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Words, Behaviours, Definitions & You

A blackboard with white chalk scribbles all over it, illegible scrawl by famous artist Cy Twomby.
Untitled, 1970, Cy Twombly. Image via Pinterest.

“Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” - Patrick Rothfuss.

‘Words don’t define you; actions do’ - You’ve probably heard or been told this sentiment at some point in life. Or perhaps something similar with the same intent. Maybe, ‘put your money where your mouth is’ or ‘you talk the talk, now walk the walk’ might sound more familiar.

Essentially, saying something - whether an action you intend to do, a behaviour you want to change, or a promise you might keep - is only one part of your character. Only through living our words, through the actual doing, can we create an authentic self. One that we and those around us can actively rely on.

This expression has been close to my heart for many years. It’s kept me from making empty promises and forced me to show up at times when it’s been tough. It’s guided me through some challenging conversations and helped me follow through with behaviours that proved I meant what I said.

These have been the times when action made the biggest difference. It’s forced me to face up to aspects of my character that needed to change and helped me grow into a more authentic version of who I want to be.

Back when I was dating, this sentiment helped me create a stern approach to platitudes and bold claims when in reality, the behaviour I was being shown was far less than anything I wanted to allow into my life.

So, I get it.

I get why we focus on this seemingly simple concept because I’ve experienced the living into words and holding others accountable for misalignments when needed. I’ve cradled the idea in my mind for years and haven’t had much call to think about it for some time.

But I was called to reflect - and I admit, turn my nose up a little - when a popular social-media psychologist shared a soundbite video of her own ‘worldly’ wisdom essentially along the lines of: if you’re struggling to understand someone who keeps saying one thing and doing another, wondering what to believe - you should always believe their actions.

And I realised that while this can be helpful advice, it is only one tiny piece of an often more complex human behaviour puzzle.

Context, intent, environment, and communication all need to be taken into account. I take issue with a psychologist who has amassed a following in the thousands throwing this out into the world without considering to who the advice could apply in a more robust sense. ‘Only believing’ the behaviour wouldn’t work for:

  • Anyone handling a loved one going through addiction who may promise to get clean but struggles to commit.

  • A loving couple struggling with monogamy or other forms or intimate addiction.

  • Parents struggling with common toddler behaviours (I have many friends exasperated by little ones who promise to wash their hands after bathroom visits but never do).

  • Individuals with neurodiversity who may create misalignments by what they say and how they act due to differing cognitive processing, responsiveness to environments and understanding of social cues.

  • Individuals with mental health conditions (a dear friend with BPD often says they’d love to catch up for coffee, only to cancel because they’re having an off day).

  • Me and my partner who struggles with lateness and promises he'll be better, but inevitably will always be late.

I could go on.

(It should be said, the reason it irks me when psychologists share little tidbits like this on social media is that they are simply tidbits - like the leftover chicken scraps I toss in my dog's bowl. Sure, they’re tasty, but they’re not the complete meal - they don’t offer the sustenance that could lead to reliable behavioural change. Nor do they take into account individual differences and needs. My partner's lateness irks me A LOT but after seven years together, I've learned to live with (and joke about) it in ways that help him and me not feel like it's the end of the world - because it isn't).

It’s advice that can offer solace in some situations - but I find those situations tend to be pretty black and white.

If you’re dating someone and they’re giving you all the red flags, saying one thing (they want to spend authentic time with you), doing another (cancelling all meet ups except a late-night booty call), then yes. This is sage advice.

Trust the behaviour. Move on.

But maybe, be open to giving people a chance too? Have an honest conversation about where you’re at and what you want before just taking the ‘well, I haven’t actually communicated my needs, but I gotta trust the behaviour so ‘byeee’ stance.

As a writer, I also have to concede that, at times my words will define me. Many people who read something I write will never meet me.

Wrongly or rightly, they will begin to create their definition of who I am based on the words I air out on the internet. Isn’t that the same for most of us?

It need not be essays or blog articles, even the social media captions that we tweak and edit to align with the idea of who we want others to believe we are, the words of others that we acknowledge and share under our name, the platitudes and comments we share (and who or where we chose to share them) all add to this idea that our words create a definition of who we want to be.

Many of us will live into this persona - to some extent. After all posting on social media or personal blogs is simply a conversation with ourselves for the most part - but rarely do we see people living into these words in totality. You will often find gaps between what is presented online and what is delivered in reality.

Trouble arises when we are faced with a situation that confronts the definition we have worked hard to create with our online words. It was this scenario, someone failing to formulate their online self with the presentation of reality, that I found myself on the periphery of recently. It’s implored me to re-explore my ideas around words, actions and the blurred definitions that can - and should be allowed to - exist between them.

Brene Brown (whom I have a love/hate relationship with. I adore her research, but her writing and presentations are speaking to too homogenous an audience that often gives me the ick) has written some great work on the concept of authenticity.

According to Brown, being authentic is a daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are:

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

Which sounds lovely and is at the crux of the whole ‘words don’t define you, actions you do’ because saying who you are and being who you are, are two different things. But this only works if you fit into the dominant culture/aesthetics of our social structures in that the ‘being’ yourself also meets social expectations.

