You probably remember occasions when you had difficulty saying what you wanted to say or expressing what was on your mind. Some people become tongue-tied on a daily basis. Even when they do manage to speak, they can feel their communication is incomplete or is somehow jumbled and inarticulate. People frequently have to rehearse the words in their mind before they speak, and then the communication doesn’t sound genuine or authentic.
It’s bad enough that this lack of verbal skill reduces the pleasures of social and workplace encounters, but it’s also frequently accompanied by painful experiences of embarrassment, regret, and shame.
One person with this difficulty commented: “I always feel that I want to say more and don’t find the right words and feel confused whether to say it or not. Now, at work, sometimes I feel I might have something useful to say in a certain situation, but the moment passes and it’s too late.”
He continued: “I need to know how I can practice self-expression and how I can practice arranging my thoughts to make them come out in the way I want.”
Many people who have worthwhile things to say can’t get their words in order, and sometimes their mind fails at critical moments to produce any sensible thoughts at all. Their problem is emotional, not mental or intellectual. The problem is often looked upon as a matter of self-confidence and self-esteem. But that’s too simplistic. The problem goes deep into our unconscious mind, and it involves inner conflict.
People who fail to speak confidently and authentically obviously want, on a conscious level, to express themselves with strength. But it’s a different story on an unconscious level. There, hidden in the depths of their emotional life, they still reverberate with an old sense of themselves that’s associated with weakness and self-doubt.
The solution involves bringing this weak side into sharper focus. The emotional weakness can be revealed to our intelligence. People have a tendency to fixate on the symptom (feeling at a loss for words is a symptom), and hence they fail to see the deeper source of the problem. We can effectively strengthen ourselves emotionally as we see and understand how we are drawn back repeatedly into that old weak sense of self.
People can learn to see their inner weakness in clinical terms, as a psychological configuration or dynamic that stands apart from their essential value and goodness. People often have difficulty doing this because they tend to associate themselves—their identity and their sense of value—with the symptom, namely being inarticulate or tongue-tied. In doing so, they are likely to become entangled emotionally in shame, guilt, and failure, along with a sense of being inherently flawed or defective.
So let’s briefly put aside the symptom of being tongue-tied. The deeper problem has nothing to do with being at a loss for words. It’s all about inner weakness, period. That inner weakness has many symptoms, including addictions, depression, guilt, and shame.
So here’s the underlying problem: The primary weakness in the human psyche involves the unconscious willingness to experience oneself through emotional weakness. Huh? That sounds like a paradox or a conundrum. Indeed, it’s challenging to understand this inner weakness because, in a way, it doesn’t make any sense. Could that be true that we actually are tempted, willing, or even determined to experience our self through a feeling of weakness? That idea defies common sense. It also offends our self-image. Metaphorically, it makes as much sense as the snake that swallows its own tail. Carl Jung interpreted that image—the symbol of the Ouroboros—as having an archetypal significance to the human psyche.
Why would we want to feel weak? An emotional, infantile part of us lives on in our psyche. Feeling helpless and weak is a common daily experience for children. We don’t just magically leave all those old emotional associations or memories behind when we turn twenty-one. In a sense, we carry in our mind an old unconscious software program for how and when to feel weak. Most of us, in daily life, see and experience situations from this emotional perspective, even though we’re often not aware of doing so.
What does this mean for practical purposes? If, as one example, you want to stop being at a loss for words, you have to begin to see yourself making unconscious choices to experience yourself through this manner of feeling weak, flawed, and defeated. You are choosing unconsciously to feel weak. Being at a loss for words is just one of the many ways in which you could act out that feeling in daily life. I refer to this weakness as inner passivity, and it is described in detail in my writings, along with many of its symptoms.
Seeing yourself gravitate toward inner passivity, while sincerely feeling your intention to resist the tendency, is the process whereby you liberate yourself from this old emotional identification or attachment. You would be entangled in inner passivity, for instance, when you feel or imagine that your words won’t be taken seriously, even before a situation arises in which you could speak up. As another example, you might be afraid your words will hurt others and cause them not to like you, but this would be your emotional rationalization for continuing to be passive.
In the moment of not finding the words, you might say silently to yourself something to this effect: “This is just me feeling this old weakness. It’s familiar. It’s what I know. It’s not my fault. My intention is to overcome it. I’m not going to play the game of feeling bad about myself because of it. I will overcome this inner passivity. Just keep being aware when the feeling comes upon me.”
This ability at a given moment to see inside oneself with such clarity is an act of great power. You become empowered as you persist, with clinical clarity, in exposing the weakness at its source. People who are making progress through this self-knowledge become alert and vigilant to the many possible ways in which—in painful self-defeat or self-sabotage—they can feel and act out such weakness.
This weakness is one half of the primary inner conflict in the human psyche. The other half of the conflict consists of self-aggression, as dispensed by the inner critic. When, through inner passivity, a person is at a loss for words, the inner critic is activated. It attacks the tongue-tied individual for being defective, weak, and passive. The individual absorbs this self-aggression, which in turn produces the individual’s depression, guilt, and shame for allegedly being such a flawed person. As we overcome inner passivity, we’re able on an inner level to deflect the insensitive, irrational allegations of the inner critic.
As part of this process, we want to learn to separate our sense of self from the symptoms of inner passivity as well as from the passivity itself. As mentioned, our tendency is to fixate emotionally on the weakness, in a kind of painful self-centeredness, and we thereby unwittingly accentuate a sense of being weak and flawed. Remember, you are not the weakness. The weakness is just a small aspect of who you are. Yet as an emotional configuration or anomaly, its power in our psychological life has to be acknowledged. The weakness, in a sense, wants to be felt. When felt, it seems to somehow define you. Don’t be fooled. Your essential self is much, much greater than the emotional weakness.
Another related problem involves situations in which someone is challenging you or being aggressive. You come up empty trying to find words to fend off a sly insinuation or a nasty verbal jab. You might even have stood slack-jawed in the face of an insult, taking the verbal punch like a drunken cowboy in a saloon brawl.
At such times, we’re in danger of replying inappropriately, with too much aggression or hostility, and we end up looking bad or foolish, especially when others can’t understand what might have set us off. We can also produce personality clashes and create enemies in these situations.
After the fact, we tend to replay such unpleasant experiences in our mind, rehashing all the details and feeling once again the pain of our failure to represent our self effectively. We’re inclined way too late to produce a verbal thrust that skewers our tormentor, and then we feel bad because we didn’t produce that retort when the moment was right.
People often find that when they do speak, the words come out negatively, as expressions of anger, criticism, indignation, and refusal. This is phony aggression, not true aggression. It arises because the individual can’t find the words through rationality and calm strength but only through emotionalism. The real power is to find the right words and express them in a way that makes possible a positive outcome for all concerned. When we blast others with negativity, we usually don’t get a positive response.
It doesn’t take an insult, either, to render us mute. Sometimes we get thrown a verbal curve that leaves us flummoxed or befuddled, especially when someone contradicts what we’ve said, abruptly changes the subject, or finds other ways to resist effective communication. All these examples are still, at their source, problems of inner passivity.
There’s nothing so sweet as the feeling of expressing oneself effectively, especially when others get pleasure or benefit from what we say.