As a therapist and counsellor using Transactional Analysis, I am particularly attentive to the language people use. Something I come across in conversation not only in the therapy room but in everyday life, is the use of the word ‘you,’ in particular the use of ‘you’ when referring to
oneself. For example:
Person A is complaining to Person B about their boss at work. Person A ends their account with,
‘but you just have to put up with your boss talking to you like that don’t you. I mean you can’t really do anything about it.’
Who is person A actually talking about with their use of ‘you?’ If I were listening to Person A’s account in the therapy room, I might well ask,
‘are you talking about me or you here?’
In my work as a counsellor and therapist, I have often found that the use of the word ‘you’ to refer to oneself is a reflection of both verbal and none verbal messages a person has received from another, regarding how one should behave. To explicitly ask a person who they are actually referring to when they use the word ‘you’ when recounting a story about oneself, invites the person to consider where the message of how they perceive they can respond in the situation, actually comes from. To encourage them to use ‘I’ and similarly ‘me’ instead of ‘you,’ when speaking about oneself can be powerful.
Consider how different person A’s account sounds when they replace ‘you’ with ‘I’
‘but I just have to put up with my boss talking to me like that don’t I. I mean I can’t really do anything about it.’
On hearing this, I’d be keen to inquire as to where their thinking comes from; why do they have to put up with their boss speaking to them in a way they don’t like and why do they feel they can’t do anything about it? To reflect on the origins of our thinking in such a way can help us to elicit the source of our thoughts and determine our genuine thoughts based on how we feel we can respond as an adult in the here and now and, what we might refer to in Transactional Analysis, our ‘contaminated thoughts,’ which is those thoughts that we believe to be our own but, if analysed closely, are actually an internalised thought of a parent, or other authoritative figure from when we were a child.
So why do people speak in such a way and why is it so common? To think about it from a Transactional Analysis perspective; we could say the use of ‘you’ when referring to oneself is an indication of somebody else’s voice, likely an older persons voice. As children, we grow up exposed to powerful messages from the adults in our lives such as parents and teachers. Such messages can be verbal and nonverbal and are often based on what the adult feels is acceptable or unacceptable ways of behaving and how they would like us as children to behave. Examples include ‘you shouldn’t cry in public,’ ‘you get what you’re given,’ ‘just do as you are told.’ As children we learn how to navigate these messages in order to feel accepted and ok. For example, we learn that if we don’t complain about anything then Mummy and Daddy will be pleased with us and we avoid getting into trouble.
We can take these messages with us into adult life and live our life by them; even repeating the same messages we were told as children with our own children. Just because we are adults doesn’t mean we simply leave behind the messages we have learnt to live by as children. Such messages can be reflected in our behaviour and in our conversations with others.
I also think the use of the word ‘you’ when speaking about oneself can be an attempt to believe we speak for the majority; that there is a commonality to what we are saying, therefore to use the word ‘you’ feels appropriate as there is a sense that everyone else shares our thinking about whatever it is we are talking about, and feels the same way as we do. To think that everyone else shares in our thoughts and feelings I believe can feel comforting for an individual, and create a sense they aren’t the only ones who feel they can’t challenge an unreasonable boss for example; that we all have to just put up with things we don’t like.
Linked to this, in everyday conversation, how many of us would actually challenge the use of the word ‘you’ from someone giving us an account of something that’s happened to them? Therefore, does our lack of challenge inexplicitly say to the other that we share in what they are saying, that yes, you can’t challenge an unreasonable boss?
Perhaps an alternative challenge is to individually be mindful of using ‘you’ when actually speaking about ‘I’ in conversation with others, particularly when recounting what feels like a dilemma. Rather than challenging the other person’s dialogue, perhaps challenge one’s own as a way of beginning to explore the origins of one’s own thinking. To do so, could be enlightening and prove to be rather powerful.