Some of us belong to a social group politely known as ‘worriers.’ That is, we are close to panic on a range of issues pretty much all the time. We worry that the scratch on our knee will turn cancerous, that we’ll catch a deadly disease from touching the hotel door, that all our savings might disappear in a random economic disaster and that our enemies could spread rumours that will forever disgrace and demean us.
So overwhelming and debilitating can these fears become, we may be advised by well-meaning friends that we should probably go and visit a psychotherapist in haste in order to calm ourselves.
Here we’re likely to learn a lot of very reassuring things, in particular, that none of our powerful fears is really any kind of reflection on what is likely to happen in the real world. The scratch on the knee is just a scratch, there isn’t about to be some global catastrophe, there isn’t some disease that is going to wipe us all out, the hotel door is blameless, we’re not going to be financially ruined, no one is properly interested in humiliating us. And so on and so forth.
We learn to make a distinction between our inner world and the outer world, the first filled with terror and apprehension, the second emerging as a far more benign, indifferent and easy going place. We also learn, if we read a little psychotherapeutic theory, why there should in some of us be such a dislocation between the inner and outer worlds.
It comes down to a theory about childhood; some of us had childhoods that were so disturbed and cruel, so filled with shame and loneliness, that they have coloured our view of the whole of life; we assume that things will always be as bad as they once were.
The task of psychotherapy is then to start to show us how powerfully and negatively biased our perceptions are and that the adult realm actually contains far fewer demons than we thought, and far more opportunity, solace and forgiveness. We learn that the catastrophe we feared would happen has in fact safely already happened. We get a lot better.
But then, if we’re unlucky, at key moments in our lives, we may run into a range of harrowing events that threaten to upend everything we’ve carefully learnt to believe in and that make a mockery of the soothing voices we’ve come to trust.
Suddenly, in spite of our best efforts to be resilient and sane, we learn that we are in fact facing a mortal illness. Or, after slowly overcoming a compulsive handwashing fetish, we’re told that a germ truly might kill us after all. Or, despite our attempts to explore our sexuality with courage, we learn that some enemies really do want to humiliate us for the pleasures we’ve pursued.
In confusion and bitterness, we may turn against therapy and its naive view of reality and cry bitterly: ‘See! It really is as bad as I always thought it was… I suspected that life was hell and it really is.’ Or, as one comic is reputed to have had inscribed on their gravestone, ‘I told you it wasn’t just a cough.’
This may sound like the moment when all attempts at psychotherapeutic calm or at emotional maturity and wisdom more broadly fairly come to an end. But once we have endured the initial panic, we can insist that this need be nothing of the sort. We can strive for wisdom despite, or even in the midst of, a range of the most awful external eventualities.
We should be clear on what is at stake: psychotherapy does not promise us that nothing will ever go wrong in our lives again. It can’t remove intractable evils. What it can do, however, is to teach us a variety of mental manoeuvres that will render those evils – death among them – a great deal less painful and persecutory than they would otherwise have been.
There are better and worse ways to endure the afflictions we cannot avoid. There are ways of interpreting disasters that add a whole new layer of pain and fear to them – and others that, while they do not magic away the chaos, at least remove its secondary, aggravating characteristics.
Let’s consider two of the things that those of us with a choppy inner life (and a difficult past) may – quite unfairly – tell ourselves when we run into the vicissitudes of life and compare it with what wiser voices might propose:
‘This is going to be the end of everything…’
It doesn’t take very much – when you’ve already felt a disaster or two rock your world at an early age – to know in your bones what’s coming next when a problem hits. Death is clearly nigh.
There isn’t going to be any safe way out of this debacle. It’s all over… But, however counterintuitive this might sound, even in a pandemic, one may be exaggerating. Even with a cancer diagnosis, one may be losing perspective.
The outer world can be bad, very bad, and still the inner world can be making it worse, may be adding yet more fear, yet more dread and more of a sense of doom than would be strictly necessary. Not every calamity is the end; not every end need be a deluge.
Some of us will have enjoyed the blessing of that essential figure of early childhood: the soothing adult. Our toy broke and it seemed it was a misery beyond compare; we wailed, we screamed, we called death upon ourselves.
