The Things Unsaid

Wise words come from many places. Whether the pictured quote is Arabic, Chinese, or Mongolian in origin, Ted Chiang rephrased it this way:

Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.*

Since I’m not an archer or a time-traveler, I’ll take a crack at the first of these, the words we say or leave unsaid. Some prove necessary or useful when uttered. Others fall flat, pass unnoticed, or enlarge misunderstandings. Still more cause injury.

In contrast, thoughts upspoken might best remain inside oneself, the better to fade like a penciled note long exposed to the light.

Should at least a few of your unexpressed expressions be released from their internal exile? Could they build you into a person who must be taken into account instead of one whose desires remain unknown or dismissed?

What to do? I offer some less than perfect guidance. Anyone who says he always knows when to speak and when to keep silent is a wiser soul than I.

Become assertive enough to say what is essential.

If you endure persistent fear of harming another, you will converse little or turn expert in conversational trivialities alone. Many who dread causing injury doubt the worth of their opinions and their way with words, expecting rejection of the message or themselves.

Most of us have our own default settings, a baked-in tendency either to say things or keep silent on delicate subjects. Developing the capacity for direct speech shouldn’t be sidestepped in a world of voices ready to cut you off and talk over you. The courage to speak when others hesitate offers the opportunity to develop a commanding presence.

Unless you wish to invite anonymity, you must say to some segment of the world, “Here I am, deal with me.” By doing so, you claim a sense of yourself.

The ability to convey sensitive words face-to-face will, at least, give you a choice of whether and when to verbalize, rather than leaving you capable of silence alone.

Expect to fail.

No one engages in successful communication at every opportunity. Conversations falter more often than we’d like.

Within the past year, a friend told me I was the single person in his life who expressed difficult truths he needed to hear. When I asked his permission to comment on sensitive matters, he encouraged me. A complaint about himself from his work supervisor caused him to ask for my opinion.

The gentle fellow didn’t believe anyone in his group of family, friends, or parishioners would provide a frank answer to the workplace accusation involving his personal hygiene. He wanted to know whether I detected the problem. No one else could be trusted, he said.

“No,” was my response, “I notice nothing offensive.”

I do not doubt either his decency or the gratitude he offered on multiple occasions. Months later, however, I expressed an unrequested piece of advice, mild, I believed, concerning Coronavirus precautions. He became angry, not because of political differences. The relationship fractured though I did not trade barbs, no matter his earlier thanks.

I’m not suggesting on which side right or wrong fell in this formula for unhappiness. My point is these are complex matters, the results of which aren’t always predictable or desirable. Yet humans still must speak.

The danger of holding things in.

The weight of unexpressed emotion grows as our anger, sadness, and injury accumulate, piling up and piercing us like broken slabs of sidewalk. For those who continue to bear this distress, psychological collapse becomes a risk. Costly methods of coping take the pained individual in a destructive direction. These include substance abuse, endless self-distraction, and flight from much potential social contact.

In the worst cases, the silent suffering spills into depression or momentary but outsized rage. Small things tip the balance. Witnesses won’t know about the unmentioned insults leading to explosive dyscontrol.

Ironically, the one who quietly bore the painful injuries gets labeled as “the one with the problem.” When asked why they didn’t speak earlier, such patients told me they “couldn’t find the words” to convince the offending party of his error and injustice. Too many described them as too sensitive.


There are no guarantees with words. No alchemist or sorcerer provides aromatic potions of syllables capable of filling the air with just the right inflection, volume, rhythm, and order of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Nor can we buy the perfect facial expression with which to deliver those sounds, the ideal amount of eye contact, an untrembling voice, and steadfast self-assurance. Stores sell no commodities to ease our most important and intimate communications, not even mask and costume shops.

One of the finest spontaneous public speakers I ever knew never mastered the art of saying the difficult things I’m describing. Occasional private verbal explosions resulted. Then his words lost the measure and eloquence his formal audiences heard.

Though none of us are at our best when internal passions bubble over, the need to recognize and reduce inappropriate anger is essential.

Self-expression can be more important than achieving understanding.

Some things need disclosure despite unlikely comprehension by the listener. You must stand up for yourself. The most dramatic examples from my practice came when newly decisive and brave abuse survivors confronted their abusers. Their triumph was in overcoming their fear. Whatever the words, their essence was this:

You won’t admit what you did, but you will never do that to me again. I won’t let you.

Conclusion.

Those of us who have forgiving friends or lovers are lucky. We receive acceptance and affection despite our less than stellar moments — the rash “spoken words” that “will not come back” among them. The survival of our relationships depends on our display of the consideration these kind hearts offer, recreating ourselves to become as forgiving as they are.

We live in a season of unusual sadness. Disease statistics tell us future opportunities to communicate with dear ones are not ensured. Endearments must not be postponed. The moment commends us to reach out to the estranged, including some of those we have injured or who have injured us.

Our intimacy and contentment depend on it.

—————

The last two images are the work of Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien

The first is of the Narrows at Zion National Park in December 2020. The second 2020 photo displays a Sunset in New Mexico.

* From The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang. Thanks to Phil Zawa for his introduction to this dazzling short story.

