A Great article from the Book of Life:
When Your Partner Tries to Stop You Growing
One of the great pleasures of relationships is the sense that another person knows us deeply. While we are either ignored or misrepresented by most of the world, in our unions, we thrive from the gratifying sense that our our identity has been accurately tracked, drawn and committed to memory; they know our favourite foods, our childhood traumas, our quirks around travel, our morning habits and our ambivalent feelings about certain friends.
But it is the extent and overall accuracy of this knowledge that can provoke sudden moments of claustrophobic irritation when our partners use their privileged overview of our characters to level a claim about who we are that seems to reduce, caricature or limit us unduly and is blind to our evolutions and aspirations for change.
‘Don’t be silly, you’re not someone who ever enjoys holidays’, they might assert with the confidence and authority of someone who has shared our bed for close to a decade. Or: ‘That’s far too late for you, you’re always asleep by ten’. Or, ‘You’ve never liked dancing…’ Or, with real surprise when we come back from the library: ‘But you don’t even like books about politics…’ Or, to the attendant at the deli counter: ‘No, no, they don’t like pickles…’
The comments and the sure manner of their delivery reflect an experience of us built up over time through the patient work of love. But they can also prove wholly enraging. It feels as if the authority that the lover possesses has malignly been deployed to fix us into a role that no longer feels quite true. They are telling us who we are (the nicest thing in theory) but getting it rather wrong (about the worst thing in practice). Though a particular trait might admittedly have existed for many years, we may beneath the surface quietly be attempting to change. We are tentatively evolving. We no longer want to remain who we once were in every detail. We have original aspirations, we want to shed skins, we’re trying to open ourselves up to different experiences. We want to give pickles a go.
And yet the partner has set themselves up as the jealous guardian of a self we no longer quite identify with. They insist that who we are now claiming to be must be false, pretentious, mean-spirited or an attempt to hoodwink others, all because it isn’t who we have traditionally been.
It is clear that alongside physical development, we are engaged in a life-long process of psychological evolution, which is far harder to spot, to discuss, and to give room for in others. Because we look more or less the same from the outside, those around us naturally assume that we must remain more or less the same on the inside too. Yet we are continually on the way to discovering new sides of ourselves, we’re shedding allegiances, stretching ourselves in unfamiliar directions and clearing out irrelevant positions and enthusiasms. Perhaps we’re gaining a new zone of confidence at work or we’re getting more cautious and circumspect where we were once rather reckless; we might be discovering the beginnings of a new kind of passion for the arts where we used to be quite judgmental or perhaps we’re firming up certain opinions around money or politics. We may be trying to relax more into our body or to outgrow an earlier prudish stance.
These changes may not yet be very clear even to us. There are no birthdays to mark them or public occasions to lend them weight: we can’t easily explain them to our partner and may not be too sure how to make them sound plausible. We may also be slightly embarrassed because they seem to contradict previously well-defined attitudes which we know our partner was fond of or reassured by.
And yet the changes matter to us hugely, they are – in a way – the most important things going on in our inner lives right now and we are therefore acutely sensitive to anyone who might sweep away, or with a mocking laugh destroy, the tentative foundations of our future selves.
Children show us most clearly the passions unleashed when another person holds us too tightly to an earlier version of ourselves. At a party, a parent might explain of her child, ‘Oh, he’s five…’ – only to find the child approaching them a moment later and protesting in an intense, angry whisper: ‘That’s not true at all, I’m five and three quarters next Tuesday.’ Giving due weight to our evolutions, be they bodily or emotional, can matter an awful lot.
That is why we can find ourselves in such intense arguments when a partner makes a remark that would have interested the person we used to be back in the spring; or they make a criticism which could have been very true of our outlook at Christmas or buys a jacket we would have loved three summers ago. What rankles is the static picture of who we are that’s implied in what our partner has done – and that offends the part of us that associates intimacy with being given the space to evolve. Despite their love, our partner hasn’t kept pace with our growth, they have failed to be sympathetic to the impulse for change; they are fixing us too tightly to a portrait that, though it was once satisfying, is truly no longer accurate.