Nothing so bad had ever been seen. But then a kindly adult came, took us in their arms, and said ‘I know, I know’ and held us so tightly until our tears abated. And then, in a calm and loving voice, they plotted with us how we might repair things: perhaps there’d be a similar toy in another shop; maybe we could get some glue and have a go at fixing the head back on; maybe there’d be a way of playing with it even if it had only one leg… And so gradually we recovered a taste for life and kept on going – and many decades later, when disaster strikes once more, we’re able to call on the voice of the kindly parental figure, and give ourselves more options: certainly it is bad, but think of how much remains.
Perhaps we can pick up the pieces and begin anew. Maybe the horror will end. There might just be a small solution. And even if there isn’t, the kindly voice gives us a sense that everything can be OK anyway, even dying can be coped with – for maybe the original owner of that calm voice approached their end a few years back with a serenity and good humour we can now emulate in turn. Not even death has to be a disaster.
‘You deserve all the bad things that happen to you…’
For some of us, it isn’t just that bad things happen to us, bad things happen to us because we are bad people. We suffer because we deserve to suffer; and we deserve to suffer because we are – to put it relatively mildly – pieces of shit. It feels natural to turn whatever is negative and might have been entirely accidental into a verdict on us and on our right to be.
We have such reservoirs of shame and self-loathing that when we suffer a reversal, we don’t only end up – for example – sick or broke or abandoned in love, we hear a voice in our heads that at once adds immeasurably to the misery; a voice that tells us that we are, aside from on our own and in a cold rented room, also a mistake that should never have been born.
No one doubts that sometimes people go broke, no one doubts that love lives can go wrong, but not everyone who goes broke or has a bad marriage ends up feeling that they are the worst person in the world and that the leading option must be to kill themselves.
For some of us, we aren’t just our worst moments, we can exist outside of our foolishness. No error we make ever puts us entirely beyond the pale. We may be in prison, most of our friends may have left us, but we still know we’ve got lovable sides.
Someone could in theory still see past our sins and love us. We retain an echo of the love we once drew strength from all those years back; we are still the little boy or girl that someone loved, despite everything that came after. We may have done a very bad thing, we are not totally bad people.
We tend to believe that the difference between a good and a bad life must lie strictly in the quality of the events that befall people. But to a surprising extent, the difference actually lies in the way each of us is able to interpret events.
There are newly convicted prisoners, newly condemned patients and freshly diagnosed plague victims who know how not to add shame, persecution, self-hatred and unbounded panic to their already considerable burdens.
There are those of us who know how to incorporate a soothing commentary to a battlefield: who can tell ourselves in the middle of an inferno that we do not deserve this, that a lot can be fixed, that we are still loveable, that it can probably be survived and that if it can’t, we will simply have to cross a threshold over which a hundred billion or so of our species has already passed – in a process which will, in its own ghastly way, be fine for us too.
Therapy well done isn’t a discipline that tells us all will be brilliant; it offers us another go at hearing the voice of the soothing parent we missed out on first time around who knew that we could cope even when it isn’t.
There is an old misanthropic joke that goes: just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean someone’s not following you.
The true retort to this grim wisecrack would be: and even if someone is following you, that doesn’t mean you deserve it or that it has to be the end of you. And, in a related move, just because there is a plague, doesn’t mean you are going to die. And just because you’re going to die, doesn’t mean you can’t ever grow to accept your non-existence with a measure of dark humour and serenity.
Even at the end of the world, there will be some of us taking it worse than others, some of us who will feel that they deserve it, that this means they are disgusting and wretched and that none of the beautiful stuff ever meant anything – and others who will be greeting catastrophe without catastrophizing.
The good news is that, long before the planet expires, with a little help from therapy and philosophy, we have the capacity to move ourselves into the wiser camp, the camp of those who can endure difficult things without adding a further critical persecutory commentary, and are able, in the face of the most awful events, to soothe themselves with the kindness and empathy of the gentlest parent calming down the sobs of the distressed and frightened child we all once were and at some level remain.