Our refusal to forgive ourselves for our mistakes tends to hang on a strong sense of how much these were, in the end, avoidable. We obsessively go back over our slips and errors and contrast what did happen with what could so easily have been skirted if we had not been so fatuous and so witless. We experience recurring jabs of pain at the disjuncture between the agonising present and its now-vanished alternative: we should never have written that email, we should never have become involved with that person, we should have listened more closely to the advice, we should never have borrowed the money…
Alongside the pain come questions: Why didn’t we have greater foresight? Why couldn’t we muster more self-restraint? How could we have been so indiscreet? From this close up, there are no realistic, let alone kind, ways to answer our punitive self-interrogations; as a result, they are likely to go on forever, without let up in agony. We will at best conclude that we messed up because we were greedy, because we were vain, shallow, intemperate and weak-willed; that we have ruined our lives because we are lustful, hare-brained, immature and egocentric.
Our self-hatred will grow ever more intense as we contrast our soiled lives with the impeccable choices of others. The reasonable and good ones, the calm and happy ones, had it right all along: they didn’t succumb to temptations, they stayed steady and dutiful, they kept their priorities straight and paid due respect to public opinion. The overall conclusion is that we are simply awful people, who should probably (depending on the severity of the problem we are in) kill ourselves forthwith.
If we are to avoid eternal self-loathing or suicide, we will have to find another approach. We cannot forever explain our mistakes by examining this or that local flaw in our characters. We need to lean on a far more holistic and objective answer. We messed up because we are human, which in this context means that we belong to a species that is compelled by its very nature to steer through life without the knowledge and experience required to ensure goodness and wisdom, kindness and happiness.
We may regret this or that error, but from the right distance, we are fundamentally steering blind and are therefore doomed to slip up with greater or lesser severity at some point or other. We can’t know exactly whom we should marry. We don’t have fool-proof knowledge of where our real talents lie, let alone how the economy will perform, and therefore can’t determine the sort of career we should optimally invest ourselves in. We may make a reasonable guess at what activities and situations might be dangerous, but we cannot know ahead of time exactly where the true risks lie; there are landmines buried everywhere. Assumptions made in one era may fail to be correct in another. We can be caught out by swift changes in mores: what could have been acceptable at one point can turn into an indecency a few years later.
Certainly, we may have experienced a particularly jagged edge of life that has destroyed us in a very specific way. But though the wound is local, the injury is almost endemic. It could have been foretold from the start that something bad would happen to us at some moment, not because there is anything especially deficient about us, but because human brains are lacking the necessary matter to lead us faultlessly through the decades-long obstacle course of life.
That said, our self-contempt tends to be heightened because we refuse to think about luck. We look at where we have ended up and compare it with the more fortunate places of others and come to only one verdict: we must have been more stupid than they are, our characters must have been more corrupt than theirs. But in the process, we miss out on a critical explanatory factor: whatever our flaws may have been, we may have had to contend with a particularly vicious swerve of fate. There have been people every bit as hasty or unreasonable as us who (for now) have sailed on unmolested. Events have pressed more harshly on the vulnerable parts of our personalities. Anyone who would have been tested as we were would have failed in comparable ways. In assessing our destiny, we should remember to claim a very large role for the forces of foul luck.
At the same time, we do ourselves an injury by comparing ourselves only with those above us, rather than considering our state in the round. In our abject moods, we look enviously at those who are presently riding high while failing to consider the hundreds, even millions, of those who have endured destinies every bit as cruel as our own. The human condition has seldom been a smiling one: we should not compound our difficulties by refusing to consider all those who have wept every bit as much as us and lost even more than us.
Nor should we keep equating ourselves with people who, while they might have some superficial similarities with us in terms of age or educational background, in the end had incomparably different psychological beginnings. They didn’t have our parents, they didn’t have to go through what we did, they didn’t have to master our emotional immaturities. They may seem to be our equals but they in fact belong to a more blessed cohort. We should nurture sympathy for ourselves based on a fine-grained appreciation of the specific burdens we had to take on.
