Because I am a writer, it will probably come as no surprise to learn words are very important to me.
As such, it’s been something of a struggle for me to clearly delineate the difference between actions and words, and to make personal choices accordingly. For me, words tend to carry more weight than is helpful, and actions less than they deserve.
That’s not to say words aren’t still important. Indeed, some time ago I dated one gentleman who indulged in almost zero Words of Affirmation (we are all familiar with the Five Love Languages, yes?), a situation that was, as it turned out, intolerable to me. Words do carry a certain amount of weight and are also intrinsic parts of many actions.
However, I have observed that it is much easier to adjust words away from the actual truth of a situation than it is to adjust actions. Meaning, actions tend to be a more reliable gauge of what’s actually going on and a more accurate reflection of a person’s feelings and priorities. I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s Story for the past week, and he emphasizes again and again that deep character is revealed through conflict; that pressure is placed on a character, forcing her to act, and it is in that action that the viewer/reader learns who she truly is. It’s not what the character says that matters, but what she does.
This is not a new insight for me; in fact, I’ve written about it before. But it’s been getting easier to apply it in my actual life, and I think the feedback loop that is causing this improvement is interesting. It works like this: as I’m surrounded more and more by action and behavior that is respectful and positive and affirming, the instances when action and behavior is not acceptable stick out a lot more clearly. Basically, my baseline has shifted.
This shift has resulted in several differences. For one thing, I am much more capable of identifying unhealthy situations and acting on this information. I am more able to clearly state when I’m not okay with something when I think that is the right thing to do. And I am able to figure out what it is I need in order to take care of myself in a more timely and efficient way. All of this means that smaller issues are less likely to spiral and grow into bigger ones. Which is pretty great, even if at the time it doesn’t feel all that wonderful.
I am even able to notice much more quickly when these kinds of circumstances begin to push me down an unproductive thought path. “Oh no, this person isn’t going to like me,” I think. But then, an hour later, “Wait a second. Maybe it’s okay if this person doesn’t like me. My job isn’t to make sure everyone likes me. My job is to set boundaries to keep myself healthy while doing my best to remain compassionate. Right.”
All of this, incidentally, supports being more compassionate. I tend not to associate firm decisive action with being compassionate, especially when said action involves saying no or otherwise disappointing someone. But I think I’m wrong in this. Modeling healthy behavior is ultimately a net win for all parties, as it nips issues in the bud that might have otherwise stretched out into longer periods of suffering for everyone. It sometimes allows for the potential for the relationship to heal and grow stronger. And since you are taking care of yourself, you are opening up more emotional space for noticing what the other person is going through and genuinely feeling for them, even if (and this is often the case) there is nothing much you can do about it.
Words are still important to me. But so often it is the associated actions that make all the difference.