tell me how you think

I, along with hundreds of thousands of Twitter users, recently learned that some people do not think in words. I mean they don’t spend their waking hours reviewing every thought that passes through their head by attaching language to it. The insides of their minds do not sound like an endless loop of internal monologuing that covers everything from feelings of helplessness to embarrassment to pettiness to, occasionally, joy.

From what I’ve gathered, they think in images. I don’t know what that means because I’m not one of those people. In fact, I can barely call into my mind’s eye a rendering of an extremely familiar object. I doubt I’m alone in this. Think of a person whose face you know better than your own, perhaps a partner, a parent, a best friend. Now try to picture that face. Their eyes, their nose, their mouth, their distinct facial features like a beard or a smattering of freckles, try to create the whole thing and hold it in your head for a few moments. Can you do it? I cannot.

According to the always and unfailingly accurate web deity, Wikipedia, less than 30% of people are solely visual thinkers. The same goes for what I’ve been calling “word-thinkers,” which serves to prove that thinking in words doesn’t inherently mean that you are good at using them. Most people do a combination of both, which is the category I fall under although, as I’ve mentioned, my visualization skills are questionable.

Chanelle, a best friend of mine, is a 100% visual thinker. I pelt her with questions like, “What happens when you read silently?” and, “How do you replay conversations that made you uncomfortable?” until she quite literally leaves me on read. I explain the premise to countless other friends and family members who, like me, never knew that word-thinking wasn’t a universal cognitive function. I think about my own thoughts, which is a great way to bring on a self-induced headache. It takes a while, but I finally figure out what my problem is, the reason I cannot accept the idea of constant visual thinking. Allow me to explain.

I picture a bench covered with mosaic tiles at the far end of a park. It’s a memorial bench for three brothers who attended my elementary school and died in a car crash. To this memory, that detail is irrelevant, but it’s the most important thing about that bench and I’d feel guilty if I didn’t mention it. A group of boys sit on the bench, all in a row: Brent, Vishnu, and another boy my memory has made no space for. I stand before them. They’re staring at me, smirking and then laughing. We are second graders. I can’t see my own face, but I promise you that it’s a bright, fiery red.

Strong memories evoke images, probably the clearest mental images I can conjure and probably because they’re involuntary. However, there are words, too, and lots of them. There are, for starters, those words spoken at the time, the ones that support this memory just as much as the mental pictures do.  They are as follows:

At an earlier point in the day, I ask Brent if he likes me because I very much like him. He refuses to answer and so, on the playground, I decide to prove my devotion via a bold gesture. I march up to him and his friends, where they sit on the memorial bench, and say, “If you don’t tell me if you like me, I will rip off all my clothes.” Until it’s out of my mouth and all three boys are grinning, laughing, encouraging me to follow through on my word, I don’t realize that it is somehow inappropriate. That it has backfired because these boys understand just enough to know that they are not supposed to say no to female nudity. I believe all of us are confused, but they are less confused than I.

At a later point, I’m not sure when, Brent tells me he likes me “third best.” I have what feels like a muscle memory of cheering, throwing my arms up in the air and actually cheering, in response to this ranking.

There is a lot of embarrassment surrounding this memory and a lot of speculation about what it did to me, how it shaped me as a person. The memory, itself, is so familiar that it can autoplay while I examine it, and myself, from every side:

Is this why I’m afraid of my own brash confidence? Why I stunt every potentially good idea with, “But what if it isn’t?” Why the thought of having all eyes on me makes my legs quiver and my stomach churn?

Is this why, for most of my adolescent and young adult life, I accepted subpar treatment from boys and men? Out of the fear that “third best” was the most I could ask for? Out of a need for approval to validate that second grader’s dashed hopes of having the cutest boy in the class for a boyfriend?

