What do words mean to you? To your relationship? And how long do you remember what your partner tells/asks you? Author Leslie Rouder talks about the profound question a therapist asked her thirty years ago and why it still matters today. The lesson learned? Words matter.
Back in the 1980s, while living in New York City, I saw a therapist named Isabella who really made a difference for me. It was not her great therapeutic skills necessarily, but her warm, consistent, non-judgmental, and supportive presence that listened to me with care. I don't remember most of our sessions over the couple of years that I saw her, except for one that made all the difference for me. I have since thought of that session many times because it was the one that sticks out in my mind as having had an impact on how I proceeded with my life.
The session was one in which we were exploring my struggles around making my way in the world independent of my family. I was living alone in NYC with my dog Picasso and working in the art business. I had started my own art consulting company and was having a lot of difficulty managing my time and being on focus with developing my business. I was not sure if I could actually pull it all off. I felt that I had no financial back up and that I REALLY had to make it happen. I had no money in the bank, rent to pay and pretty much lived hand to mouth.
On this particular day, I was talking to Isabella about my fears and concerns regarding my ability to make a go of my business. I wanted to be successful as an independent adult human being and I expressed how anxious it made me feel. Isabella looked me right in the eyes and asked the question that shifted it all and stayed with me for life. She asked, "If you were to meet someone who looked and thought and felt exactly as you do, how far do you think she would go?" I had never really thought about it in that way so I took my time imagining meeting someone "who looked and thought and felt exactly like me". I remember answering, "She would go pretty far." I have no idea where that knowing came from, since I really did not have a lot of confidence in my abilities at that time, and yet I was sure that I was correct in saying that.
But here is what I learned about "knowing". There are 2 kinds of knowing. One comes from the Greek word "logos", meaning that which we learn from education, logic and reading books. The other kind of knowing, which comes from the Greek work "gnosis", is knowing that comes through intuition and spirit. Every spiritual insight we have comes through the experience of gnosis. The statement "she would go pretty far" did not come from an intellectual rational place of knowing — it came from that improvable, intuitive place of gnosis.
I don't think that I realized the impact of having made that profoundly transformative statement until much later. I do remember hearing the question and the answer many times after that for many years throughout my life. Whenever there was doubt, I would remember the question and I already knew the answer. It was an internal knowing and a belief that held me in balance when I felt that I was going off course or out of balance in my life. It was the belief that gave me the courage to walk through all the doubts and questions about whether I could REALLY do it on my own, as I have chosen to do so many times throughout my life since then. It was my compass in the dark.
I have not seen Isabella since that time but I did speak with her once on the phone about eight years ago. I never told her about that question and the impact it had on my life. Nor have I ever thanked her for asking the question. I heard from a friend that she has since moved her practice to Connecticut, where she currently lives. In writing this article, I realize the importance of finding a way to say those words "thank you" to her. Perhaps she will even read this post.
To Isabella, if you are reading this, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your thoughtful, patient words at the exact right moment in time meant a lot more to me than you probably ever realized. You modeled for me, the great wise woman, sharing the inner knowledge of the crone. Having this memory reminds me of the importance and timing of words, especially when there is trust between two people. It also reminds me of the importance and timing of my own words to those that I work with as a counselor, who put their trust in me. What an awe inspiring privilege that is!
If any of you have had a similar experience with someone you were working with that you would be willing to share I would love to hear about it. It may have been a therapist, family member, clergy, teacher or friend.
To your continued growth, Leslie.
Leslie is a holistic therapist working in South Florida. If you would like more information about her work or to sign up for her free newsletter, go to www.Leslierouder.com.
Think about the impact you would have on your partners life if you took the time to ask them important questions about their feelings!
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