The partner isn’t being mean. Change is frightening, because the one evolution we are all terrified of is the kind that will take our beloveds away from us. The reason we get stubborn about a new love of pickles is that it stands as an awful harbinger of what might be a new love for another person.
The ideal solution would be to develop a view of the essential normality and unthreatening nature of growth. We will all, over a long-term relationship, be growing in a range of ways which will undermine any settled claim by one person to ‘know’ another. What we grasp of our partner can only ever be partial and temporary – and we should not grow jealous or angry on that score alone. We are not like books, written once and shelved in a static library, we are like continuously updated, edited and expanded online texts, where a core set of themes is daily enriched and nuanced live before our eyes.
True love requires us to allow our partner to become someone rather different than they were when we met them – and to welcome their evolutions rather than the use the portrait we painted of them at the start as the fixed reference point from which any deviation has to be considered a disloyalty. The creature who emerges from the chrysalis is as likely to love us more intelligently and deeply as they are to want to fly away to someone new. We should use the phrase ‘I don’t understand you anymore’ not as a despairing exclamation but as a hopeful call to renew our sources of intimate insight.
It’s common to accuse long-term relationships of being boring but our tendency to evolve offers us a way out of the limitations of monogamy. We are – if we are correctly attuned to the phenomenon – only ever with the same person for a very short time. In truth, we cohabit with a constantly shifting array of people who just happen to have the same name and inhabit more or less the same body and lie next to us in similar ways in bed. Yet, beyond these common points, such are their differences, they may really just as well be wholly new people. We can, in one relationship, without drama, enjoy an array of new lovers, embracing all the different versions of the one person we are with.
Another excellent article from the School of Life:
The Drive to Keep Growing Emotionally
We know well enough that we are equipped with an innate drive for physical growth; that the human animal is geared to keep developing towards its outward mature form, adding muscle and bone and fatty tissue, in a spontaneous process of development that begins in our earliest days in the womb and ends around our sixteenth year.
What is less obvious is that we are marked by an equally innate, equally powerful, although here life-long, drive towards emotional growth. Without anything mystical being meant by this, unless we are impeded by internal or external obstacles, we are set on an ineluctable path towards emotional development.
An obvious conceptual difference between the two drives is that we can know easily enough what it means to be fully grown physically, but it is rather harder to pin down what equivalent emotional maturity might look like.
We can hazard a twofold answer. Our emotional drive is made up of two strands: the first is a will towards ever greater and deeper connection; the second comprises a will towards ever greater and deeper self-expression.
To consider connection first, we are marked by an intense wish to move away from loneliness, shame and isolation and to find opportunities for understanding, sincerity and communion. We long to share with friends, lovers and new acquaintances an authentic picture of what it means to be us – and at the same time to enter imaginatively into their feelings and experiences. What we call ‘love’ is merely a subsection of the drive to connect, which extends across a range of activities and types of relationship, stretching to encompass the body and our desire for physical intimacy, touch and sexual play. We can count ourselves as emotionally healthy in large measure according to what degree of connection we have in our lives.
By the drive to self-expression, we mean the desire to fathom, bring into focus and externalise our ideas and creative and intellectual capacities – a drive that manifests itself particularly around our work and our aesthetic activities. We seek to gain an ever greater understanding of the contents of our minds, especially of our values, our pleasures and our way of seeing the world, and to be able to give these a kind of expression that makes them public, comprehensible and beneficial to others. We will feel we have had a rich life whenever we have been able to give a voice and shape to some of the many perceptions that course through us – and, in some way, however modestly, left a fruitful imprint on the world.
These two aspects of the drive for emotional growth help us to get a handle on our most acute moments of unhappiness. It’s because of the primordial importance of the drive to connect that it hurts so much when a friendship is broken off, when an established relationship starts to lack physical contact or when we can’t find anyone we see eye to eye with in a new city. And it is because of how powerful the drive to self-expression is that we suffer so much when our studies fail to engage our minds, when a job ceases to reflect our interests or when, on a Sunday evening, we feel in a confused way that our talents are going to waste – just as the same drive can explain the intensity of the envy we feel when we hear of a friend’s success in an area we aspire to.
