Slip of the Tongue

Photo by Joshua Ness

Photo by Joshua Ness

There are a number of theories out there that attempt to explain why we say something completely different from what we intended, why something mistakenly slips out of our mouths. There is the proverbial “Freudian slip” which implies that there is some deep-seated sub-conscious thought behind our words that makes itself known without our permission. There is another theory that suggests it’s due to inattention or speaking without thinking, kind of a “looking after you leap” phenomenon. I’m sure science would explain it away as a blip in the brain, resulting in an interruption along the neural pathways governing speech.

Whatever the cause, I see a slip of the tongue as a window that reveals something profound about human behavior.

In an article I read recently about a study of the human brain and behavior, it was suggested that human beings are wired for conformity. Measuring brain waves while conducting some very simple group exercises, it showed that our brains actually put up a red flag of warning when we even consider disagreeing with the rest of the group. According to the article, this response is based on the ancient biological need to stay connected to our tribe in order to survive. In the early hunting and gathering era, going it alone was simply not done, because the risks were too high. It was imperative that no matter how much you may disagree with a group decision, your survival depended on going along with it.

The study revealed that we still carry remnants of this codependent thinking and behavior with us, but to a significantly lesser degree. The seemingly random “slip of the tongue” may actually be evidence of an inner (and perhaps even evolutionary) rebellion against conformity. There is ongoing pressure to “fit in” to the society, culture, and world we inhabit. However, there is also a strong innate desire to see ourselves as individuals with our unique expression and contribution to the whole. These two motivations inherently create conflict within us, because at times they are in direct competition with each other, forcing us to choose either to go along with the crowd and be accepted or to follow the beat of our own drummer and risk being rejected and alone.

Of course, it is not always so black and white.

The gray range in between–that muddy place of doing what it takes to fit in most of the time with a bit of creative self-expression sprinkled in–is where many of us reside most of the time. Hanging out in the middle is safer. It means we draw less attention to ourselves and rock the boat less. But the middle can also mean high levels of compromise in our lives, resulting in a kind of unsatisfying world of mediocrity, in which our true individuality is reigned in to such as an extent that it renders us invisible, even to the few people closest to us.

Too much conformity has it’s price. But so does too much individuality.

We’re all familiar with the feelings that come up when witnessing someone expressing their uniqueness full out.  Sometimes we feel awe and admiration and perhaps even a deep longing to have the courage to do that ourselves. Other times though, we may feel anxiety and discomfort at what we feel may be too foreign or strange and the urge toward rejection comes up.

It’s a slippery slope indeed, this balancing act between fitting in and authentic self-expression, which brings me back to the idea of words escaping from us like rebellious teenagers. A slip of the tongue is a kind of pressure release valve, a way to let off steam and also an indication that the conformity thing has gone too far.

Repression of our real feelings in the long run doesn’t work, and eventually the truth will come out, with or without our permission.

If you find yourself saying something you didn’t intend, see it as a messenger telling you that your soul is crying out for balance, and that it may be time to honor your own drumbeat.