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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Language Psychology

E Primed

The late psychologist, Albert Ellis, who I studied under at Rutgers University, showed his genius when he developed the concept of e primed, an idea that has its roots in the work of the philosopher, Alfred Korzybski.  In his clinical work with patients, Ellis observed that when patients rated themselves on the basis of their actions, they would often become depressed or anxious.  This negative emotional state came from the consequence of these patients not always attaining a satisfactory result in some task they had undergone.

Ellis employed semantics, a philosophic area of study that Korzybski created, in defining e primed.  He labeled e primed all the words in the English language minus the verb to be in all its uses and conjugations.  E primed written as an equation then becomes:  E (all the words in the English language) – e (verb to be) = e’ (e primed).  We are often shaped by the way we use language.  In adapting Ellis’ technique in my private practice, I have helped many of my clients overcome their negative feelings, such as anxiety or depression.

Let me illustrate how this works:  Clients may be suffering from depression when they see me because they have failed an exam in school or one for a job promotion.  Frequently, because they see themselves as failures, the origin of their depression arises from the clients’ view of themselves: Their verbal description of themselves is:  We are failures.  Note, the use of the verb to be, as expressed by “are,” reduces the behavior of their failing the exam to their identity that easily leads to self-judgment.  In revising their use of language from being failures to having failed the exam, I help them eliminate evaluating themselves.  Rather than them saying they are failures, I  have them change the structure of the sentence to they failed the exam.  Here the verb, fail, replaces the noun, failure, and makes failing the exam an action rather than an evaluation of self.  They now can see more clearly that they are not failures because they failed an exam.  I inform them that they are underestimating the complexity of their personality in defining themselves on the basis of one failed exam.  I have helped many clients by employing this technique that relies on semantics or the meaning of certain words in the context of their use.

When I worked at a bilingual clinic, I studied Spanish and became conversant enough to communicate and do therapy in Spanish.  In studying Spanish, I observed a fundamental difference between the English and Spanish languages in how the latter expresses the verb to be.  In Spanish there are two equivalents to the infinitive to be:  Ser and Estar.  Ser is employed when expressing a more permanent condition such as:  The boy is Mexican or he is a boy or she is a girl.  Estar is used to express a more temporary condition and/or location or place such as:  He is depressed or she is at home right now.  So, someone that is depressed would say:  Estoy deprimido(a), rather than soy deprimido(a), the latter of which indicates a permanent state rather than a transitory one.  In English, this would translate to I am depressed that implies a fixed state as it identifies the person with depression.  One can circumvent in English this pitfall by saying “I feel depressed” rather than “I am depressed.”  In Spanish, however, by using estar to describe the depression rather than ser, the speaker recognizes that the depression one is experiencing is of a tentative, rather than enduring nature.

In addition to encouraging clients not to evaluate themselves, Ellis believed that the use of the verb to be resulted in labeling people without their really knowing them.  He maintained this often leads to prejudgments that may be laced with negativity and hatred.  In this latter case, both Spanish and English have the equivalent use of the verb to be.  As in English, when one is called an American, likewise in Spanish, the verb, soy, indicating permanent action is expressed by:  Soy Americana(o).  Given the current political climate in America, Ellis would have claimed, as both less pejorative and less prejudicial, for one to say:  America has racial problems, rather than America (or Americans are) is a racist country.  The former avoids labeling and oversimplifying the several contrasting features implied in the word American.

In summary, the use of e primed in thinking about oneself, decreases the probability of overgeneralizing a situation that could lead to a negative emotion such as depression or anxiety.  Furthermore, the language of e primed reduces the likelihood of detrimental views by others of one’s ethnic group, religion, race or nationality.