Calling this aspect of human nature a drive, and equating it with that towards physical maturity, emphasises its essentially non-negotiable nature and hence its power over us. It is as misguided, painful and nonsensical to try to stop someone growing emotionally as it is to bind their feet. The drive takes precedence over all manner of more convenient options: the longing for respectability, money or stability. It won’t leave us alone until it has been heard. It might make us leave a marriage that would – from many perspectives – have been so much easier to remain in or to throw in a job that was hugely convenient financially in order to take up another that more properly answers the call of our deep selves.
If the drive to emotional growth continues to be unattended, and perhaps even unknown to us, it can short circuit our whole lives in a bid to be heard. Fed up with waiting, it may simply throw us into a paralysing depression or lock us into a state of overwhelming anxiety. By breaking us in these ways, the frustrated, stymied drive is trying to be interpreted and accommodated. What it lacks in eloquence and focus, it makes up for in persistence and strength. A breakdown is a roundabout attempt to create opportunities for a breakthrough, that is, a new stage of emotional growth.
By understanding more clearly how basic and important the drive to emotional growth can be, we may come to better recognise the symptoms of its frustrations and the logic of our longings. And, at points when we upset the otherwise steady course of our lives in its name, we can be readier to explain to ourselves and those who care for us what might be behind our puzzling behaviour: we have not forever lost our minds, we recognise the role of respectability and status, we would love to be less difficult and demanding. It’s just that we have to honour another, even more vital side to our nature: we are under an inner imperative to continue on our path towards emotional growth.
From The Book Of Life
CHAPTER 4: SELF: MOOD
Why Psychotherapy Works
When one is in a bad place in one’s head, the modern world offers three main sources of solace: psychiatric medication, CBT and psychotherapy.
Each has its own advantages and drawbacks. Medication can be exemplary in a crisis, at points when the mind is so under siege from fear, anxiety or despair that thinking things through cannot be an option. Correctly administered, without requiring any conscious cooperation from us, pills play around with our brain chemistry in a way that helps us get through to the next day – and the one after. We may get very sleepy, a bit nauseous or rather foggy in the process, but at least we’re still around – and functioning, more or less.
Then there is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), normally administered by psychologists and psychiatrists in six to ten hour-long sessions which teach us techniques for arguing rationally with, and with any luck at points controlling, the ghoulish certainties thrown up by our internal persecutors: paranoia, low self-esteem, shame and panic.
Lastly there is psychotherapy, which from a distance looks like it has only drawbacks. It has a very hard time showing its efficacy in scientific trials – and has to plead that its results are too singular neatly to fit the models offered by statisticians. It takes up a large amount of time, demanding perhaps two sessions a week for a couple of years – and is therefore by far the most expensive option on the menu. Finally, it requires active engagement from its patients and sustained emotional effort; one cannot simply allow chemistry to do the work.
And yet psychotherapy is in certain cases a hugely effective choice, which properly alleviates pain not by chance or magic, but for three solidly-founded reasons:
– Our unconscious feelings become conscious
A founding idea of psychotherapy is that we get mentally unwell, have a breakdown or develop phobias because we are not sufficiently aware of the difficulties we have been through. Somewhere in the past, we have endured certain situations that were so troubling or sad, they outstripped our rational faculties and had to be pushed out of day to day awareness. For example, we can’t remember the real dynamics of our relationship with a parent; we can’t see what we do every time someone tries to get close to us, nor trace the origins of our self-sabotage or panic around sex. Victims of our unconscious, we can’t grasp what we long for or are terrified by.
In such cases, we can’t be healed simply through rational discussion, as proponents of CBT implicitly propose, because we can’t fathom what is powering our distress in the first place.
Therapy is a tool for correcting our self-ignorance in the most profound ways. It provides us with a space in which we can, in safety, say whatever comes into our heads. The therapist won’t be disgusted or surprised or bored. They have seen everything already. In their company, we can feel acceptable and our secrets sympathetically unpacked. As a result, crucial ideas and feelings bubble up from the unconscious and are healed through exposure, interpretation and contextualisation. We cry about incidents we didn’t even know, before the session started, we’d been through or felt so strongly about. The ghosts of the past are seen in daylight and are laid to rest.
