‘He hesitated, struggling to find the words he wanted. “You see, there’s a fundamental connection between seeming and being….We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be…..It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.
….listen. I’ve got it now. You meet a girl: shy, unassuming. If you tell her she’s beautiful, she’ll think you’re sweet, but she won’t believe you. She knows that beauty lies in your beholding…..And sometimes that’s enough.
….But there’s a better way. You show her she is beautiful. You make mirrors of your eyes, prayers of your hands against her body. It is hard, very hard, but when she truly believes you….Suddenly the story she tells herself in her own head changes. She transforms. She isn’t seen as beautiful. She is beautiful, seen.” ‘
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
I often ask my therapist for verbal reassurance. She often refrains from giving it directly and gently tells me that it is important that I come to know things through experience. This is a constant struggle for me, and I have written about it before (‘How do we come to know things?‘). It’s still hard for me to accept that words, which I value so highly, may not have the same power as experience. But I trust her, and her judgement, and so I have tried to be more accepting of her approach and not to resent it, even if I don’t fully understand it.
But this – this quote above, which I found by chance on the internet, from a book I’ve never read, struck me immediately because it seems to directly address this question of experience being more important than words, in a way that is both extraordinarily beautifully expressed, and which also makes complete sense to me.
I have always told my therapist that I feel strongly that words are concrete and not open to interpretation in the way that actions can be; and that they are helpful because I can remember them and bring them to mind whenever I need reassurance in future. However, although words may be powerful, their power is temporary, which is precisely why I so often need to remind myself of them. They don’t remove the need for future reassurance, even if they deal with it very effectively in the moment. Why?
Because others’ words can allay our fears, but they cannot rewrite our own internal scripts for us. They provide no motivation to change the story that we tell ourselves, about ourselves, inside our heads. For example, they may tell us that at this point in time, someone loves us – but they can’t convince us that we’re intrinsically lovable. We feel lovable only in so far as someone else feels that way about us – the quality is vested in their perception of us, and not in our own being. Which is why the message needs such constant re-enforcing – we need to check that their perception hasn’t changed.
I used to argue that if my therapist reassured me with words, at least for a while, I would eventually reach the stage where I no longer needed to ask her for reassurance because I would have a ‘bank’ of words and phrases to remember and to bring to mind. I would have internalised her reassurance. I thought that was the goal; that when I reached that point, I would have achieved the holy grail of being able to provide my own validation and reassurance.
Reading that now, my argument seems fundamentally flawed. Internalising her words is not self-validation – I am not ‘doing it for myself’. She is simply doing it for me, but in absentia. It is ‘other-validation’, but one step removed. I am still lovable only because she cares; and not because she has seen something in me that is worth caring about.
It IS hard – extraordinarily hard – to change those stories that we tell ourselves, about ourselves. It won’t happen without an internal fight – it certainly won’t happen when there is no incentive; or, indeed where there is an active disincentive in the form of a powerful feel-good remedy which gives us a temporary high.
Words are powerful, but they are also easy to say. There is no hard graft, either in saying them, or in receiving them. But it takes effort to demonstrate to someone how they are seen, and effort to be open to that demonstration, and to receive it. Coming to know something by experience – being shown something rather than told it –is a difficult road; but perhaps the very effort is part of what has the power to change our own internal perceptions of ourselves. To change the story that we tell inside our minds.
‘She transforms’ – yes, but the transformation is different, depending on your viewpoint. In her own eyes, she has gone from being a person who was thought beautiful by some, to being a beautiful person. For others, she has transformed into someone who can see her beauty for herself, and not just through the eyes of others.
She was always beautiful – and perhaps now even more so, because she believes it too.