I might say I want to get better at being more open and welcoming in social situations, but the authentic, socially anxious, introverted me really does find it all a bit of a chore. And for a baby-faced white girl everyone expects to be accommodating, polite and willing to please, it can cause … friction. Not to mention, I willingly write about my life and experiences online and share regularly on social media. I concede - there is a gap.

New people who meet me won't look at the reality of my quiet self as me being authentic. It's usually dubbed as rude and standoffish. The weight to change rests on my shoulders - but then where is my authenticity?

Learning to live our ‘authentic’ self isn’t as easy as simply deciding what we’re going to do and choosing to show up in that way day after day. Social and cultural contexts also prevail (and if you believe you’re living you’re authentic self without worrying about these things, I’m willing to put money on you being a highly educated white person from a stable socio-economical background #JustSaying).

When I dived deeper into the idea of words and behaviours, I came across a subset of psychological theory called Narrative Identity because of course.

Mary Catherine Bateson, the incredible cultural anthropologist, refers to this process (not necessarily online, but in general) as an “act of creation of the composition of our lives”. In her wonderful articulation, “living is an improvisational art”.

In the battle of words and actions, we also have to consider the rise of social media. It’s never been easier to create, promote and hone a narrative identity for ourselves. When over half our connections only know us through a screen, we can carefully define what they think of us. We can create the narrative.

While it’s normal, narrative identity does have its up and downside:

  • The Upside: One side of the concept of narrative identity focuses on individuals who tell ‘Redemption Stories’. These narratives transition from bad to good, focus majoritively on good experiences, and articulate that bad experiences always have meaning or purpose in some way. Individuals who interpret and understand their lives in terms of redemption stories are more driven to contribute to society and rate their lives as more meaningful.

  • The Downside: The other side of the concept is the ‘Contamination Story’. Individuals whose narrative identity follows this pathway tend to order their life events as going from good to bad. They structure the story of their life as one of downfall: something good happened, but then something terrible happened, and usually another bad thing, and another. You might describe these people as chronic pessimists. Individuals who tell contamination stories are less driven to contribute to society, feel a lower sense of purpose and coherence in their life experiences, or struggle to find and understand the ‘meaning’ of their life.

It’s important to know when it comes to narrative identity; you don’t have to be ‘stuck’ with the arc you find yourself attached to. Psychology and psychotherapy research tells us that we can go back and edit, revise and re-interpret our life story and narrative identity in positive, meaningful ways.

Aside from therapy, taking the time to sit and consider how you tell your life story to others — either in person or online — can glean valuable insights into how you currently approach curating your lived experiences.

Through this awareness, we can begin to make the changes we feel we might need to tell our stories in ways that better contribute to the self and others, and help us live more authentically. If we can shape our passions through these stories, we can find the authenticity in our life.

When reflecting on narrative identity, I like to remember how Esther Perel wittingly asked during her talk with Krista Tippett about how we make relationship choices:

“What story are you writing?”

I love the idea of narrative identity and writing our stories in this way, but stories (AGAIN) are only ONE part of the puzzle. I can rewrite my narrative identity/stories as much as I like, but unless I live them? They mean diddly.

A personal lesson I’ve learned the hard way was that our ideas of personal growth are truly fictional until we are faced with the opportunity to live into them.

These are the times that call for our greatest courage, forcing us to crack like seeds as a new pattern of growth emerges. It demands a new way of being and showing up. You can choose to accept the lesson and live into it - or not.

The lack of this courage that I observed in my recent experience left a bitter taste in my mouth. Being confronted with an individual who has seemingly worked hard to create a certain persona online with their words but whom failed to live into it through their actions can create knots of annoyance.

When the words and the behaviour are both at odds with what you’re experiencing from an individual; what do you believe in then?

It’s easy to feel angry and reach for more words in these situations. To fight ‘fire with fire’ and let the person know that you see the misalignment in their character, how they want others to believe they are versus how they are actually behaving.

It’s harder to dig deep and grab hold of courage and empathy. And this can look different for everyone.

I’ve always believed that sometimes the best action, the best message, is simply no response. Silence is a vital tool when letting people know their false narratives are no longer welcome in our lives. Silence cannot be morphed, twisted, misinterpreted or tampered with. It can’t be moulded to suit an ulterior motive. It can’t be screenshot and shared amongst group chats to be picked apart and boo’ed at.

Silence is powerful.

We’re sold the idea that we all deserve the last word. I’ve received versions of attempted 'last words' from others I’ve decided to remove from my life, and I’ve read the emailed words to my loved ones from individuals attempting to have the last. There are plenty of misconstrued platitudes around getting the last word in and how it leads to closure. They are false. Silence is the ultimate last word.

Occasionally a friend will question me here, asking how it leaves the other person confused or perhaps with unanswered questions - don't we have an obligation to help others learn or grow? In my experience, the people I’m letting go have had ample opportunity to have their questions answered and to take what I might leave them with to grow, and to bring what they say and how they behave into alignment long before silence becomes my only response for them.

Yes, we owe those we invite into our lives appropriate opportunities to meet us where they need and vice versa, but when we decide it is time to draw the line, it's okay to draw it through everything we have to offer.

My recent experience has been a timely reminder to ensure I’m living authentically in the ways that matter to me - through both my words and my actions, both on and offline, in as much as I can as this current version of me.

“But above all, in order to be, never try to seem.” - Albert Camus


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