There is a second reason psychotherapy can work so well:
Transference is a technical term that describes the way, once therapy develops, a patient will start to behave towards the therapist in ways that echo aspects of their most important and most traumatic past relationships.
A patient with a punitive parent might – for example – develop a strong feeling that the therapist must find them revolting, or boring. Or a patient who needed to keep a depressed parent cheerful when they were small might feel compelled to put up a jokey facade whenever dangerously sad topics come into view.
We transfer like this outside therapy all the time, but there, what we’re doing doesn’t get noticed or properly dealt with. However, therapy is a controlled experiment that can teach us to observe what we’re up to, understand where our impulses come from – and then adjust our behaviour in less unfortunate directions. The therapist might gently ask the patient why they’re so convinced they must be disgusting. Or they might lead them to see how their use of jokey sarcasm is covering up sadness and terror.
The patient starts to spot the distortions in their expectations set up by their history – and develops less self-defeating ways of interacting with people in their lives going forward.
– The First Good Relationship
We are, many of us, critically damaged by the legacy of past bad relationships. When we were defenceless and small, we did not have the luxury of experiencing people who were reliable, who listened to us, who set the right boundaries and helped us to feel legitimate and worthy.
However, when things go well, the therapist is experienced as the first truly supportive and reliable person we’ve yet encountered. They become the good parent we so needed and never had. In their company, we can regress to stages of development that went wrong and relive them with a better ending. Now we can express need, we can be properly angry and entirely devastated and they will take it – thereby making good of years of pain.
One good relationship becomes the model for relationships outside the therapy room. The therapist’s moderate, intelligent voice becomes part of our own inner dialogue. We are cured through continuous, repeated exposure to sanity and kindness.
Psychotherapy won’t work for everyone; one has to be in the right place in one’s mind, one has to stumble on a good therapist and be in a position to give the process due time and care. But that said, with a fair wind, psychotherapy also has the chance to be the best thing we ever get around to doing.
Knowing Things Intellectually vs. Knowing Them Emotionally
Knowing our own minds is difficult at the best of times. It is extraordinarily hard to secure even basic insights into our characters and motivations – of a kind that we hope can free us from some of the neuroses and compulsions that spoil so much of our lives. It is therefore especially humbling and at moments truly dispiriting to realise that dispelling ignorance of our psyches with knowledge isn’t going to be enough by itself. Or rather, we stand to realise that there is going to need to be a further and yet more arduous distinction to observe between knowing something about ourselves intellectually and knowing about it emotionally.
We might, for example, come to an intellectual understanding that we are timid around figures of authority because our father was a remote and distant figure who didn’t give us some of the support and love we needed to tolerate ourselves. Assembling this insight into our characters might be the work of many years and, having reached it, we could reasonably expect that our problems with timidity and authority would then abate.
But the mind’s knots are sadly not so simple to unpick. An intellectual understanding of the past, though not wrong, won’t by itself be effective in the sense of being able to release us from the true intensity of our neurotic symptoms. For this, we have to edge our way towards a far more close-up, detailed, visceral appreciation of where we have come from and what we have suffered. We need to strive for what we can call an emotional understanding of the past – as opposed to a top-down, abbreviated intellectual one.
We will have to re-experience at a novelistic level of detail a whole set of scenes from our early life in which our problems around fathers and authority were formed. We will need to let our imaginations wonder back to certain moments that have been too unbearable to keep alive in a three-dimensional form in our active memories (the mind liking, unless actively prompted, to reduce most of what we’ve been through to headings rather than the full story, a document which it shelves in remote locations of the inner library). We need not only to know that we had a difficult relationship with our father, we need to relive the sorrow as if it were happening to us today. We need to be back in his book lined study when we would have been not more than six; we need to remember the light coming in from the garden, the corduroy trousers we were wearing, the sound of our father’s voice as it reached its pitch of heightened anxiety, the rage he flew into because we had not met his expectations, the tears that ran down our cheeks, the shouting that followed us as we ran out into the corridor, the feeling that we wanted to die and that everything good was destroyed. We need the novel, not the essay.
