“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
— Winston Churchill
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Speaking and Feeling
What if you spoke to yourself and yourself answered in a different language?
Feelings and intellect are different ways of engaging with the world and we poorly translate between them. Everyone knows this, yet hardly anyone works to reconcile the differences. Perhaps we don’t understand the differences ourselves.
Our solution is to celebrate the intellect and denigrate our emotions. We keep our emotions in check and we tell ourselves they’re under control. It is starting to be recognized that this is a fallacy and that our intellect rides on our emotions. The intellect keeps emotions out of the front office, but your emotions have a key to the back door.
We like to think that we have reasonable mastery over our behavior, and we pretend this means our behavior is reasonable. But reason is a foot soldier to our emotions, and emotions are higher up the chain of command. The same emotions we dismiss as crass and brutish guide our thoughts more than they’re guided by our thoughts.
We communicate in words and profess commitment to our presentations. Yet, so often, people’s actions do not live up to our expectations and, to be fair, we don’t live up to other people’s. We write this off to miscommunication, evasion, and sometimes dishonesty. What we don’t recognize is that we communicate in two languages, one verbal and the other nonverbal, and we communicate two intentions, one intellectual and the other emotional.
If we’re really skilled, honest, and maybe lucky, our intellectual and emotional intentions coincide. When this happens we’ll give the same verbal and nonverbal messages. But when they don’t align our verbal message is dominated by our intellect while our nonverbal message is emotional.
Disagreement is the source of much of our frustration, and I believe most of our miscommunication is intentional. Not intellectually intentional, but more along the lines of emotionally noncommittal. Call it ambivalence, confusion, dishonesty, or betrayal. Whatever we call it, the result causes much suffering.
We take little responsibility for our communication. Rarely do we reopen past issues to rebuild understanding. This is partly because we’re not sure what other people think, and partly because we hope misunderstandings have been resolved. Good relationships require constant reworking at their foundations, and few of us do this work. That’s why many of our relationships are in trouble.
Disagreements go unresolved either because bridges have been burned or the misunderstandings are too great. We skirt around our communication failures trying to shore up broken resolutions. Leaky boats rarely fix themselves, they tend to get worse, and the same is true with relationships.
Our preference to avoid recognizing problems lets those people who make a habit of betrayal slip by unrecognized. As long as we don’t call them out, they continue to believe they’re acting reasonably. The problem is more one of failing to be proactive, than failing to react. Once everyone’s intellects and emotions are in conflict, the relationship boat is not only leaking, it’s on fire.
Words have a life of their own, and most of what we say we don’t really mean, it’s just all we can think of. If you learned to speak what you felt, if you really could communicate your emotions, then not only would you be better understood, but you would raise everyone’s communication to a higher level.
Emotions are not word-based, and when we try to convey emotions verbally we’re on shaky ground. When we verbalize, we know what we’re saying, but we’re not sure of what we mean. When we communicate from our emotions, we know what we mean, but we can’t really put it into words, or we refuse to.
My most serious misunderstandings have come from my domestic relationships. In each of the two relationships that failed, I didn’t see it coming. I consider myself a victim, but I also consider it my fault.
It was my mistake to have accepted emotional debts on the basis of credit I should never have granted. I believed in good faith. I believed in that ultimate of intellectual delusions that love will find a way.
I suspect this would describe many of those of you who are reading this. I would not be surprised if, after all your experiences, you’re not doing much better at what you’re doing now than you were before. It is a mistake to blame yourself for being misunderstood—unless you knew you were lying and did it anyway—but it’s correct to blame yourself for accepting without question what you wanted to believe.
If you were lying and knew you were, then your future is bright and your path to improvement is clear: stop lying. Your mistakes are plain and all you have to do is reform. Once you do, then you’ll be in the same boat as the rest of us: trying to achieve honest communication. At least there will be a chance.
You are to blame for believing what you were told, not for accepting the facts, but for accepting the implications. It’s your error for emotionally believing what you were intellectually told. Not only were you foolish then, but you’d be foolish now if you did it again. In fact, giving emotional credence to intellectual statements is almost a contradiction.
More likely you did the best you could in expressing yourself, but what you did not do was take responsibility for believing what you heard. And what you heard was more what you wanted to hear, and less of what was authentically meant by whoever said it. These errors of trust pervade work and friendship where they are tolerated, but they can be fatal in intimate relationships.
We make statements intellectually but we make commitments emotionally. The intellect sees the world as a puzzle and fit jigsaw puzzle pieces together. It’s always open to making adjustments.
The emotions represent the whole picture, the whole puzzle. Changing one’s commitment changes everything; it creates a new picture. It’s like tossing out one jigsaw puzzle in favor of another. So what happens to the partner who is still trying to fit together the pieces from the old puzzle?
We are poor at reconciling our intellectual and emotional presentations because we don’t know what they mean ourselves. Our left brain’s reasoning is not fully informed of our right brain’s emotion. I may be more uncoordinated than most, but that also enables me to see the two parts separately. I’ve learned to see the shape of the individual pieces, and I’ve learned to appreciate the whole.
One of my partners was great at making commitments with absolutely no emotional foundation. She had no idea what a commitment was, and I had not idea of what a commitment wasn’t. I cannot blame her for that, but I failed to understand. I believed what I heard because I wanted to. That’s only as good as it goes, which is a lovely example of an emotional truism that is intellectually useless.
