Our general understanding of how the world operates and what to expect from others is rooted in our experiences growing up. Since we use words to define our experiences, individual backgrounds can offer different definitions and meanings of the same word — although there exists an assumption that a given word is always defined the same way.
Thus a distorted meaning of a single word may offer a clue to a dysfunctional dynamic hidden in the history of your childhood that still has a hold on your adult life. Recognizing that your understanding of the meaning of a word might be incorrect compared to its defined meaning in a dictionary could be the beginning of being able to change that, which has been unchangeable.
The story of Len personifies this idea. Len began therapy because of stress and internalized tension. He appeared to have many involvements – with family, friends and work – yet there was a sense of loneliness and isolation that seemed to exist in his core. It took awhile before I became aware of an internal and invisible “glass wall” that Len had built – implying some need for protection. But what was he protecting himself from? His family history offered no clues until the day when a defining moment occurred – a moment when a particular word was defined with a new meaning.
We were exploring the theme of loneliness and isolation when I made some comment about how important it was for people to have a sense of involvement. Len misunderstood me – or so I thought – and responded with a short story illustrating the theme of intrusion. In my attempt to clarify the point I was making, I put my words into the form of a question instead of a statement.
“What’s the difference,” I asked, “between involvement and intrusion?”
To my complete surprise, Len answered, “There isn’t any.”
“No wonder you’re so isolated,” I said. “Not knowing the difference between involvement and intrusion has to be a major source of your needing a glass wall for protection.”
I started to define the words, realized I needed a greater authority to convince Len, and turned to the dictionary.
“To involve,” I read, “is to include, to engage as a participant.”
“To intrude is to come in without invitation, permission or welcome.”
Len was silent for a long time. “Read that again,” he requested.
I repeated the definitions and, after another long silence, he said, “I guess I never mentioned that my mother was a teacher’s aide in every class of mine through junior high school.”
Slowly shaking my head I said, “No wonder you don’t know the difference between involvement and intrusion”
That was the beginning of Len dissolving his internal protective wall and allowing family, friends and associates to finally be involved in his life. That was the beginning of my recognition of how crucial it was, when trying to understand how another is experiencing his or her world, to catch every word, turning it around and around to see if there are hidden meanings.
For example, do you know the difference between: involvement and intrusion; successful and exploitive; a healthy ego and narcissistic; responsibility and burden; proud and vain; neat and compulsive; confident and egotistical; assertive and aggressive; to need and to be needy. It may be time for you to turn some of these words, as well as the words of your life, around and around, including using the dictionary, to uncover a hidden meaning to the clues of confusion and/or dysfunction in your childhood.