A man walks in to a doctor's office, punching himself in the face every three seconds.
"Doc," he says, "my face hurts. It's been this way for a few weeks. Can you help me?"
The doctor, caring deeply about his patient's health, immediately subjects the man to a series of rigorous medical examinations. "We'll get to the bottom of this", he assures the man.
A few days later, the man goes back to visit his doctor to discuss his test results.
"It's as I feared, sir. There's no easy way to say this...you have an acute case of Facepunch. You have a couple treatment options, but unfortunately, there is no cure for Facepunch. We'll put you on some painkillers, give you some boxing gloves for the days when it really gets out of hand, and we can discuss possible drugs that could reduce your symptoms. Other than that, there isn't much we can do for you. On your way out you can pick up a pamphlet about support groups for people diagnosed with Chronic Idiopathic Facepunch."
It’s an unusual word. If you're curious, it comes from the field of linguistics. More importantly, it's a really slick way that we can imprison ourselves in a victim mentality. Learning not to use nominalizations--or to be aware when you do--opens up new ways to get around your problems you might not have found any other way. We’ll start with a definition.
A nominalization is referring to a verb as a noun. If that doesn't seem important, hang on.
Said another way, it’s talking about a process or event as though it were an object.
Said yet another way, it’s taking something that is happening right now, and pretending it’s something that’s finished, frozen in time, and can’t be changed. It’s like changing a movie into a still picture.
Here are some examples of nominalizations. Ask yourself, are these nouns (people, places, things), or verbs (processes, events, things that happen)?
Here’s a sample list: stress, fear, the economy, music, posture, love, creativity, anticipation, enjoyment, talent, state (as in “state of the union”), beliefs, attitudes, pitch, rhythm...there are lots of them.
All those words are listed in the dictionary as nouns…but they aren’t really nouns. A true noun is a person, place, or thing. Look at those words again. None of them are people, places, or things. They’re verbs, they’re things that happen. Events. Processes. But when they’re listed in noun form, you don’t notice that. You couldn’t fully capture them with a photo, you would need to capture them with a movie.
To take a big example--there’s no such thing as “the economy”. It doesn't exist. You can’t find it on a map, you can’t put it in your pocket, and nobody’s ever seen it. It’s not there. It’s not anywhere. “The economy” is shorthand for “all the buying, selling, investing, and trading that happened in some place, within some time frame”.
By the way, this is why we have nominalizations. They save on words. Sometimes that's fine. Other times, that shortcut comes at a nasty price. It can make you fail to notice aspects of a problem which are within your power to change. "Stress" is the perfect example.
Just like with the economy, there’s no "thing" called stress. It's shorthand for “thinking about things I don’t like until I feel bad”, which is a process. The shorthand version is nice for keeping sentences short and snappy, but it sucks for not having stress. The reason it sucks is that nominalizations delete information--often the very information you need to solve a problem.
For example, if I say “I have a lot of stress”, I’ve lost track of the fact that stress is really a behavior, an action word, something that I am doing. There's no such thing as "stress" for me to have. I don't have something, I'm doing something. Saying that I have stress completely deletes the fact that my stress is the way I’m thinking--which I’m doing right now, and can therefore stop.
If I say “I have a lot of stress”, what does the solution appear to be? Well, what do you do when you have too much of something? You get rid of it. So the solution seems to be “remove the stress”.
This presents a problem. The problem is that that solution is stupid.
Why is it stupid? There’s no such thing as stress. Trying to get rid of "nothing" doesn't work. You can’t purge it from your body, because there’s nothing to purge. Stress doesn’t dissolve in a spa, and it doesn’t fizzle and go away if steeped in alcohol. We know this because it doesn’t exist--at least not in noun form.
By contrast, I can spell the nominalization ‘stress’ out longways: “I’ve been thinking about things I don't like for so long that now I feel bad, and I haven't stopped doing it”. When I re-state the problem this way, what’s the new obvious solution? To stop!
This is handy, because it is the only cure for stress.
I can pick something else to think about, or I can think about the unpleasant things in a way that doesn't bum me out. Even if I keep getting distracted by the unpleasant thoughts, I’m still failing in the right direction. Eventually I'll get better at it and it will work, and when it does, I won’t have any stress. That's a claim alcohol and spas can’t make. That's a claim that nothing else can make.
If you wanna get better at stuff, one thing you need to learn to do is state a problem in a way that makes the solution obvious. Finding and undoing nominalizations is a power tool for that. Once you can find them and spell them out longways, you can see the situation more clearly, which in turns lets you formulate intelligent solutions that have a good shot at working.
Wouldn’t it be nice to tackle your problems without doing it blindly and in a completely random direction?
Finding nominalizations is an essential element of your bullshit detector kit. A nominalization usually means there are holes in your thinking.
Pretend that you've been accused of a crime. You know you're innocent, and the cops are reviewing video footage to see if you're guilty or not. But instead of a video, they only look at a still photo from the video, and that's all they're going to use to incriminate you. Wouldn't you rather have them watch the whole video before they made up their minds about whether to send you to prison?
As silly as this sounds, to the degree that you have nominalizations in your thinking, you're doing this to yourself--a nominalization is a movie turned into a still photo that claims to represent the entire movie.
To turn the still photo back into a movie, you find a nominalization and spell it out the long way. That's how you recover the information deleted by the nominalization and plug up the holes in your thinking. Sometimes, once you’ve filled in the holes, your problem no longer exists. Nothing more is required. Other times it doesn’t solve your problem, but gives you the clarity you need to make up some intelligent solutions to try.
I stole (and applied in my own way) most of what you read here from a book I highly recommend, although it’s not light reading. The Structure of Magic, by John Grinder and Richard Bandler. There are two volumes. The stuff I stole comes from volume one.
Bandler and Grinder’s test for deciding if something is a nominalization is this--picture a magic wheelbarrow that can grow or shrink to any size you want. Try and put the noun in question into the wheelbarrow. If it doesn’t go in the wheelbarrow, it’s a nominalization. For example, the internet wouldn’t, your computer would. The wind wouldn’t, air would. Stage fright wouldn’t, your audience would.
The point is, if you think it's a noun and it doesn't go in the wheelbarrow, you're missing something.
If you have a problem, write it out in a couple of sentences. Look at what you wrote and scan for nouns. Throw them in the wheelbarrow, and if they don't go in, you've found a nominalization. Demand the full story. Write it out the long way. Fill in the blanks. Sometimes the thing that un-sticks you is what’s in one of the blanks.
Sometimes the only thing that can un-stick you is in one of the blanks.