Psychotherapy has long recognised this distinction. It knows that thinking is hugely important – but on its own, within the therapeutic process itself, it is not the key to fixing our psychological problems. It insists on a crucial difference between broadly recognising that we were shy as a child and re-experiencing, in its full intensity, what it was like to feel cowed, ignored and in constant danger of being rebuffed or mocked; the difference between knowing, in an abstract way, that our mother wasn’t much focused on us when we were little and reconnecting with the desolate feelings we had when we tried to share certain of our needs with her.
Therapy builds on the idea of a return to live feelings. It’s only when we’re properly in touch with feelings that we can correct them with the help of our more mature faculties – and thereby address the real troubles of our adult lives.
Oddly (and interestingly) this means intellectual people can have a particularly tricky time in therapy. They get interested in the ideas. But they don’t so easily recreate and exhibit the pains and distresses of their earlier, less sophisticated selves, though it’s actually these parts of who we all are that need to be encountered, listened to and – perhaps for the first time – comforted and reassured.
We need, to get fully better, to go back in time, perhaps every week or so for a few years, and deeply relive what it was like to be us at five and nine and fifteen – and allow ourselves to weep and be terrified and furious in accordance with the reality of the situation. And it is on the basis of this kind of hard-won emotional knowledge, not its more painless intellectual kind, that we may one day, with a fair wind, discover a measure of relief for some of the troubles within.
How To Be a Mummy’s Boy - In the Greatest Way.
One of the most basic features of being a boy, so well-entrenched that we forget to notice its strangeness, is that after a certain point, mothers become embarrassing and need to be surrendered and denied, not just mothers, but all that mothers tend to stand for in a boy’s life: tenderness, vulnerability and need. To become a man is to grow into the creature who says ‘not now’ to his mother – and doesn’t look back as he walks towards his friends in the school yard.
Mothers become so-called embarrassing, because they know all the areas in which one is not perhaps quite the man one claims to be to the world. Mothers have the map to the forbidden aspects of one’s personality: they know where one is afraid, in need of reassurance, playful and easily moved by small and delicate things. The mother stands, in the symbolic imagination, as the guardian of the denied male self, of all that was renounced on the path to that dishonest brittle state we term masculine adulthood.
The denial of the mother is at the root of what makes so much of adult society heartless. We refuse to nurture one another because we have refused to face up to the way we were once nurtured; we behave like people who are doing their very best to forget their own less robust and more dependent selves.
At the origins of male prejudice against women, we read a flight from men’s terror of their own vulnerability, a brittle unreconciled relationship to their needs for nurture. Men develop an exaggerated impulse to make women feel small in reality because they are anxious of their own size in their unconscious minds. They need to underpay, humiliate or denigrate those they feel witnessed a boyish weakness in relation to which they remain fearful, unreconciled and ashamed.
In the summer of 1978, the French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote a fascinating letter to his good friend, the novelist Philippe Sollers. He told Sollers that he’d been spending the month of August re-reading Proust and that he had drawn from the experience the courage no longer to refer to his mother as ‘my mother’ but rather to call her publicly ‘maman.’ He was at this point 63 years old.
The passage needs to be unpacked. The French language is particularly and instructively clear about mothers. There are two ways to refer to this figure in French:
Mère = Mother
Maman = a far cosier word, more dignified than Mummy, but more intimate and less off-hand than Mum, still redolent of childhood dependence and care. ‘Mum’ is someone you occasionally send a card to; ‘maman’ is someone whose caresses you miss.
One of the many remarkable things about Marcel Proust, the greatest writer that France has ever produced, is that throughout his novel, In Search of Lost Time, he refers constantly to his mother as ‘Maman’. He does not, as all serious French writers had done hitherto, call her ‘ma mère’; he deliberately and with calculated intent sticks to the far more vulnerable ‘maman’, insisting thereby on acknowledging the simultaneous existence in his own mind of adult and child selves. He performs a major rehabilitation, sketching a new ideal of masculinity that is properly in dialogue with childhood need.
