When Words Fail


There are times, whether in therapy or in life, when words are inadequate. Listening to a story of heartbreak, sometimes my heart broke a little, too. If my patient watched me carefully (no failure on his part if he didn’t), he saw the tears in my eyes. Words would have intruded on what was happening between us. In a sense, the air, the touching contact of our eyes — the silence — did that which could be done.

This moment in US history cries — and cries out — for a response, but too many words have already been written and spoken. I am reminded of the composer John Cage, a wry and brilliant man. His most famous piece is entitled 4’33.” The composition consists entirely of silence. Quiet is appropriate for mourning, is it not?

Whether in words or in silence, compassion only goes so far. Expressed opinion only goes so far. But the emotional shards need removal, thus grieving comes first for most of us.

The work of therapy begins with the processing of pain. Sadness often robs us of motivation. Fear can paralyze. There are more catastrophes predicted than realized. Unrestrained anger turns you into the thing you hate. Rage is a motivator, but not easily prolonged or healthily maintained. No psychologist would urge you to try.

What then? Prior to counseling’s end you must change yourself if your goal is to change the world, whether one’s small personal globe or the bigger one.

Marcus Aurelius wrote,

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.

Like the wrestler we take a breath, search our ingenuity, and get up when we have been thrown to the mat.

A return to the fight is essential whether in therapy or life. Action — exerting control of what you can control — defeats the sense of helplessness.

In therapy and in life we are called to heroism. Courage is required to take on uncomfortable truths, beginning with those about ourselves. Difficult actions must follow. No heroism is needed to pour gasoline on your heart and light a match. Reason is your friend; emotion, not always.

Take responsibility and act responsibly.

Nor does one profit by the simple wish for a result, a passive hope for a change, or a patient wait for others to lift you. Freedom from your demons, in therapy and in life, must be won.

Our demons teach us who we are and what we are made of. Are they perhaps, in this way, our friends? Do we owe a peculiar debt to our challenges? You cannot think otherwise when you watch your 14-month-old child learn to master his universe, but you can when you have been decked. Regardless, whatever we want we must make it so.

Therapy is not an endeavor of a few weeks or months if the goal desired is substantial. Whether in therapy or in life you will succeed only if you persevere. Expect setbacks. Whether in therapy or in life, many make a fast start out of the gate, but fade before the stretch run. The finish line is not achieved and the problems then persist. Lasting dedication of your entire spirit triumphs over both temporary grievances and passing enthusiasms. No distractions are permitted for the true of heart.

Cato said:

When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched. … Good judgment without action is worthless.

Whether in therapy or in life the voice is yours, the choice is yours, and the action must be yours.

The painting above is The Silence by Johann Heinrich Füssli. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

24 thoughts on “When Words Fail

  1. The election of Trump is not normal. We must not normalize this or try to make a place for this in our national life.


    • Is that what you think I’m saying, Joan — that I’m attempting to normalize? If so, I’d be interested to know where you see that.


      • Sorry Gerry. My comment wasn’t really a reply. Just used your blog to let off a little steam. Words do fall to raw emotion at a time like this.


      • No problem, Joan. I was just checking to see whether I was misunderstood; or perhaps I should say, whether my writing wasn’t clear enough. Thank you.


  2. I will honestly say that I thought Trump too when I read: “This moment in US history cries — and cries out — for a response, but too many words have already been written and spoken…Quiet is appropriate for mourning, is it not?”

    The rest spoke volumes to my heart. If we ever stop walking up the down escalator, we’ll never get where we are headed.


  3. Dr. Harvey Friedson


    At times, the best initial response is silence. Words can come later. Thanks for a thoughtful essay.


