The Healing Power of Learning French
Learning languages to cope with anxiety and depression
How journaling saved me
I was a teenager when I grabbed my first empty journal. In an outburst of anger and desperate tears, I opened my drawer and let the words roll out of me, through my pen and onto the paper. Everything that my mouth couldn’t possibly share out loud – the hurt, the rage, the unappreciation, the judgments, the shame, the hatred all darkened the whiteness of the paper, page after page.
You see, I was so angry with everyone. And I couldn’t say it. I knew it would hurt them and I would disappoint them too much. And then, they wouldn’t love me anymore.
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As an adopted person, most people would consider me “lucky”. Tell me I should be “grateful” and stories of how “I was chosen” and “truly desired”. And even though most children don’t consider themselves lucky or grateful to be alive, I recognized these things as being the truth of how I should feel…
Instead, what I felt was being… Inadequate. Insufficient. Guilty. Of desiring, of asking. Of existing even. And mostly unable to express my authentic self for fear of being rejected again.
Now, as I write these lines at 36 years old, I know that this is common to most adopted children. It doesn’t matter how loving and caring the adoptive family is. The hurt must be seen, verbalized and recognized in order to heal. And as we desperately want to be “good” kids, who are loving, grateful, bubbly and fun… we lock it all in, put on a brave smile.. and pretend.
So I wrote.
I wrote to survive, to let it out, to be understood, if not by anyone else, at least by myself. As I was terrified that someone would find out about my deepest darkness, I wrote in the foreign language that only I could speak in my home: English. A very misshapen, unarticulated English at the time. But, still, it did the trick.
Journaling in a foreign language became my therapy.
We all have stories
I share this story with you because we all have stories. Whether they are traumas or not doesn’t really matter. We all have our wounds and shadows. The circumstances are different, of course. But even if at different levels, we suffer in the same way. This is what, in mindfulness, we refer to as recognizing our “common humanity”.
So, if telling my story in another language has helped me heal, telling your story in French can help you too.
A new windows to look within
You see, learning and speaking different languages can be seen as a way to reach out. We communicate to the world “this is who I am”. We recognize in ourselves that we are plural. That we move, speak and understand things differently in the different languages that we know. As such, every language we learn is a window we draw to look within through a different angle. Sometimes we shed a different light onto the familiar, allowing us to reinterpret it and understand it more deeply. Sometimes we shed light onto the unknown, that which we couldn’t allow ourselves to see with the eyes of our “mother” tongues. This is because our first language is the the language we have identified with, encompassing all the cultural demands and pressure, conscious or unconscious, of our tribe.
Detaching from thoughts and emotions
Logic and tradition would want us to do any kind of healing in our own language. We want to make sure we are understood and in cases of therapies, we usually prefer speaking with a professional who knows our language.
However, recent research has shown that telling our story in another language that we can speak but don’t yet master forces us to find creative ways to express ourselves. As we identify differently to this other language, it allows us the distance needed to detach ourselves from our thoughts and emotions. As a result, we can clearly see our own patterns. Just like in meditation.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung
As Mélanie Karp and Claus Vögele explain in their article Does Anyone Still Understand me, “the emotional distancing linked to the use of the second language may facilitate the verbalization of highly charged material”.
As understandable as it is to worry about not being able to find the right words to convey your inner world, I keep wondering: isn’t it just a question of perspective? Instead of focusing on what will be lost in translation, doesn’t it seem fascinating to overcome the fear of not knowing enough to see what we can gain as we find new ways to make sense of our inner world? As they state in their research, “the richness and variety of information representing multilingual memory may be accessible through the use of language nuances /…/ that structure communication differently in several languages.”
This isn’t to say that all forms of therapy should always be in another language. Using your first language for psychotherapy with a professional remains the most effective cognitive process to heal. However, going over your story line, blockages, limiting beliefs and wounds in your target language with a coach may prove to be the catharsis you need.