What is so revealing is that Barthes speaks of stumbling, in late middle age, on what he calls the courage to refer to his own mother as ‘maman’. He admits that it takes bravery to be open to his boyhood self. He has to lean on the prestige of another writer to take an apparently insignificant but deeply symbolic and daunting step: that of daring, as a grown-up man, to make a public declaration of his previously-denied longings for his mother.
Or, to put it another way, Barthes is learning that real men do not shun their mothers; that grown-up men can be mummy’s boys. He is, along the way, giving all men encouragement to travel with greater ease between the masculine and the feminine sides of their nature, and those of the adult and the child, rather than deny and split, partition and then stamp on the denied parts. We become real men when we know how publicly to proclaim, with pride and tenderness, that we are mummy’s boys.
How To Choose A Partner Wisely
What is Empathy?
We know that empathy is a deeply important quality, which enables us to see the world as it looks through other, normally very different, eyes. But we may be unsure quite how to achieve this prized perspective.
We may think of it as the business of escaping our normal egoism, of leaving the self – and putting ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s experience. But the trick for empathy might be slightly different. It isn’t so much about transcending ourselves as it is about practicing an unusual kind of introspection, which takes us into less familiar parts of our own minds.
Imagine if we were, for example, asked to empathise with the formally dressed man, Lord Ribblesdale, staring at us from a portrait painted in 1902 by the American artist John Singer Sargent. Our first feeling is likely to be that the man looks utterly foreign to us, aristocratic, haughty and contemptuous, a figure to whom we have not the slightest connection or relationship.
But the necessary manoeuvre is to try to draw on certain less obvious parts of our own experience. Insofar as each of us contains, in latent form, all of human life, there will inevitably be a small, currently recessive part of us that is in synch with the mindset we associate with a nineteenth century aristocrat.
We might remember one day being on a busy train, jostled by groups of rowdy, perhaps drunk fellow passengers. The mood might not have lasted, but we might recognise for an instant in ourselves a potential to look rather sternly at others and suspect that in some ways, we might be rather better than other people. Or maybe there was a time, when we were eight and our parents were in the hallway about to go out to a formal party, and we tried on their smart coats or jackets and loved the feeling of authority that comes from certain kinds of formal clothing. We may generally have a very casual style and a democratic spirit, but locked away in our minds is the potential to grasp what might be appealing about looking grand and facing the world down with a stern demeanour. In trying to empathise with a lord, we’re seeking out and detecting an overlap of experience. We’re learning to recognise in a very different person an echo of our own intimate history.
The person who lacks empathy isn’t so much selfish as generally not fully alive to the darker, less familiar, more weird recesses of themselves: the parts that are a range of things that they aren’t quite most of the time: the subordinate bits that are, in secret, a little aristocratic, surprisingly male or female, a thief or a child, when society expects them to be merely democratic, a man, a woman, a law abiding citizen or an adult. The unempathetic person isn’t narrowly refusing the challenge of entering into the mind of another person, they are wary of treading with sufficient imagination into their own consciousness.
Behind the reserve of the unempathetic is a fear of running into troubling emotions. They may be confident yet don’t engage with memories of what it was like to stutter and be lost in the early years. They are successful but put aside the anguished apprehensions of rejection and failure that sometimes come in nightmares and would connect them with some of the people they walk contemptuously past in the streets. The long-married person harbours a promiscuous single self they pretend not to recognise. In the life of the quiet, serious individual there will have been moments, quickly forgotten, when they felt like throwing their books into the river and swearing at their teacher. We contain multitudes within us that we don’t dare to know. The opposite of empathy isn’t just thinking of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself in limited ways.
An impressive feature of many legal systems is that someone who has been accused of a crime is entitled to have a skilled and sophisticated advocate argue their case before the judge and jury. The defence lawyer doesn’t need to like their client or think them innocent; their task isn’t to lie or deceive – but simply to construct the most favourable interpretation that the facts allow. Perhaps their client did indeed steal some money – but they felt very frightened, they didn’t mean to take quite so much, they’d just received some terrible news. The advocate searches in the surrounding circumstances for whatever mitigating factors there might be.