  4. This post is rather profound for me as therapy has brought up the next layer of childhood experiences and I can see the painful sadness ahead. My own fear of facing it is significant and looking for a way to avoid it is activated. So I appreciate your reminder that only I can do the work if I am to reach my goals. Thanks to for adding that you were connected still to your patient and you heart broke a little to. My T Is showing some tough love, not letting me look to him to lift the burden. Hes very determined not to do the work for me so it’s comforting that he will stay with me while I do the work. iIts taking a heavy toll on my mind and body, wanting to sleep all the time and heavy going dreams, it can feel like a step back into sickness but I realise that to give in at this point would be the sickness. its scary to realise that only I can make the choice and do the work but therein lies the freedom. I have a choice, I have my own agency and that proves that the present is not the past where I had no choice about my experiences. As you say if the choice is mine the action must be mine to.🌈


  5. I’m reminded of the old saying, Claire, “Make haste slowly.” For most of us the fear of entering a dark room is greater in anticipation than realization; but you do have to be ready. You are the only one who can gauge this, but I’ll keep a good thought for you. Your determination is evident. You sound like the kind of patient therapists are wishing for, but don’t always get. Good luck.


  6. “In therapy and in life we are called to heroism. Courage is required to take on uncomfortable truths, beginning with those about ourselves. Difficult actions must follow.”
    ~ Thanks, once again, Dr. Stein for your words of wisdom. Much courage will be needed in the days ahead.


  7. Dr. Stein, I have nominated you for the ‘Three Quotes for Three Days’ challenge.
    The rules of the challenge are:
    1. Three quotes for three days.
    2. Three nominees each day (no repetition).
    3. Thank the person who nominated you.
    4. Inform the nominees.
    And it doesn’t have to be three successive days.


    • Many thanks, Rosaliene. The idea is intriguing. As Jack Benny, the comedian, said when he was approached by a “stick-up” man who said, “Your money or your life:” I’m thinking about it! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Greetings (and commiserations) Dr G – I undertake kick boxing once a week, it leads my brain cells into the lush green valley of happiness place – it takes everything I have to walk into the gym, I’m like human jelly, my hands are shaking, can’t breathe, too many people, too noisy, it’s like rubbing a cheese grater up and down my skin but then I take my hand wraps out and time stands still – three times around my wrist and I breathe, three times over my knuckles and I breathe, crosses through and around my fingers and I breathe and by the time I’m ready to put my gloves on there is no past or present or future – just this moment of breathing in and out – no need for words, time for action – and it’s sort of like that in therapy – sometimes there is no need for words and sometimes that is good and at other times my worst nightmare come true – and my psychologist knows I want to do the hard work and she knows that sometimes my words all get jammed up in their haste to vacate my brain and all I am left with is silence – then she brings out the paper and pens and crayons and we communicate in silence, with pictures, and like my hand wraps I breathe and the words come tiptoeing out respectful of the silence and I feel the connect with my psychologist, plugging into each other, and most times I don’t make eye contact but I feel her, her breaths, her silence and it is within this quiet courage of silence that we get the best work done – thank you Dr G for your courage to be silent, to leave the door to your soul open, to show your tears – for us fruit loops it’s Christmas day present time when we feel your brave, your connect with us, when you provide the mat and the out stretched hand to help us up – and we breathe in this silence

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well said Rosie, I love your comments. And thanks Dr G for the vote of confidence, even though it comes from the other side of the world it still means a lot to me.😄
    PS the moon is at it’s closest to the earth at the moment, its called the super moon and looks pretty special. You guys will probably be able to see it in a few hours. Hope the sky is clear for you, it won’t happen again until 2034🌕


    • I just saw the super moon, Claire! Very cool. But for you I wouldn’t have made a point to do it, as simple as it was. Thank you!


  10. I’d better get to the moon now, because 2034 is not promised! 😉 I wouldn’t have encouraged you if I didn’t believe what I said. Glad it helped.


  11. saw the moon in my time zone difference – sunset of rose marshmallow clouds and the fat moon mattress bouncing on top – drove up to the local mountain top hang out joint above the harbour, I was all wrapped up cocoon like in a blanket, strong espresso in a tin cup, cinnamon rolls from the bakery down the road – Bramble the dog all wrapped up in his own blanket looking like ET planning his trip home – just pure simple soul pleasure – a memorable gift from Mama N 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you, Lois. Hope your adjusting to your new environment.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “In a sense, the air, the touching contact of our eyes — the silence — did that which could be done.” As a writer, I’ve always put my faith in words, but you are correct Dr. G., there are times when words fail. I love the way you express the power of eye contact and presence. Whether in therapy or in life, I hope all your readers will be fortunate to experience this profound human connection.


  14. Thank you, Evelyn. I hope so, as well.


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