Certainly, we all lean in the direction of what we want, and it’s our discernment that keeps us out of trouble. This is why people become more discerning and less impetuous with age. Older people have been around the block a few times. They’ve seen what younger people don’t believe, which is that if you do what you did before, then what happened before will happen again.
It’s your fault when you don’t recognize a mistake the first time. That doesn’t mean you can avoid it the next time, but it does mean you’re responsible for seeing it. Some mistakes are too costly to repeat, and your mistakes are the only faults that you can fix.
How does one fix these kinds of errors? One starts by recognizing the distance between intellectual constructs and emotional truths in oneself. Recognize that between what you do know and what you don’t know lies a vast plain of ignorance. It looks small, like a puddle you can jump over, but that’s because you see neither its contents nor its boundaries. When you try to jump over what you don’t know, you’ll find yourself floundering in a sea of ignorance.
By recognizing the disparity between intellect and emotion you can begin to build bridges between the two that have some foundation on both sides. It’s our own responsibility to understand the contracts that we accept. “Read the fine print,” they say, but in this case the emotional terms are not written. You must find them in nonverbal form.
Judging from my own mistakes, and those I infer my clients make, it’s clear that understanding the true feelings of another is not a simple matter. Our odds of success would be greatest if all parties were honest, and that’s the problem: all parties are not honest. Honesty doesn’t even exist where there is no insight.
Truth is the brick and mortar of relationships, but it can get no farther than you are honest with yourself. Just as my previous partner did not know her feelings, so she could not present herself truthfully. In most disagreements that I encounter, and in many of the misunderstandings I explore, there is a great lack of truth.
Distinguish what’s true from what’s fact. This will allow you to distinguish what’s false from what’s a lie. Facts and falsehoods have little to do with truth and lies. In matters of the heart, most people can be trusted to convey the facts but few people will tell the truth.
The reason is simple: there is one kind of fact and two kinds of truth. The two truths are the intellectual and the emotional, and while the intellectual truth is closer to fact, the emotional truth is more significant. And just as intellect and emotion don’t speak the same language, the two kinds of truth don’t share the same universe. This means that when you’re assessing another person’s truth you really have two separate truths to consider.
When treading on intimate territory, people won’t tell the truth because they don’t know it, and they don’t know it because the truth is emotional and they cannot understand it themselves. Instead of telling the truth and disadvantaging themselves—since all presentations seem equally false—they reinterpret your questions and give you the facts. Do you love me? Yes. Can I depend on you? Yes. Are we best friends forever? Yes. Gone in a year.
If you’re like me and many others, you’ll take the facts as truths that justify your hopes. You’ll dismiss the fears of others because you don’t want to hear them. You have practice using rational arguments to overlook emotional feeling in yourself.
Emotional truth means seeing your own emotional ignorance. This is not a factual truth. It is not absolute. It is the truth about how much you don’t know. It takes a lot of self-respect to see and to accept your ignorance.
Goals and Means
I approached relationship partners in the same way that I approached mountaineering partners: two people trusting their lives to each other in order to reach a goal. Mountaineering partnerships are a beautiful thing, but romantic relationships are more like two thieves robbing a bank, both looking after their own interests.
What else would you expect when people have a common goal but no common means? That is the difference. In physical or financial pursuits we share and understand the means to the goal, but in relationships we don’t share a common means.
Maybe I was just too naive; I’m inclined to feel that way now. But I do know what commitment means, and I know when I can offer it. In contrast, most of the “smarter” people with relationship problems don’t know this.
I was certainly wrong in assuming both honesty and commitment in others, and I was wrong in equating facts with truth, but I can now distinguish the two. That’s a skill many people need to learn.
How do I communicate these distinctions to you? For one thing, I can talk about it as I’m doing here. For another thing, I can model it. That’s much more subtle that you might think. Finally, you have to be ready to hear it, and most people are not quite there yet.
In truth, being ready is the most important ingredient. If you’re not ready, you won’t hear what I say, you won’t appreciate what I model, and you won’t care. You might take honesty as an indication of weakness. Some of my clients have done that, and I recognize it when it happens. They’re looking for a “Doctor Goodbar” who knows and sees all, but that doctor doesn’t exist.
When you’re ready for full honesty in others—which means you’re ready to see what you don’t understand in yourself—then there is not much more that I can do for you. My task is really just to get you to that point. Once you cross the threshold of honesty the world changes. You then see the uncertainty, dishonesty, parasitism, and betrayal in others and, possibly, in yourself.
Maybe you want a better relationship or job, or to improve your finances or your family situation. You’ll feel the need, express it sensibly, and form a plan. We’re marginally competent at each of these things, which means we’ll come up with a plan that might work.
But the most important thing is to be honest about all that you don’t know. To recognize all the things that violate your hopes and preconceptions. Until you do that, you’re plan is going to go the same way as your previous plans.
These days, when things have gotten increasingly confusing because of how interrelated they are, honesty is confused with pessimism. Optimism is popular. Pessimism is seen as a lack of faith.
The Law of Attraction is believing reality is attracted to your wishes. It’s a faith that circumstances will arrange themselves, which they tend to do when they’re the right circumstances. But in more chaotic times the circumstances tend to be whatever was flushed out of the bushes. Those circumstances don’t tend to line up.
The function of a counselor is not to advise you, it’s to help you find emotional truth, see the line between truth and falsehood, and cheerlead you across it. They can’t force you, but they can continue to hold you to the line, and they might refuse to work with you if you won’t cross it.
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