|A sentiment less obvious than it seems.|
Tevye: “Do you love me?”
Golde: “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow … If that’s not love, what is?”
One of the core principles of cognitive therapy is that we react not to the world as it is, but to the world as we interpret it.
This would not be so important if the world was clear to us. But the world is often ambiguous. Into ambiguity a vast tapestry of meaning can be woven.
My reflexive example when describing this idea is a boss who frowns as she passes us in the hallway. What does the frown mean? She’s about to fire us? She ate too much pizza at lunch? She’s worried about her sick goldfish? Our emotional reaction depends on the interpretation that we make.
Unfortunately, we often make these interpretations automatically, without conscious logical thought. We aren’t even aware of making an interpretation, and think we’re reacting to the facts. “Why are you anxious?” “She frowned as I passed!”
The greater the ambiguity, the more room for error on our part.
In cognitive therapy we often focus so much on our own interpretations that we can forget that the same principle applies to other people. We ourselves are ambiguous stimuli for the rest of the world to interpret.
In close relationships we are intimately aware of our own feelings regarding the other person. Those feelings are so obvious to us that it seems inconceivable that others can’t see them. If challenged, we’d say that our feelings seep imperceptibly into our behaviour, and this behaviour must make the feelings visible.
We’re probably right on both counts. Yes, our feelings influence our behaviour. And yes, the influence is imperceptible to others.
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife Golde about her feelings toward him. She’s exasperated by the question, thinking the answer is obvious for all to see. “Look at all I do for you – can’t you figure it out?”
But Tevye rightly recognizes the ambiguity of the situation. Perhaps Golde is simply dutiful, long-suffering, and without alternatives. In fact, it’s clear that all three are true. Is there, in addition to these factors - which amply explain her behaviour - any element of affection? Tevye has to ask, and after several evasions she answers.
The truth is, no one ever really knows us. We think they see through to our core, when in reality all they ever see is skin and behaviour. From this they have to divine what lies beneath, a process invariably tainted by their own unique set of past experiences. With time, perhaps, they can get slightly closer to the truth, having observed a more extensive sample of our actions. But they never fully see us.
In therapy I sometimes ask people how their spouse or children would know about their affection for them. “Well I don’t often show it,” is the surprisingly frequent reply. “They just know. They’d have to.” I try to find a gentle way of asking how they would manage this feat of telepathy.
The behaviour of parents and spouses is governed by a complex set of motivations, including (as with Golde) duty, guilt, and social expectation. Ambiguous behaviour like “I give her a ride to work every day” or “I paid for his college, didn’t I?” can be interpreted without any reference to affection.
People fear that they are not loved or appreciated. What we fear we look for. If we can find an explanation for our partner’s or parents’ or children’s or friends’ behaviour that does not involve affection, that explanation will grow in our minds. The alternative hypothesis – he/she loves me – will always be followed by a question mark.
There is only one way to erase it, and even that can only be done partially. We have to put affection and appreciation into words. We have to express what we believe should be obvious to those around us. We need to develop comfort with, in effect, pointing to the sky and calling it blue. Then their attention will be drawn to the explanation that is (hopefully) true – but only if it fits the behaviour that we also exhibit.
Maybe that’s another resolution for the new year.
If you feel it, show them. And tell them. And tell them. And tell them.