A beautiful – mindful – distraction
Another therapeutic effect of language learning, without having to dig deep into your subconscious, lays in its meditative aspect. In fact, when you are completely engrossed in your language learning practice, whether you are trying to figure out the meaning of a text or you are training a specific grammar point, it requires your undivided attention… far from the hurt.
Many students have shared their story of overcoming their anxiety and depression by delving into the study of another language. Being focused on your task, you enter the flow, and you are mindfully in the present moment, instead of being stuck in your past or worried about the future.
Doing something that is engaging and productive is therapeutic per se. But there’s a dimension to language learning that goes beyond that. It allows you to perceive your connection to something bigger than you. It reminds you of your humanity and that of others. It highlights that you are not alone, as you become part of a community of French learners. But it also reinforces your place as a human being in this universe.
Moreover, languages are fascinating and full of surprises, and as you continue to make progress, you reinforce your self-esteem. The reward of learning something new has incredibile positive effects on us because it tells us how capable we are of growth and progress. It reminds us of our dedication to improving our skills and ourselves and gives us a sense of purpose, that becomes ultimately higher than just the fact of knowing another language. Because if you can progress in French, there’s no reason you can’t progress in anything. If you feel curious and excited about particular French expressions or turn of phrases, there’s no reason you can’t feel curious and excited about the world. Ultimately, it allows you to see the world around you with a new refreshed perspective, which proves to be a powerful tool to beat depression.
From self-worth to self-concept
Expressing myself in English wasn’t just therapeutic in the analytical sense of traditional psychology. It enabled me to reinvent myself, and to not let my story hinder me from becoming who I’m supposed to be.
Now, as I’ve stated above, progressing in French as you keep on learning is a wonderful way of rebuilding your self-worth and therefore your self-esteem. It’s not about “finding” who you are ( for you were never lost ) as much as “reconnecting” with your true nature, which, if you’re learning French and reading this, probably goes along the lines of being a growing, passionate and curious person, with a certain love of learning.
Your self-concept is different from your self-worth. It is the future you, who you wish to become and how you want to present yourself to the world, to achieve your purpose, to be fulfilled and to make a positive impact in the world according to your own values and desires. But oftentimes, again, we are limited by our own language.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Creating your future “you” in French is therefore not only a great idea, it is almost a magical tool. The lens of French will allow you this extra space for your soul to express itself. In my case, for example, Italian is very effective for me to dig into my past and heal, a bit like an archeologist. English allows me to be funnier, more direct, assertive and to take risks. As I made the wish to become more united with my body and my feminine side, Spanish has been a powerful way for me to do just that. Can you see how the way in which each language helps me grow is in fact connected to its culture and mindset? I find that fascinating!
Coaching in French?
Coaching is different from therapy: It doesn’t linger on the past and instead focuses on future goals and solutions. As a mindfulness practitioner and life coach, I personally feel there is a strong connection between the past and the future. I recognize the importance of telling your story and seeing it for what it is, before you can put it aside and concentrate on your present, and the future you want to create.
Needless to say, Life coaching, or any kind of coaching has an interesting impact when done in French, or as a francophone, in English. In my case, for example, working with business coach was a no-brainer. I didn’t even look for a “French-speaking” coach, because I knew from the beginning that 1) she was the right coach for me; 2) working in English would allow me to think outside of my “French-thinking” box.
In the same way, the students who I have been accompanying in my courses and programs have seen progress both in their life, on the personal or professional level, and in their French fluency.
As you can see, learning French isn’t only about developing communication skills for your next trip to France. It can be much much more than that. It can enable you to understand yourself much better by casting a new light on your shadows. So you can tell your story and transcend it in order to become who you were always meant to be: your authentic self. For when you are secure in who you are, there’s nothing that can prevent you from achieving anything you wish to achieve.
What about you? Have you experienced the therapeutic effects of learning French or another foreign language? Share your insights in the comments, I’d love to hear your story!
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