The Collective I

It has been an exciting week finding the extensive work of James Pennebaker, psychology professor at The University of Texas Austin and author of the book The Secret Life of Pronouns. According to Pennebaker, our use of function words, and especially pronouns, are useful indicators of mental health and other aspects of behavior.

Language Yoga is all about owning all parts of me. In his TEDx Austin presentation, Pennebaker states, “People who tell the truth use the word ‘I’ more… They’re owning what they’re saying.” Psychological ownership is very beneficial not only for expressing truth and authenticity, but also for cultivating positive attributes about the target of ownership. Feelings of ownership create an “enhanced self-concept” and trigger a sense of responsibility for the target of ownership. (Van Dyne, Pierce: Psychological Ownership and Feelings of Posession, 2004). By making the target of ownership absolutely everything, I become more fond towards the whole world. I make my self concept infinite and also gain an amazing sense of responsibility and care for all things. I see all as alive and conscious, because “it’s all me.”

Furthermore, according to Kanagawa, Cross, and Markus 2001, “I use reflects self-focus… focus on the self is required to achieve collectivistic values such as harmony, empathy, and self-criticism to please the in-group.” This shows that a solid understanding of who the “I” is in each one of us is crucial for a solid foundation of social civilization. When the “I” in each one of us, or the  collective “I”, is broken, the collective society will show signs of stress due to inequality and division, as is the case in the current world. Language Yoga works to heal the split in the collective “I” by encouraging people to expand their sense of self beyond their individual bodies and into the world around.

A major portion of Pennebaker’s findings show the broken state of the modern collective “I”. Those who use the pronoun “I” along with other first person singular pronouns more in their dialogue and writing tend to be depressed, neurotic, more likely to commit suicide, lower in status, less confident, more honest, and more likely to be female than those who refrain from first person singular pronouns (Pennebaker and Chung: The Psychological Function of Function Words, 2007). These findings at first seem to fly in the face of the Language Yoga Technique, but upon further inspection, this signal of “I” is coming from the fractured “I”.  The purpose of Language Yoga Translations is to merge this fractured “I” by translating projections into ownership and expanding the sense of self into the allness beyond the body. This translating and expanding, in my experience, heals the fractured “I” and makes it whole again.

The findings of Pennebaker shows that the common person is acting from a place of diminished I or “poor me”. Language Yoga  brings in the enhanced I or “all me” to form a complete whole. Because the majority of folks out there have probably not experienced the expansive “all me” of enlightenment, it makes sense that this signal is not contributing to the current findings. Therefore I conclude that the findings of current research are in alignment with the philosophy of Language Yoga. Although it is stated that there is “a positive correlation between non-I personal pronoun use and subsequent mental health” (Pennebaker and Chung: The Psychological Function of Function Words, 2007), I stand strong in my assertion that the enhanced/expansive/enlightened “I” is not represented in the experimental results.

It is important to note that although Language Yoga does focus on enhancing the “I”, flexibility of pronoun use and learning to see the world from many different perspectives is crucial to psychological healing (Pennebaker: Secret Life of Pronouns, 2001). If I can own what I am projecting, then using we, you, and other third person pronouns are completely healthy and encouraged. The “I” is the foundation, and once that is solid, the you and we will be built on solid ground. Perhaps there will soon be new pronouns to reflect intimacy and wholeness that was lost with the loss of the English second person familiar tense “thou.” I think the Rastas are on to something with the expression “I and I”. Regardless of the term, the flexibility of pronoun use and seeing the world from other perspectives is the key to health.

Finally I wish to add this, I am convinced that the path to this enhanced collective “I” is not found through working with pronouns alone, enlightenment is attained through the path of experience, also known as Tantra. Pennebaker, in The Psychological Function of Function Words, explains that inducing or forcing people to change their pronoun use does not affect the results of the experiment, pronoun healing only works when the person changes their pronouns on their own terms. Just as my revelation of the “all me” occurred after significant lifestyle changes, I can only expect that others would need to go through a similar shake up to come to the same conclusion. Therefore my efforts at this time will be directed more towards the “Experience of Tantra” rather than the roles of either therapist or scientist. Thank you for your interest in this discussion and feel free to leave a comment.

Much Appreciation to Pennebaker et al. for their comprehensive research into the importance and power of pronouns.

– Aaron


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