How Well Do You Fit in? The Therapeutic Dilemma of the Introvert in an Extroverted World

512px-Alone_(17677906163)

In my therapy practice I encountered many people who didn’t quite fit into the world. Sometimes it was because the world valued beauty and they were not beautiful, sometimes because they had no interest in sports where others cheered for a team, and sometimes because their skin color and religion were out of place. More often they believed their internal life didn’t match up with those around them: too sensitive or unlikeable or too serious; peculiar, different, odd. Quiet in a loud world, thoughtful in an impulsive world, gun shy in a world where many shoot first and don’t even ask questions later. Most importantly, they lacked a niche, a social group, a family or family substitute in which they felt safe and cared for — a place of solidarity and belonging — or an institution (like a small community church) offering something bigger than the commonplace mission of “getting and spending” and personal success at any cost.

To provide therapy for such people one must acknowledge that, indeed, some of us fit better into a different time and place. I’d like to look at the therapeutic model from which the counseling field grew and ask the question: does it still offer the best possible assistance to a person who is isolated, perhaps by his nature and temperament, perhaps by a society prone to discounting his human qualities, perhaps by a world transformed from being too closed to too open; perhaps by all of these.

Psychoanalysis, Freud’s method, developed in a Victorian Era, tailored to the values, customs, and morals of the time: a repressive society in which a woman who showed her ankle in public could cause a small scandal. Polite social gatherings didn’t permit discussions of sex. Revelation of personal problems betrayed weakness and breached decorum. One suffered silently. Not surprisingly, Freud offered a treatment designed to open those topics not disclosed elsewhere, fashioning the counseling apparatus to lift the gurney of a disapproving society off patients who had been crushed by it. In other words, psychoanalysis was a therapeutic approach tailored to a different social world than we live in today, at least for those of us in the West.

There was, however, a positive side to the era. Values identified in bold letters were supported by strong institutions. The family and church might crush you, but they also provided decisive direction and unconditional, although superficial, acceptance, at least if you followed the rules. You  weren’t on your own, adrift, and uncertain about how to lead your life. The restricted set of permitted choices made the day less complicated and overwhelming. The life map presented by family and social institutions, government and military, offered easy-to-follow steps.

If Freud were alive today would he have used a different model for treatment after his world vanished?

I suspect so. He could not fail to notice how the closed, restrictive, prescriptive social order has been replaced by one more permissive and open. A society requiring unquestioning acceptance of your parents’ religion, vocational advice, and veto power over a potential spouse has been set aside.

Now, for example, you are considered free to determine not just your faith, but whether you want a religion at all. Yes, parental direction and disapproval are still present, but they have lost a good part of their grip. A federal government that once ordered you to perform military service, today leaves the defense of the country to volunteers. Sex is everywhere (as are exposed ankles and more). There is no place to hide. Loud voices predominate. Extroversion trumps introversion. Freedom to make personal choices comes with the expectation you will make good ones instead of being overwhelmed by the array of possibilities. Few behavioral menu options are forbidden and most are public.

We live in a garden of delights or a world of confusion that would have seemed dreamlike, disorienting, and scandalous in the time of Freud’s early work. We cannot escape a Kardashianized existence of energetic, fast-talking, self-promoting performers who are role models no introvert recognizes in himself. Meanwhile, he has the vague sense of missing someone he has never met.

What components should therefore be added to the traditional “talking cure” in the second decade of the 21st century?

512px-Isolation_Lake_(5)

I’d begin with recognition that the social world of today is tipped to the advantage of extroverts. At least one-third of us, however, are not so classified. Methods of self-enhancement and personal validation for introverted clients must go beyond an effort to make them into fake extroverts. Temperament is more or less fixed by biological inheritance and very early experience. An introverted and insecure patient can become more self-confident with the help of therapy, but his preferences for privacy, quiet time alone to recharge his energy, and one-to-one contact over an affinity for large groups are likely to persist.

The introvert is not true to himself if he tries to become a chattering machine: the “Bigger Than Life” of the party. Treatment must value his qualities as an introvert and support him in his effort to find a useful niche within the work and social worlds that makes the best of his unique skills. His temperamental strengths include an ability to listen, reflective thought as opposed to impulsive action, seriousness of purpose, persistence, and a good eye for risks. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking offers a place to start.

A second component consists of helping clients find or create socially supportive, cohesive institutions and groups where they can attach to something less isolative, more fulfilling, and bigger than hollow self-interest. As noted by Sebastian Junger in his short, but powerful new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, our ancestors in prehistory lived in small groups (50 or fewer) whose survival depended upon pulling together. The tiny society was largely “classless and egalitarian.” Sharing was essential and little personal property existed. Loyalty was prized. Status, to the extent it was present, came from providing for the group and defending it in war. It was a place where quietly doing your part was enough for acceptance and approval, membership and the availability of a mate. Everyone fit.

Contrast such a living situation to the endless, senseless, heart-deadening contemporary competition to be as good or better than your peers and survive on your own or, if you are lucky, in a family including only a spouse and children. Our ancestors were bound together by a mutual necessity and support now replaced simply by sharing an address: living in apartment buildings and neighborhoods of nameless strangers. Isolation is the inevitable result of having little intimacy, as well as sham closeness dependent only upon the accident of sharing a cubicle or the ties of occasional after-hours good times that do not bind.

The therapeutic project of the urban, anonymous 21st century must recognize the present historical moment as especially challenging for the introvert. More than most others, he wants relationships of depth. The therapist’s transfigured and transfiguring task is to creatively enable his client to locate some way to connect, belong, and find meaning instead of settling for alienation — the extent of which few are permitted to know.

Treatment is a serious job for this serious person, it is true. What could be more fitting?

The first image is called Alone by PiConsti. Look closely for the tiny creature in the picture. The photo beneath it is Isolation Lake (5) in Chelan County, WA by Bala. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.