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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: trauma

emotional journey

(1980’s | therapese | “what one is going through,” “going through changes,” “progress(ion)”)

Wouldn’t “Emotional Journey” be a great name for a band? I know, “Journey” has been used, but that name hits all the right notes somehow.

“Emotional journey” comes up often in arts writing, and it can mean the sequence of feelings that a song, story, poem, frieze, etc. puts the viewer, etc. through, or simply the progressions of people’s feelings that occur within the narrative. (It is something that only individuals or small groups that function as a unit can undergo, but there is no reason an entire nation, or the whole world, couldn’t participate.) In other words, it may be what the character or performer goes through, or it may be what you go through — and there’s no reason they need be the same. Before 1980 or thereabouts, the phrase normally denoted travel of some kind that had a strong cathartic effect on the voyager, as a return to a childhood home, a religious pilgrimage, etc. The therapese usage turns that around; the emotions are the driving force, and the journey tags along as metaphor, a shadow of its former self. Once a comfortable adjective-noun combo, now it’s closer to a compound noun.

“Journey” is the word to watch, because it has grown into many phrases, such as “adoption journey,” “cancer treatment journey,” “mental health journey,” “weight-loss journey.” The use of “journey” is apt, implying progress through sequential stages toward a long-range goal, usually some form of healing, reconciliation, or self-improvement. We used to say “come to terms with” (accept or acknowledge), and often “emotional journey” refers to that process. It appeals to a long literary tradition that includes The Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, and Pilgrim’s Progress, and it has affinities with diaries (“journals”) and the epistolary as well, fictional or otherwise. In its modern uses, it also generally connotes a difficult, grueling time (sometimes it’s simply a euphemism for “prolonged trauma”); it is often used to talk about survivors of serious accidents or illness. That, too, is at least somewhat in accord with the literal meaning. A journey is a long trip (as in “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”) that might very easily include an epic adventure or two, but even if it doesn’t, it will take some time and take something out of you. A literal journey has a destination, and figurative ones do as well, always with the understanding that you may never actually get there — but it remains a reason to keep striving. For all that “emotional journey” suggests pain and sorrow, it retains an optimistic sound; as long as you stay on it, you have a chance to get where you’re going.

While I’m here, I’ll posit “notional journey” to refer to any fictional voyage in the tradition of Gulliver’s Travels or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “promotional journey” for a traveling salesman’s memoir, and “demotional journey” for dealing with lost status at the office.

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Stockholm syndrome

(1970’s | journalese? therapese?)

survivor guilt

(1970’s | therapese)

Two expressions that go with traumatic events. Both phrases existed in the seventies, largely as technical terms that might make an occasional appearance in the press but still felt specialized. The syndrome was indeed born in Stockholm during a bank robbery and hostage-taking in 1973, after which the hostages defended their captors and refused to help prosecute them. The phrase has been defined more rigorously but still goes with situations where the victim of some sort of kidnapping or forcible restraint comes to identify with the perpetrator (and possibly vice versa). It is not a recognized medical or psychiatric term, as far as I know. “Survivor guilt” (or “survivor’s guilt”), which is commonly used by mental health professionals, seems to have originated after the Holocaust to denote the pain felt by those who had escaped death at the Nazis’ hands but lost loved ones. The phenomenon — I would rather have died in their place; why not take me instead? — is much older. Several sources in Google Books say the expression was invented in 1961 by psychiatrist William Niederland; I also saw it attributed to Robert Jay Lifton writing of people who lived through the atomic bombings in Japan. As these examples suggest, it often went with mass death and destruction.

Despite the fact that both expressions move in fairly small and well-defined circles, they have undergone some broadening of meaning. “Survivor guilt” has seen a change in scale, so that it is readily applied to relatives of suicides or individual victims of violence, an evolution that seems inevitable when one considers the murder and suicide rates in the U.S. “Stockholm syndrome” seems to be slipping into a much broader meaning that sometimes has little discernible to do with literal captivity and subjugation. It may be invoked to explain why some people stay with others who are bad for them, whether in a job, a relationship, or a political alliance.

I yoked these phrases together in a single post because I sense a connection more multifaceted than simply trauma. They both describe states of mind that may begin while a threat is active and continue long after it is dispelled. Both have seen more use because of the pandemic, “survivor guilt” for obvious reasons and “Stockholm syndrome” as a somewhat imprecise explanation for popular acquiescence with mask mandates and other overreach (i.e., the people are embracing the oppressive government). I’m armchair psychologizing here, but they both partake of a kind of overcompensation to the loss of autonomy or companionship, an unusually powerful reaction to a deep feeling of powerlessness.

I have not seen “survivor guilt” used much in cases where one person has accidentally caused the death of another (as opposed to failing to prevent it). It often arises even in cases where no blame can reasonably be assigned to the survivor; just knowing you made it through while others didn’t may bring despair with it.

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