The exercise has far wider applicability than a courtroom. Normally, we only ever get ‘hired’ – as it were – by ourselves. We are geniuses at representing our own side, at finding excuses and extenuating circumstances for what we have done or not done. And when it comes to others we typically act like the most aggressive and forensic prosecution; we in effect deny that someone could be at once good and have acted in a particular disheartening way.
There could be another approach. The empathetic person makes it their business to adopt, in a wide variety of situations, the outlook of the other’s defence lawyer. They perform a hugely unfamiliar and often uncomfortable exercise: they do whatever is in their power to make their adversaries seem – for a time – reasonable and motivated by a comprehensible set of arguments. They hold back their normal instincts and try to apply a generous construction on the motives involved.
Empathy needn’t mean we end up thinking the other person is saintly: we might still conclude that they are – for instance – not to be trusted, that they shouldn’t get the job or that we’d definitely better not marry them (just as in a court case the aim is to arrive at justice, not to acquit every defendant). But the deeper result is that we don’t merely see the other as a caricature. We understand how they came to be the way they are and recognise along the way, if we are frank, how many of their less than lovely qualities we share.
It is only too easy to judge harshly when we are not deploying the correct degree of self-knowledge. One day, when we put the heating up higher than they would like, our partner may get very agitated. They may start to shout and we, just as quickly, may – with a degree of self-satisfaction – start to think of them as ‘insane’. It may be that we have never had this precise over-overwrought reaction to heating, but if we were correctly empathetic, we would be aware of the many occasions when we ourselves got surprisingly worked up about things that don’t seem very important to others. Truly empathetic people suspect that there are few kinds of madnesses of which they couldn’t, in certain circumstances, be capable – and are accordingly unself righteous.
The more we bring our knowledge of ourselves to bear on others, the richer can be our insights into them. We start to know their deeper secrets and wishes, without asking. If we encounter someone who is always joking and seems very cheery, the empathetic person keeps in mind – because they know so well how they have been in certain of their own manic moods – that this ebullience is almost certainly in some way masking a sad and hurt aspect. They sense this because they can recall from their own experience moments when they adopted a brave and positive manner precisely when they felt close to collapse.
Bringing our experience to bear matters immensely in commercial situations. What we call good service is, in essence, the fruit of empathy. When a waiter hovers at the table and asks repeatedly if everyone is having a nice time, it is simply because they have failed to factor in their own experience of irritation at overly ingratiating attention.
The world of design is filled with absences of empathy. The planners of paths around parks – for instance – routinely forget how people actually walk.
When they lay out their paths, they forget our impatience when faced with any slightly longer route, because they fail to consult with their own selves. They fail in their work because they cease to think of themselves as their own first customer.
Empathy is often framed as a moral duty and interpreted as directly opposed to self-interest. In order to be more empathetic – the line goes – we have to abandon our own personal well-being and success. But this call to greater empathy more or less ensures its own failure. Our ingrained need to look after ourselves will reliably triumph.
A more accurate understanding of empathy, however, doesn’t see it as opposed to our own interests. The reality is that we are very often hampered and derailed in our projects because we’re not empathetic enough, not sensitive enough to what’s going on for the people we’re trying to do things with, or to whom we aim to sell our services. Empathy is an essential resource for doing what we want more successfully, which captures a fundamental hope of civilisation: that being good should not be the enemy of prosperity.
How a Messed up Childhood Affects You in Adulthood
We are, all of us, beautifully crazy or, to put it in gentler terms, fascinatingly unbalanced. Our childhoods, even the apparently benign ones, leave us no option but to be anything else.
As a result of these childhoods, we tend, over most issues, to list – like a sailing yacht in high wind – far too much in one direction or another. We are too timid, or too assertive; too rigid or too accommodating; too focused on material success or excessively lackadaisical. We are obsessively eager around sex or painfully wary and nervous in the face of our own erotic impulses. We are dreamily naive or sourly down to earth; we recoil from risk or embrace it recklessly; we have emerged into adult life determined never to rely on anyone or as desperate for another to complete us; we are overly intellectual or unduly resistant to ideas. The encyclopedia of emotional imbalances is a volume without end. What is certain is that these imbalances come at a huge cost, rendering us less able to exploit our talents and opportunities, less able to lead satisfying lives and a great deal less fun to be around.
