Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Doubling: Helping to Express the Unspeakable

Originally posted on February 2, 2014

Sometimes poets and songwriters say well what one can hardly express.  A successful poem or song can express more poignantly, or beautifully than people’s more mundane feelings and thoughts.  I’m reminded of a verse by a song sung by Roberta Flack in the 1970s, “Killing Me Softly:”
“I heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style, and so I came to see him, to listen for a while. And there he was, this young boy, a stranger to my eyes, strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song!… Telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly with his song….
    “I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd! I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud! I prayed that he would finish, But he just kept right on: Killing me softly…”

    Of course, it’s easier when the norm in a group is that lots of people have these feelings. They don’t make the individual weak, but rather only human. Welcome to the gang!

The Spectrum of Expressiveness

There is a gradient of what you say or do. At the high end is public confession. What we say to the world, what we admit openly. Daytime talk show guests. Below that, perhaps somewhat  more intimate, is what we admit openly to friends but would be reluctant to broadcast to people who might be judgmental. Encounter groups might qualify here, best friends, psychotherapists. There is some confidence that people will not judge you harshly.

More in the middle of the spectrum of self-expression are thoughts that you think clearly but consciously hold back from expressing out loud so that others can hear. (Some of this is talked about on a webpage on my website.) If the right of this spectrum is open disclosure, then more towards the left, towards the secret or unconscious end are two levels that might be associated with the “pre-conscious” realm: What vaguely occurs to me but I don’t even want to admit it to myself, or what I become aware of explicitly but only briefly.” Such words or thoughts are still registered in consciousness.

Just beneath that, in the preconscious realm, a vaster arena includes  those feelings or ideas that one really doesn’t have words to express. Perhaps such ideas have never been expressed out loud by anyone else that one can think of—i.e., “modeled.” They may only be vague and rather inexpressible feelings. (It is the role of poetry, drama, art, dance-movement, and other approaches to help bring these feelings into expressible form. Even when expressed, finding words for what is in the image or gesture may be difficult.

Buried even more deeply are thoughts, feelings, attitudes, that cannot be expressed to oneself. They are truly unconscious. That’s near the “left-end”—the not only inexpressible, but the unthinkable.

Lowest on the scale perhaps are feelings and ideas that haven’t entered the human or cultural matrix. It’s likely that nobody else known to the person has ever talked about such things. In the not-too-distant past allowing people of other races or other minority status any equality in status was quite unheard of. Even now for many people in many cultures there’s no shame associated with feeling what we’d call “prejudiced” against certain categories of peoples. Similarly, ideas that are associated with that which is taboo is dismissed as unthinkable—close to the bottom of the scale of things which may be expressed at all.

Interestingly, this last category can advance quickly into common discourse if the environment is supportive. If there are a fair number of people talking about this heretofore unmentionable and even un-recognizable whatever, if a name is given to this category, it rises. What is taboo becomes controversial and then contested but acknowledged as an issue and sometimes even ends up as the new and widely accepted social norm!

Saying it another way, certain attitudes are commonplace, then no longer stylish. Some folks object to the “political correctness” tone of those who turn against what was at first good and then, well, joked about but not really “bad.” All this happens as an idea enters mainstream discourse. One way this shift happens is through the psychodramatic or role playing technique known as “voice over” or, more specifically, “doubling.”


This is a technique that is used in a problem-solving process using action explorations or psychodrama,  in which one person volunteers to be the unspoken thoughts of the main player. This role models saying what can’t be said. Handled correctly, this role is open to correction, and the main player (or “protagonist”) is encouraged to correct the double even if the one doing the doubling is a little bit off. That way the double is helped to be spot on, truly empathic.

Bringing a vast arena of half-thought feelings into the open is a profoundly powerful social function. It suggests that what is thought is okay to be thought; one isn’t blamed, and indeed, other people can avoid certain topics and yet be aware of what is avoided.

Doubling thus converts repression into suppression or expression. Suppression is pushing thoughts out of mind; repression is repeating the pushing away dynamic, pushing the act of suppression out of mind, too—that which is suppressed being doubly buried.

Admittedly, there are deeper levels, but it suffices to bring the preconscious to consciousness and the interpersonal field. This reduces the weight of pressure on the unconscious and the upper levels (so to speak) of idea then rise closer to the surface.

Many people have "alexithymia"—a fancy word for not ("a-") being able to "read" ("-lexi-") feelings (‘-thymia"). They have trouble finding the words to express their feelings. Doubling involves having someone else "say it," someone a bit more disengaged, less caught up in the feelings and inhibited by the threat of admitting them, more articulate and sensitive, and just being someone else rather than "myself"–so I’m less alone and exposed as the only odd one feeling this way.

Doubling in this way edges into someone being empathically reflective, but a little more close to the bone. It’s one thing to say, "ah, lost your mom, eh? That’s too bad." It’s better than a stick in the eye. But perhaps better than to say, "Oh, I lost my dog. Ouch." Not much better, though. A step up: "Tell me about your mom." Folks forget to ask that. Empathy should not be too much projection. The mom could be the hated enemy, relief; a mixed bag, relief and loss; mom could have been the best friend, too—big loss. So what did mom "mean"?"

Doubling invites correction. This point should be emphasized. It’s different from an analysts saying "you mean…" Who is she to know what I mean? there’s a power-trip here. But if the double phrases it as "I’m trying to get on your wavelength, so correct me if this doesn’t fit" then it invites correction. The game is to elicit words, a yes, that’s it; and if what’s said doesn’t fit or misses entirely, the double can be corrected: "No, it’s not like that. I don’t feel that way, but rather more this way."

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