Words Are Not Reality

We are a culture of interpretation. Increasingly we are influenced by “spin,” the interpretation of reality in terms of specific kinds of meanings. People who are facile with language and explanation can convince us about what things “really mean” simply by being good at using words. We tend to believe what people say, even sometimes  not noticing what they do; we tend to overvalue verbal relating and undervalue other kinds of relating. Such as actions. Or silence. Or support of various kinds.

Especially in relationships that matter, we become happy or sad or angry or bereft based on what a person says, even though we know that people’s feelings and actions are unpredictable and change over time. On top of that, we forget what we know about that person, what has transpired over the course of the relationship, and what we ourselves think, feel, or believe. And, in a moment of thoughtless talk, we create distance and isolation.

For example, I was talking with a young man about his wife, who tends to argue with him. He becomes exasperated with her and comes home late or watches television to avoid her. But as he is telling me about their relationship, he begins to describe the many ways she cares for him, including cooking for him, worrying about his health, pushing him to ask his boss for a promotion, and asking him about his day. He continues to describe how she actually behaves in the relationship with him and as he does, he starts to realize even her most annoying kinds of nagging are really only about trying to get him to take better care of himself. He puts together the picture of how she inhabits the relationship, and he realizes her agenda is about his well-being and not about conflict or her own needs necessarily. She may not be adept at expressing how much she cares about him, but she is solidly in his corner in her heart.

Here is another example: sometimes a person will tell me about adventures in online dating. There will be an initial flurry of emails in which each person fashions a sort of email poetry of expression, creating a rush of infatuation. The words are temporarily felt as a reality about that person. Then comes the moment of truth: The in-person meeting. It turns out the writer is nothing like he or she seemed in the words written. The illusion crumples and the relationship evaporates.

We do try to articulate our experience, and we try to share our experience with each other. But we cannot put everything into words, and we cannot take a description of reality to be equal to that reality. We listen closely to each other because one of the ways we connect is understanding the other person’s description of his or her experience. But understanding a description of an experience is not the same as understanding an experience. We need to value our verbal explanations and take them seriously while simultaneously remembering that is only part of the reality.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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3 Responses to Words Are Not Reality

  1. George Parker says:

    This is a wonderful reminder that actions, past and present, count when trying to get the big picture of any relationship. The noisy or verbal part should never over shadow the silent or simple action part. Your first example shows that, even if the two parts don’t seem to match up, a closer examination of one will shed light on the other and the REAL picture will be revealed. Thank for sharing these thoughts.

  2. As a theatrical artist, the process of what I refer to as reality diffusion is not only useful for personal development, but increases artistic skill as well. Thank you.

    • norasblog says:

      Thank you for your comment Jessica. What a great perspective. Artistic skill is so important because it liberates us from some of the unnecessary rigidity in our accustomed habits. You are so right.

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