Yet because we are reluctant historians of our emotional pasts, we easily assume that these imbalances aren’t things we could ever change; they are fundamentally innate. It’s just how we were made. We simply are, in and of ourselves, people who micromanage or can’t get much pleasure out of sex, scream a lot when someone contradicts us or run away from lovers who are too kind to us. It may not be easy, but nor is it alterable or up for enquiry.
The truth is likely to be more hopeful – though, in the short term, more challenging. Our imbalances are invariably responses to something that happened in the past. We are a certain way because we were knocked off a more fulfilling trajectory years ago by a primal wound. In the face of a viciously competitive parent, we took refuge in underachievement. Having lived around a parent disgusted by the body, sex became frightening. Surrounded by material unreliability, we had to overachieve around money and social prestige. Hurt by a dismissive parent, we fell into patterns of emotional avoidance. A volatile parent pushed us towards our present meekness and inability to make a fuss. Early overprotectiveness inspired timidity and, around any complex situation, panic attacks. A continually busy, inattentive parent was the catalyst for a personality marked by exhausting attention-seeking behaviour.
There is always a logic and there is always a history.
We can tell that our imbalances date from the past because they reflect the way of thinking and instincts of the children we once were. Without anything pejorative being meant by this, our way of being unbalanced tends towards a fundamental immaturity, bearing the marks of what was once a young person’s attempt to grapple with something utterly beyond their capacities.
For example, when they suffer at the hands of an adult, children almost invariably take what happens to them as a reflection of something that must be very wrong with them. If someone humiliates, ignores or hurts them, it must – so it seems – be because they are, in and of themselves, imbecilic, repugnant and worth neglecting. It can take many years, and a lot of patient inner exploration, to reach an initially less plausible conclusion: that the hurt was essentially undeserved and that there were inevitably a lot of other things going on, off-stage, in the raging adult’s interior life for which the child was entirely blameless.
Similarly, because children cannot easily leave an offending situation, they are prey to powerful, limitless longings to fix, the broken person they so completely depend on. It becomes, in the infantile imagination, the child’s responsibility to mend all the anger, addiction or sadness of the grown-up they adore. It may be the work of decades to develop an adult power to feel sad about, rather than eternally responsible for, those we cannot change.
Communication patterns are beset by comparable childhood legacies. When something is very wrong, children have no innate capacity to explain their cause. They lack the confidence, poise and verbal dexterity to get their points across with the calm and authority required. They tend to dramatic overreactions instead, insisting, nagging, exploding, screaming. Or else excessive under-reactions: sulking, sullen silence, and avoidance. We may be well into middle-age before we can shed our first impulses to explode at or flee from those who misunderstand our needs and more carefully and serenely try to explain them instead.
It’s another feature of the emotional wounds of childhood that they tend to provoke what are in effect large-scale generalisations. Our wounds may have occurred in highly individual contexts: with one particular adult who hit their particular partner late at night in one particular terraced house in one town in the north. Or the wound may have been caused by one specific parent who responded with intense contempt after a specific job loss from one specific factory. But these events give rise to expectations of other people and life more broadly. We grow to expect that everyone will turn violent, that every partner may turn on us and every money problem will unleash disaster. The character traits and mentalities that were formed in response to one or two central actors of childhood become our habitual templates for interpreting pretty much anyone. For example, the always jokey and slightly manic way of being that we evolved so as to keep a depressed, listless mother engaged becomes our second nature. Even when she is long gone, we remain people who need to shine at every meeting, who require a partner to be continually focused on us and who cannot listen to negative or dispiriting information of any kind.
Similarly, a childhood craving to pacify and never bother two squabbling unhappy parents can far outlast our actual presence in their company. We may decades later still harbour a powerful desire to evade all confrontation, even though the original source of our hesitancy has long disappeared and such avoidance bears a heavy price.
We are living the wide-open present through the narrow drama of the past. We suffer because we are, at huge cost, too loyal to the early difficult years. We should, where we can, dare to leave home.