails so long they were talons.

Or another multi-millionaire who said that he would exchange all the money he had for one happy marriage.

Were they successful by their own standards? I doubt it but perhaps they didn’t think of that until it was too late.

As Jesus said: “What does it profit a man to gain the world and yet lose his soul?”

What indeed?

So, back to words beginning with ‘un’?

How do you do when you realise that some feeling is (un)familiar or (un)certain?

What about when something is ‘unknown’? Is it? Really?  Have you ever considered that things are very rarely 100% un-known?

After all, if we’re dealing with other human beings – are they totally unfamiliar entities? Do you know nothing at-all about the other person? Absolutely nothing about the situation? No idea at-all what to do.

If so, then you can say “‘yes’ it’s totally un-familiar.”

But the truth is, it’s actually more a case of how you process the concept and you may be doing it using an ‘either-or’ linguistic formula: Either it’s 100% familiar – or 100% not. And this creates polarities in the brain where you think you have everything familiar, known or certain – or nothing. Very stressful.

Basically, we tend to equate unfamiliar, and unknown with something bad when in fact it’s simply just…not familiar…not known…not certain.

How, is that inherently bad? Did God decide that the ‘unknown’ was evil?

If so, surely He would have made us with omnipotent powers! No, lack of knowing something is a very human, very natural and normal condition.

Not knowing is simply that, a circumstance or a state of ‘not-yet-knowing’. It’s the meanings you give to that not-knowing that count. And that comes back to your concepts.

You need to start finding the familiar in the un-familiar and the known in the supposed unknown. For instance, if you were to say “I don’t know how to finish” – well, maybe not this project. But have finished before? Have you finished anything before? Of course you have. So how did you know you were finished then? Can you use anything you learned there, here?

Secondly, what is your concept of ‘unknown’ etc?

List out the meanings you use: What does ‘unknown’ mean to you? If you find it means ‘fear ‘then consider if that is the most useful definition!

What if, instead, every time you felt one of your ‘uns’ you mind went “AWOOOOOGAHHHH! Oh joy! Learning on its way!!!”

What if you got REALLY curious about the unknown? What if you got excited? What if you couldn’t wait to find out what there is to know?

How would that affect your life for the better?

Your concepts or definitions of the world make a HUGE difference to how you live your life. Mostly, we go around unaware of how we have defined our world and ‘right in our own eyes’.

Yet there are 7 billion people on the planet and we are all ‘right’ – to ourselves.

One of the definitions of wisdom in the Bible is the ability to make distinctions between good and bad, and what works and doesn’t work.

You need to be able to check how well your ‘map’ of the world, the criteria you use to deicide what to do NEXT works for you.

You need to be able to examine your own thoughts and understand that they are only a mental ‘map’, a symbolic re-presentation of the world around you. And a map is only as good as it is an accurate re-presentation of the ground it stands for.

A map…can be redrawn. And concepts can be re-conceptualised. It’s just a question of believing they can…and knowing how.

Robert Dilts, in Sleight of Mouth says: “A core belief of NLP is that if you can enrich or widen your map you will perceive more choices available to you give the same reality. As a result you will perform more effectively and wisely no matter what you are doing.”

Your concepts are a KEY part of your reality. Once you change your concepts – you can and will change your life.

If you want more specific help re-constructing and deconstructing your life concepts then you can get the downloadable audio product: Change Your Concepts: Change Your Life from Living Words at: http://www.livingwords.net/change-your-concepts-change-your-life-mp3-course

To your highest and best,

Douglas Cartwright


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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