One of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned which I try to impart upon my patients is that actions speak louder than words every time. This applies whether we are discussing another person in the patient’s life or the patient herself. In other words, one can deceive themselves and others, either intentionally or not, but if we pay attention to an individual’s behavior, we get a much clearer picture of what is really going on. The unconscious is incredibly powerful and one’s behaviors cannot help but betray one’s true sentiments. We can train ourselves to pay more attention and become better attuned to the non-verbal cues that are being expressed.
These non-verbal cues include subtle facial expressions and body postures as well as more obvious behavioral patterns such as perpetual lateness and cancellations, continued inaction, or repeated substance use. I encourage my patients to “turn off the volume” and pay attention to the non-verbal signals they pick up on from others, rather than the words they are being told. One patient who is having problems in her marriage is continually frustrated and upset when her husband says he wants to fight for their relationship but his actions indicate otherwise. This spouse has taken little to no steps to start individual or couples therapy, has not done anything to improve his health through diet and exercise, continues to drink alcohol excessively, and does very little to help out with the household chores. Another patient often arrives for her appointment ten to twenty minutes late or cancels a day before and asks to wait until the following week to meet. Yet another patient consistently arrives for his appointment thirty minutes early yet “forgets” to pay his co-payment every other week. Therapists have learned to track these behavioral patterns, for they provide a wealth of information about the individual’s unconscious motivations.
I caution my patients not to interpret the behaviors of others. We may hypothesize about what the non-verbal behavior tells us, but we are not mind-readers and we cannot know with certainty the meaning of these behaviors. For instance, the patient who is consistently late for her appointments may be unconsciously expressing anger toward me and/or may be acting on her fears about accessing painful emotions in therapy by attempting to regulate the amount of contact we have to ensure that she not come in contact with these feelings.
Interpreting another’s behavior can lead to confusion, anger, and faulty assumptions; simply paying attention to what the patterns of behavior are is safer, as it is almost always non-disputable. If I point out to the female patient above that she frequently arrives to her sessions late or cancels her therapy appointments, this data is merely observable fact that is indisputable. If I interpret the meaning of this behavior as an expression of the patient’s anger toward me, then I have crossed into the murky territory of attempting to guess the reasons for her behavior. The patient may disagree with my interpretation and a therapeutic rift may occur or my deductions may be incorrect. I caution my patients to stick to the observable behaviors without interpreting the meaning of said behaviors. By strengthening our ability to “mute” another’s words and tune into behaviors, we can develop our ability to accurately pay attention to the incredibly powerful non-verbal communications that are being expressed before our eyes.