A degree of regret may sometimes be helpful: it can help us to take stock of errors and to avoid the worst of the pitfalls next time. But runaway self-hatred serves no useful purpose; it is, in its masochistic way, an indulgence we can’t afford. We may be foolish, but this doesn’t single us out as particularly awful or unusual; it only confirms that we belong to the human race, a fact for which we deserve limitless sympathy and compassion.
There is a paradox at the heart of what it means to be a loving person. On the one hand, the aspiration would seem to necessitate that we be as ‘good’ as possible. On the other, those who feel that they are very good, who consider their record as spotless and their actions as blameless, can end up exhibiting a rigidity and sternness of heart that may veer into self-righteousness and a distinct sort of cruelty. We have to conclude that truly good people never feel beyond reproach; they know how much is crooked and unfortunate in their souls and on this basis go easy on the transgressions of others. They are properly kind because they never feel very pure themselves.
For most people, the moment of maximal perceived purity tends to be in late adolescence, a phase that for many of us, psychologically speaking, can continue deep into middle age. We awaken from the fog of childhood to acquire a newly robust impression of moral clarity. We see for the first time how bad people really are, and grow determined to call out evil deeds that we feel we have ignored for too long. The teachers are, as we are now able to see, mostly only in it for themselves, the government is filled with time-wasters and egoists, corporations only want to protect their own interests, and closer to home, our parents are nauseatingly compromised, sentimental, selfish and variously lustful or weak-willed.
These lapses outrage our sense of right and wrong and fire a crusading spirit. It seems beyond belief that certain people who need to be exposed and expunged could be quite so venal in their actions: why would a respectable company not do more to help the forests and the seas? Why would a politician care so much about narrow party interests? Why would someone break up a family because of a passing infatuation? Why would an adult lose their temper over minor details? Why would a person get involved in the status race and worry so much about their earnings or how big their house was?
Adolescent minds can be particularly exercised by the idea that valuable things might have murky and muddled origins. In response, they will be in no mood to make excuses. If the talented painter behaved badly at home, then their work should be taken down from galleries and museums. If the benefactor turned out to harbour racist views, they should be stripped of their honours and made to disappear from history.
The adolescent is able to be so outraged because the flaws that drive unfortunate behaviour are so unknown to them from the inside. They have never yet felt the pull between duty and desire. They haven’t experienced the temptations of power. They haven’t been inducted into how desperate one may grow after years in a relationship. They haven’t been under the sort of professional pressure that means one can end up shouting intemperately even at people one loves. They haven’t witnessed the slow death of many of their dreams or the onset of unmasterable moods of indolence and self-hatred. They haven’t known from close up the agony that can ensue when friends succeed – and our own professional stagnation is thrown into relief.
It may take a while until life’s appalling complexity hits the adolescent mind; until they notice that, in spite of all their worthiness, they have in certain areas acted with some of the very malevolence they have hitherto located only in other people: the fraudulent CEO, the degenerate politician, their unpleasant father. They may have judged many people with steely implacability before they find themselves falling in love with one person even while they are pledged to another, before they act unreasonably with their own child, before they are dragged down by moods of despair and sadness they cannot get past, before they feel so weak and ignored inside that they start to boast and buy goods that they can’t afford in the hope of being noticed and admired.
They may be greying by the time someone whose good opinion they crave turns around and, with cold-hearted fury, accuses them of having been a ‘selfish, ungrateful idiot’ and they are made to recognise that they truly have been such a thing – despite being, in so many other ways, kind and humane, thoughtful and courteous, committed to protecting the environment and enlightened in their attitudes to redistributive taxes. At last, the former adolescent is ready to take on board the agonies of adulthood and to be appropriately kind in response.
We have to learn how corrupt we are, how insipid we can be, how little we understand, in order to be in any position to bestow adequate warmth on our fellow humans. We will be ready to love when we have absorbed the full extent of our capacity to be bad.
One of the more curious aspects of the ways we are built is that it can take us a very long time indeed to work out what we need in order to be happy.
We might assume that the process was obvious; what could be more straightforward than to want. We’ve ostensibly been doing it since we were four years old and began a powerful campaign for an electric train or set of farmyard animals.