Is this one of the first moments that I became hyper-aware of my own body? When I uttered the phrase, “I will rip off all my clothes,” it was a misguided attempt to elicit urgency. To take back the power I forfeited when telling this boy that I liked him and not receiving an affirmative response. Their laughter, their go ahead mentality, revealed to me that my body was not mine to wield as a weapon but instead theirs for the taking. While none of us, I’m sure, fully understood the power dynamics at play, we all recognized, in some vague way, that this was an opportunity to take advantage of female vulnerability, to objectify a female body. To replace empowerment with shame.

When I tell this story aloud to an audience, I laugh. It’s funny, I know, and if I reveal my full thought process about this decades’ old playground interaction, I quickly become the girl no one wants to invite to parties. For the most part, I save the psychoanalysis for me, for my own brain, where it is not an option, anyhow. It’s just how I think about things. I believe it is an attempt to make sense of lifelong internalized shame. The problem is that I’m not sure that it’s doing me any good.

I wonder if thinking consistently in images allows those who do to dissect their own memories and feelings in this way. I cannot imagine thinking about my own shame without relying on words like “disempowerment” and “cultural construction,” without parsing out the differences between shame and embarrassment and guilt. Chanelle said that when she needs to use language to piece things together or pick things apart, she writes. I catch myself feeling envious of this, as though this gives her control over when or how often she is bogged down with self-examination. Realistically, I doubt that it works that way.

Because I cannot step into Chanelle’s brain, I’ve concluded that I must accept 100% visual thinking as an unknowable reality. What I’m left with are questions about my own brain, my own thought processes. I’m left to wonder how useful it is to replay the past over and over, to revisit myself on the playground and watch the looks on those boys’ faces change like I have no other option. Like it’s a reflex or an instinct. An obligation. I’m left to ask, “To what end?”

There’s an endless reel to draw from, a whole library of shameful moments I can rely on for this solitary, self-serving research.

Getting scolded by a mother in a minivan for making out with my boyfriend on the outskirts of a playground. Missing a few days of high school at a point when I’d establish myself as a star of the AP social studies department because the same dedication to getting straight A’s had landed me in a mental hospital. Learning from a crush that I was seen kissing a guy I couldn’t stand on the front porch of an ex boyfriend’s house and having no memory of it whatsoever. Eating food that was stale or that didn’t belong to me in the throes of a depression I was too young to deal with. Eating very little for months on end until the scale read danger while calling myself a feminist. Doing a lot of things while calling myself a feminist.

I tell myself that I’ve transcended the process of re-shaming myself and have moved into a space of self-exploration for the sake of growth, for the sake of understanding and letting go. I intellectualize the shame, noting that nearly all of it is tied to some sort of stigma that I only buy into when it comes to my own body or my own mental health. I imagine a stranger telling me that they’d experienced each and every one of these things. Would I expect or want them to feel shame? I don’t believe so. Would I find them unworthy of love or empathy or forgiveness? No.

Yet, the closest I can get to self-forgiveness is anger and I find myself becoming an increasingly angry person. Anger is more manageable to me than self-loathing, but it’s eating up hour after hour of my life all the same.

Once again, I find myself envious of visual thinkers. I convince myself that they’re not wasting away their time overthinking to the point of meaninglessness. This is stupid, I know. You don’t need words to feel pain. I tell myself that I avoid certain subjects in my writing because they’re parts of me that I’m not ready to share, but you won’t find them in the pages of my journals, either, in the bits and pieces written only for me. The farthest I can get with these particular pain-points is visualization. It’s the difference, I think, between a thought and a flashback. Between dissection and the screaming need for immediate distraction.

It makes sense that the revelation that we don’t all think the same way went viral. I think we all want to understand how the mind works, why we think about the things we think about. If we’re alone in our shame. How to confront the memories that our subconscious tries and fails to suppress, the memories that only return in the form of flashbacks. How to let go. I think we’re excited to unpack the differences between visual- and word-thinking because it opens the door to a wider discussion about pain and trauma that we’re all, whether we realize it or not, dying to have.

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