Ambiguous Language and Recognizing Emotional Conflicts in Others - Part II

The literary critic William Empson took Freud's idea of intrapsychic conflict as a springboard for appreciating the art of the poet, which in turn is a way of understanding the poet. Empson conceptualized intrapsychic conflict along psychoanalytic lines, but his ideas can just as well be relevant to a conflict between the individual's self and the family system to which that self belongs. In the book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, he listed different types of literary ambiguities which indicate increasing levels of confusion in the minds of both the reader and the author. One of the reasons that literature excites us is because we identify with or contrast our feelings with the feelings of the characters as they encounter various predicaments. Those feelings are frequently not fixed, but mixed. Both we and they are plagued with doubts and contradictions. In much the same way, we can enter the internal world of others within our social system. In both cases, we are confronted with various degrees of ambivalence and confusion.Empson's seven ways in which levels of "two-mindedness" are manifested in language are the subject of this post. Their presence can be used to alert a listener to the possibility that a motivational conflict is present in the speaker. Being able to spot this is key to understanding and then constructively discussing (metacommuncating about) repetitive dysfunctional family interactions. In general, the degree or level of the speaker's awareness of his or her ambivalence increases as we proceed down the list.1. A statement's makes possible comparisons to several points of likeness or difference. This type of ambiguity turns on the fact that any idea or emotion causes a multitude of associations within the mind of the listener, and also because different people have different associations. A choir, for instance, can lead one person to recall positive images such as grand churches and angelic singing, while for another it summons negative images such as overbearing nuns in Catholic school or guilt-inducing sermons. This is precisely why people use metaphors and why metaphors make language so rich; a single word can stand for so much. A statement is ambiguous when the listener finds himself or herself wondering which of these many potential references and feeling states is in the mind of the author or speaker.2. Two or more alternate meanings are fully resolved into one because to what a metaphor is really referring seems fairly clear. This device may or may not be ambiguous, depending on whether or not a question exists as to the actual meaning of the author. 3. Two apparently unconnected ideas are suddenly connected. A good example of this type of ambiguity is the pun. An ambiguity arises whenever a question exists as to whether or not to connect the meanings, or about how to connect them. I remember an instance in high school in which I made a remark to a friend about another fellow student whom I disliked - which that guy overheard - about how he belonged to an anti-nuclear weapons organization. I mentioned that the fellow "was in SANE."   4. The speaker indirectly expresses mixed feelings or ambivalence without admitting to them, through the use of exaggeration. Confusion can be communicated, for instance, by provoking in the listener a sense of "methinks he doth protest too much." In other words, when individuals overstate their feelings, a listener may get the idea that they are covering up opposite feelings. The process involved can also be understood as a manifestation of a the defense mechanism known as reaction formation. Individuals may defend against an unacceptable idea by becoming obsessed with the opposite idea, or defend against an unacceptable impulse by compulsively acting in ways contrary to the impulse. A good example was the scandal that surrounded the television evangelist, Jimmy Swaggert. He had vociferously condemned from the pulpit all those who gave in to the "sins of the flesh." As it turned out, and as many of his critics had suspected all along, he had been giving in to the same temptations himself.5. An individual communicates two ideas which may contradict one another in passing from one of them to the other, but does not address the question of their apparent inconsistency. The speaker either does not seem to be holding both ideas in mind simultaneously or never juxtaposes them, so that the issue of their possible mutual exclusiveness can arise for discussion and clarification. For example, a man may expound on his belief that the only road to satisfaction is hard work, and then go on to complain about how bummed out he feels at his own job. As a therapist, I often notice such possibly contradictory statements made literally weeks or even months apart. A therapist really has to pay attention and write good notes about sessions to pick up on this. 6. The speaker says something in a way that actively signals to the listener that there should be some doubt as to what has been said. The speaker appears to have avoided making a commitment to an idea or expressing his or her true feelings. In this situation the speaker cannot be held accountable for holding any particular opinion. Damning with faint praise would be one example. When a basketball coach describes a player as "tenacious on defense, and always gives one hundred and ten percent," he is generally not describing one of his starters. A second example is the use of words like "strictly," "exactly," or "totally," as in, "she was not, strictly speaking, very intelligent!” A third way is through the use of nonverbal communication. A grin or a raised eyebrow will often negate the content of what is being said at the lexical level. In all of these cases, the listener is forced to guess what the speaker really means.7. The last type of ambiguity is a full contradiction, in which the author or speaker obviously seeks to "have it both ways." In type seven, speakers make statements which indicate neuroticism or indecisiveness. They may go on and on ad nauseam describing the pros and cons of particular viewpoint or course of action without ever making a decision. They may obsessively waver back and forth on an issue. They may without warning plunge from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair, or from the idealization to the denigration of a person, thing, or concept.

 
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