You Are What You Say, by Matthew Budd and Larry Rothstein

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n.b. I read and reviewed this book as part of my coaching program, hence the references to coaching throughout this post.

Budd, a medical doctor, had been convinced by a friend to attend an est seminar, even though he thought it was hokey. He went because he felt he was ineffective as a doctor, unable to help most of his patients with their everyday health problems and was looking for new answers. At the seminar, a woman started to ask an angry question, and then suffered a severe asthma attack to the point where she couldn’t breathe. He ran towards her, saying that he was a doctor, and would have to intervene to rescue her from her plight. The seminar leader told him to sit down, and turned to the woman, and said “Look at me, I am not your father!” He asked her to look at his right ear, his nose, his mouth, and asked if those were her father’s right ear, nose, mouth, and she irritatedly said no. Then he said “I’m not your father, am I? So why are you so angry?” and she broke down in tears, and the asthma attack was over. Budd was stunned. He had been taught that a physical ailment like an asthma attack required a physical intervention by him as a doctor, and yet the seminar leader had cleared up the attack through just words.

Budd describes his subsequent journey in discovering how deeply intertwined our physical and mental states are. Budd developed the Ways to Wellness program at Harvard Community Health Plan as part of his journey, and this book is a summary of his understanding of the mind-body connection, and how addressing a patient’s physical symptoms alone may not be enough to cure them if their mental state is not addressed.

The author details how he learned that the structure of our brain and body determine how we respond to events. Our brains and bodies have been shaped both by our genetic inheritance, but also by all of the events we have experienced. What we experience and perceive is determined by these structures, and therefore is not merely a function of what happens to us, but also our entire history. Once we accept this world view, we can no longer blame others or our situation for our responses; he summarizes the teachings of Maturana as “If you want to change yourself, you have to change your structurally determined responses, not alter your environment.”

The heart of the book is the chapter titled “You Are What You Say”, where he explains how the language (or narrative) we use to describe our experiences affects how we perceive the world. We make declarations about the world (“the future is hopeless”, “no one would want to help me”), and our brains have learned to perceive the events in the world to match those declarations; we interpret those events through the lens of what we believe. But if we understand that our brain structures alter how we perceive the world, we can hack the system; by changing our declarations, we can change the world we experience.

I loved the book’s description of Fernando Flores’s five actions taken with language: Requests, Promises, Declarations, Assessments, Assertions, as well as the subsequent ten ways in which language can fail to communicate what we intend (what Budd calls “The Ten Linguistic Viruses”). The five actions framework is helpful to understand how interactions have gone awry by focusing in on what specific actions were being attempted with language, and how those actions might have been perceived by others. The examples of the Ten Linguistic Viruses were great for illustrating common language breakdowns, such as making unclear requests, making promises without being clear on the request, and confusing assessments or assertions with the truth. They are a great checklist for me and my clients when an interaction has not gone as desired so that we can unpack what happened.

I also liked the Five Linguistic Vitamins for Health and Well-being that he suggests, and aspire to live by these principles:

  • Make clear requests
  • Decline with respect and dignity
  • Listen to assessments as assessments, not as the truth
  • Convert complaints to clear requests
  • Promise soundly and take care of broken promises

Once the book explains the challenges with language, he explains how language can directly affect one’s health. If a client makes an assessment that is disconnected from reality, or requests that are ignored or unmet, then that could be met by the client with anger or frustration or stress (raising blood pressure and risk of heart disease) or with depression (giving up hope, and lowering immunity response). By becoming more skillful with language, particularly by treating assessments and requests as languaging rather than reality, clients can learn to control their perception/world and derive better health as a result.

Budd’s subsequent summary of lifelong learning was excellent:

  • Awareness: First understand the situation through meditation (to know yourself), listening to others, and body knowledge (listening to one’s mood, emotions and posture)
  • Acceptance: Accept what is, and separate that from what “should” be (your expectations). A phrase from another book that applies is “Acceptance is not approval”.
  • Action: “Taking new actions with recurrence and practice will develop an altered structure, a new body, a new mind, and a new set of automatic actions that are more consistent with your current values.” Learning has not happened without Action.

I found this book helpful in summarizing the science to support the mind-body connection, and in sharing specific language techniques to improve one’s health and approach to others. It’s particularly persuasive because it was written from the perspective of a doctor that was originally skeptical, so it’s more practical and less “woo woo” than other books in this domain. From a coaching perspective, I loved the many exercises and practices outlined in this book that I can use to help clients (and myself) observe their body and emotions, understand how their history may have contributed to their current structure of interpretation, and develop their skill with language to change those interpretations.

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