Yesterday's post on Bob Greene's return from exile column wasn't just a post about the psychological necessity of boundaries. It was my way of introducing the notion of encoded communications--those expressions of disturbing unconscious thoughts in a narrative that isn't manifestly about one's own situation and perceptions.
For a number of reasons, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to tease out the encoded meanings in everyday conversation, but sometimes the meanings are all too clear. Overheard today, for example, a woman speaking to a female companion with absolutely gorgeous hair:
She doesn't want to admit it, but my friend Donna is insanely jealous of my hair.
Well, the speaker is almost certainly revealing her own disavowed feelings of hair envy. Mind you, I can't say I blame her. Her female companion had what might be the most beautiful hair I've ever laid eyes on.
If we think of the spontaneous narratives of everyday chitchat as something akin to dreams, seemingly innocuous stories can reveal much about the unconscious backdrop for our conversations. These encoded narratives are as inevitable as nighttime dreams, whether we hear them or not.
Though we readily recognize narrative subtext as a literary device, we're more reluctant to recognize it in real life because the subtext refers to things we would rather not know.
I never deliberately set out to hear the subtext in everyday conversation, but sometimes it just slaps me across the face, especially when it's the latent meaning of my own words. Hearing these underlying meanings is usually an unpleasant experience for me. Who wants to know that they've just unwittingly delivered a conversational Trojan horse?
We all do it. It's not an illness. It can't be cured. It's an unavoidable consequence of a two-tiered mental apparatus consisting of conscious and unconscious processing systems.
What is the relevance to psychotherapy?
Listening to the encoded subtext is one among several ways to listen to patient narratives when the patient is allowed to free associate without the disruption of a talkative therapist. Sometimes there is a subtext that just begs to be heard.