Talking to others and ourselves is positive and therapeutic. It safeguards our selfesteem and promotes our physical, mental and social well-being. So says Luis Rojas Marcos, one of the most renowned psychiatrists in the world and winner of a Fundación MAPFRE award in 2017 for the first mobile medical service to treat and hospitalize severely mentally ill homeless people. His latest research work focuses on the power of the spoken word. He maintains that children raised in chatty environments are more fortunate. They speak more and better, and are more intelligent and supportive. And he leads by example.
TEXT: NURIA DEL OLMO. @NURIADELOLMO74 PHOTOS: LAURA MARTÍNEZ
He has just arrived in Spain, a country he visits frequently. He is tired because he has barely slept. Nonetheless, he is brimming with vitality. His tone is optimistic and positive. He admits there is still a bit of that hyperactivity he suffered as a child and believes that, despite some traumatic experiences, he has been lucky in life. He owes this mainly to the love he receives, which is a lot, and to that which he gives. Currently, Luis Rojas Marcos (born in Seville 76 years ago) combines his academic work as a professor of Psychiatry and Public Health at New York University, where he has been living for 50 years now, with acting as the CEO of PAGNY (Physician Affiliate Group of New York). This non-profit organization is made up of 3,500 physicians and health professionals who provide their services in seven public hospitals, serving the needs of nearly one and a half million sick people with little or no income. After numerous books, such as The Seeds of Violence or The Broken Couple, he has now published We Are What We Say. The therapeutic power of talking to others and ourselves, a comprehensive analysis of one of the questions that has most influenced his personal and professional life
What made you write this book? And why now?
I’ve always talked a lot, maybe more than I should. It’s been very important in my life. At home I was told to keep quiet, not to interrupt. And I always had to keep myself in check. It’s also been key in my profession, especially when I arrived in the United States. I was just 24 and I had to start working in another language, which I barely knew. With this book I wanted to underscore the importance of talking to oneself. This has always been frowned upon, as it was associated with madness or hallucinations, yet this actually only affects a minority. Couldn’t be further from the truth. When we talk to ourselves, we are answering questions we ask ourselves. It’s strange, because from a young age we are taught to speak correctly, to say thank you, to be respectful. However, we are not taught how to talk to ourselves, with love and understanding, so as to accept and help ourselves. We must realize that talking to yourself is highly positive. It must be normalized.
“There are people who, without having a specific disorder, come to the office just to talk, to share their emotions and concerns. They brag about it, as they see it as an act of maturity, of responsibility to themselves”
You have always stated that we women live longer because we talk more.
Indeed so, and this has been scientifically demonstrated. When we study people over 100 years of age, of whom there are more than half a million in the world, one of their most evident traits is their extroversion. In other words, that facet of our character that implies a tendency to communicate, to speak and seek connections with others – in short, socializing. Within that ability to talk, the capacity to talk to ourselves also stands out. As I said, this is key to learning how to make decisions and foster self-control. That inner language is very common, for example, among athletes, as they need to encourage themselves. For that reason I feel we need to teach people, especially men, to speak more, as this will also help them to get to know themselves better and control their impulsiveness, which is more a male than a female trait.
You say that everything depends on the color of the words you use. What do you mean?
Words are so powerful. They reflect feelings. It’s no use talking to ourselves from a pessimistic stance, negatively. Hope is the key to thinking that something we want will actually happen, that our headache will go away, that when your daughter grows up she’s going to be sensible, and many other situations. Hope helps us feel better and has an added value, which consists in seeking the control center within yourself, i.e. thinking what you can do to solve a difficult problem. Saying to yourself, “it’s a question of luck” or “God willing” doesn’t make things any easier. You have to be proactive. I see it constantly with my patients. Those who strive to do their bit and get things done, who are aware that a large part of the solution is up to them, are the ones who manage to succeed.
You admit that the therapeutic power of speech still astounds you.
Psychotherapy or talk therapy is essential for personal development, for understanding and getting to know yourself more and better. And also for getting along better with others. In New York, where I live, there are many people who, without having a specific disorder, come to the office just to talk, to share their emotions and concerns. People there pay to be listened to. Some people even brag about it, as they see it as an act of maturity, of responsibility to themselves. They recognize that, with the right help, they can get better and abandon certain routines that are harmful for them or prevent them from fulfilling their goals. In Spain, as in many countries, the situation is starting to change and people are less reluctant to turn to a psychologist, until recently something considered a sign of weakness.
How can we become more talkative?
We have to shower children with words, talk to them a lot when they ar e very small, even before they are born, explaining to them what everything we say to them means. And they must hear us talk, especially in their firs t five years. t’s been shown that those who grow up in a chatty environment not only speak more and better, but also feel more satisfied and are more intelligent, extroverted and supportive. And television doesn’t work. It has to be the parents, grandparents and siblings who have a real exchange of words.
You once said that we are living in a highly connected, yet increasingly isolated, society. How can we combat this?
The telephone saved my life. It was in 2001, when the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers took place. I was able to call and seek help for myself and for others. Without a doubt, technology is very useful; it helps us communicate at difficult moments. At that time, I was in charge of the NYC Health & Hospitals Corporation. We were able to confirm that all the messages from the victims were positive. The problem arrives when dependency exists, when people misuse technology and become addicted to their phone, something they can’t live without. This creates a problem, a lack of freedom interfering with our ability to communicate face to face. We are ever more removed from having real relationships, a very serious problem, and it robs us of time for enjoying other kinds of activities such as playing sports, for example. We parents have to lead by example and, of course, set the limits.
How has psychiatry evolved in recent years?
There’s been an enormous change. Firstly, because of the research, which has enabled us to discover different ways of thinking, of being, which may be related to brain disorders, discoveries that were unthinkable 100 years ago. Both psychology and psychiatry are modern sciences that have enabled diseases like schizophrenia or depression to be diagnosed and treated much better than years ago. Education has also helped to get people to question themselves much more than before and have no qualms about putting themselves in the hands of an expert when they believe something is not right.
What are people most concerned about?
People no longer speak so much about seeking happiness, which is full of connotations, but rather with feeling satisfied with life in general. Most of my patients ask me for help because they have problems with a child, are unable to enjoy themselves or feel fulfilled in their work, or because they no longer like themselves. Also because they lack something, as they feel that life is no longer worthwhile, and they cannot sleep well or interact with other people. We also treat new ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, for which unfortunately there is no cure, and others, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which I suffered, or eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia, something that was not taught at university 20 years ago.
In a few words
HAPPINESS: mine and everyone else’s
MONEY: just enough
RELIGION: most believers are calmer when they die
FAMILY: for better or worse
EDUCATION: very useful
ONE WORD: I go for two, “sorry” and “I love you”