Subtext: a gateway to knowledge about yourself and your relationships
Sometimes our daily routine is punctuated by moments where life appears to imitate art. Perhaps the most common example of this is when one party says to another, in an admonishing fashion, ‘Don’t make a scene!’ This exclamation serves as a (usually futile) reminder to the other of the folly of making one’s private disagreements public. If there is to be trouble, we typically like it to be someone else’s, as few people court conflict out with the confines of an auditorium.
Yet whether we are making a ‘scene’ or not, there is a literary feature of what we say and do that is ubiquitous. What I am referring to is what is termed as subtext, namely the hidden or underlying implications of what we say or do. For our purposes here, the distinction between ‘hidden’ and ‘underlying’ reflects the fact that subtext encompasses those meanings that are willfully obscured, and those implications that go unrecognized, perhaps only temporarily.
Such an examination of subtext might seem arcane, or academic, in the dismissive sense of the term. To conclude this would be a mistake, however, as the subtext of our words, our actions and our relationships is where we find what is ‘really going on’ in our lives. Indeed, uncovering subtext can be defined as the revelation of the significant, because our words, actions and relationships are like a sign with an arrow: they point to something notable.
What I wish to focus on in this article is how the subtext of our lives details our self-deceptions, other-deceptions and the lacunae of our knowledge of ourselves and others. Providing we are prepared to confront some uncomfortable truths about our lives, examining the subtext of our relationships can be a catalyst to change, as there is always a gain in knowledge about oneself and others.
Here are some of the ways that problematic issues are represented as subtext:
When there is a discrepancy between what we say/do and what we really think:
Politeness is a social virtue predicated on enforcing certain limits on self-disclosure so that we do not offend others unless it is deemed necessary. Tact is one of the progenitors of subtext, but this is not what I wish to focus on here. Instead, I ask you to examine those instances where you felt that you could not say a given thing and to explore your motivations for doing so. For example, was it simply tact that led to you being evasive or was it more a sign of self-effacement? (a difference between the two is that the latter is a compulsion to not articulate your own needs, feelings and perceptions; to put it another way, self-effacement is unconditional-albeit soul destroying- tact) Another possibility is that you were reticent because you wanted to consolidate and not undermine a certain social image that others have of you. The subtext, in this case, is not necessarily a sign of blatant hypocrisy; still, looking at the subtext of what happened can lead you to ask some probing questions, such as ‘Do I want to always look good?’, ‘Am I living up to my own ideals and being my best self?’ Sometimes the subtext of what we say suggests that we have the oxymoronic wish to earn integrity on the cheap. Overall, the essential and general question to ask is this: what were my reasons for choosing to be inauthentic? Were they prosaic, due to tact or do they reflect some conflict with others or with myself that I am avoiding?
Where there is a possible discrepancy between what others say/do and what they might think:
I have used ‘possibly’ and ‘might’ here to reflect the fact that when it comes to others, the perceived discrepancy must be held more tentatively, as it can be harder in some respects to infer what people are thinking and feeling. With that proviso, examining this kind of subtext is to posit that the person is wearing (to some extent) a mask and it is to query and perhaps speculate about what lies underneath. Naturally, everyone is entitled to an inner life, and so in many cases, the subtext of what people have said should remain theirs to disclose if, and when, they see fit. Nevertheless, there are times when it would be wise to make some initial judgements of another’s subtext, and when it might be a good idea to enquire about what they are really thinking. Regarding the former, if we catch someone in a blatant lie, for example, although we might decide to not confront them about it, we will still probably want to take stock about what that might say about their character. As for the latter, if we find that colleagues or intimate others seem to be regularly evasive on a matter concerning our relationship with them, we can always ask them, in as sympathetic and open way as possible, to let us know what is really going on for them. Finally, sometimes what someone keeps private is what they want discovered, yet they do not know how to put it into words. A good example is when someone is having suicidal thoughts, yet they say, albeit wearily, ‘I’m great’ when asked how they are. Pointing out gently the discrepancy might lead the person to confess how they are really feeling and gain some support. In this case, noting subtext can be life-saving.
When there is a discrepancy between what you say and what you do/feel:
Sometimes the subtext of what we say is not something that we are consciously aware of but rather exists in that liminal area just beyond explicit awareness. This is where the subtext is an indicator of our self-deceptions- those acts of bad faith, as Sartre called it, where we deny awareness of our what we feel and intend (or, as the philosopher Herbert Fingarette put it, we do not wish to ‘spell out’ to ourselves what we are really up to). So how do we explore our self-deceptions, if part of us wished/wishes to keep them obscured? Apart from lengthy psychoanalysis, one possible avenue is to reflect on past events-the more recent, the better- and try and answer these questions: what do my actions tell me about my true intentions? (Sartre’s example of a young lady on a date illustrates this point); why did I feel quite different to what I said?
A discrepancy between what we know and can infer and underlying implications:
The subtextual meanings of what we say and what others say will always exceed our grasp (even if we intend to be as inwardly and outwardly authentic as we can) because there are a multitude of ways of understanding events. Educating ourselves about our lives is largely learning different ways of looking at our daily existence through the lens of various subtextual filters and hopefully in ways that empower us. Indeed, to explore this kind of subtext is to situate ourselves within a larger narrative, whether it be, for example, cultural or scientific, so that we can respond in a more constructive way (although as postmodernists point out, this larger narrative must not elide salient features of the individual’s experience of life). For example, Alain De Botton’s salutary self-help series called ‘The School of Life’, often situates personal difficulties within what can be called the ‘human condition’ or within certain cultural trends. An instance of this is that, in this series, feeling ‘weird’ is construed as an inevitable consequence of the human limitation of knowing only our own subjectivity immediately while being given only direct access to other’s social presentations; another example is that the discourse of romanticism has given us unrealistic expectations about our love lives. In general, then, one therapeutic thing to do when encountering some personal problem is to read not only self-help literature, but also great works of fiction, philosophy, cultural criticism and so on, as they can provide a larger perspective on which to explain how your difficulties came about. In fact, sometimes one of the most therapeutic realizations to have is that our personal problems might not be so personal after all (the writer David Smail is worth a read for a passionate and cogent attack on the oppressiveness of seeing mental difficulties as solely ‘personal’).
Although exploring the subtext of your life can provide much insight, it can often be a challenging task to do on your own, as it can be difficult to discern the difference between a paranoid thought and a genuine perception (paranoia is the genre where the subtext is always insidious and threatening) or between helpful introspection and obsessive naval-gazing. Working with a sensitive therapist can mitigate against these dangers, while also helping you to read more closely and accurately the story of your life.
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About Alexander Fox
I am a counsellor with three private practices across the country (Harley street, London; Dundee; St. Andrews). I am trained to Masters level in pluralistic counselling, and I utilize a wide variety of different therapeutic approaches when working with clients. I also have a doctorate in English literature and my literary training informs my work.