The issue is not that we have no appetites but that it can take such a long time for these to become either accurate or authentic.
We start by wanting primarily according to what others around us want. Which may mean that — at varied ages — we acquire a bomber jacket, a barbecue set, a marriage, linen trousers, a career in finance, a juicer, a divorce, weekly pilates lessons and a six month cruise around the Pacific.
It may be our fourth or fifth decade before, very gradually, we acknowledge just how unexpected, personally flavoured and distinct our characters and requirements really are — and nurture the courage to do something about it.
We might grow honest enough to realise that we would be happy never again to see most of the blowhards and fakes we’d been thinking of as ‘friends’ and giving enthusiastic bear hugs to for years. And, conversely, we might determine that we now want to hang out exclusively with people who’ve had nervous breakdowns, spent time in prison, know how to cry and actively don’t give a damn what the world thinks.
We might at the same time realise that we abhor what news and social media do to our minds and — like a cowardly sheep finally kicking the farmer — delete everything, until our phones can barely tell the time any more. We can be proud of all the nonsense that we no longer have to know about or be scared of. The world will go its own merry way and we won’t to have follow every part of the bile-filled story at minute intervals.
We may also stop trying to impress people we hate. Our mother cared intensely about social status and being famous — and, under her aegis we gave up a great many years of our life. Good for her and a pity for us, but we’re done with that now and three weird friends, a big dose of misanthropy and a hut in the woods are beckoning.
We are going to be dead pretty soon and all those cancer stories point us in one direction only: towards the need to stop being a craven, imitative, second hand timid flunkey and herd-animal. We need to throw out all the socially prescribed junk and honour the contours of our own beautifully unique characters before it’s too late. After a lifetime of imitation, fear, and surrender, we may finally have to grow a backbone — and become loyal to who we actually are.
Part of the pain of growing older is that we can start to see how much, at certain points, we misunderstood ourselves, what the costs of missing self-knowledge were and how beautiful it could be if we could just build ourselves a time machine and go back and correct all our mistakes.
It’s because – at the age of seven – we had no idea about standing up to an adult that we let ourselves get trampled upon by a parent and then grew up as a target for bullies for much of our lives.
It’s because at seventeen, we were so uncertain about our value that there was no way we could seduce someone we liked and wasted what might have been some of our most promising years in loneliness and self-hatred.
It’s because at thirty, we couldn’t understand how our romantic tastes had been formed by our family histories that we embarked on an incautious relationship that spoilt multiple lives.
The better responses, when we do finally achieve them, are so simple as to be almost insulting. But something can be no less crucial for sounding ‘minor’: a missing screw can, after all, bring down a 55 tonne airliner. We may realise – far too late – that we need to believe in ourselves, overcome the snobbishness of our parents, correct the distorted images we have of figures of authority, stop worrying what others think, live by our own values and be free.
If only we could land our elegant time machine next to our younger selves and whisper them such advice: we’d have left home with our dignity intact, we’d have had the love we craved, we’d have spared ourselves relationship agonies. It’s so tantalising, no wonder we often stay up late fantasising about being able to go back in our time machine knowing then what we know now.
But not picking up key lessons wasn’t a casual oversight. Wise lessons were around, but we weren’t ready. Our inattention was inevitable rather than accidental. We might have laughed defensively if someone had suggested going to psychotherapy aged seventeen. We would have called emotional intelligence ‘psychobabble.’ We were wedded to our illnesses.
We might try to be kinder to ourselves by recalibrating how easy certain emotional steps ever really are. They can certainly be summed up to sound simple. But there is nothing at all simple about correcting mental unwellness. It can legitimately be the work of a lifetime, and the achievement of which we are by far the most proud, to one day be able feel fundamentally content with ourselves, not scared all the time, reconciled to our careers and holding the hand of an ordinary kind clever person who loves us and whom we love. That only ever looks easy; in reality, there’s nothing more complicated in the universe.
It’s an enormous privilege to have an adolescence — and, to an extent rarely spoken about, not everyone gets the chance to have one. Adolescence isn’t just a particular time of one’s second decade, and it won’t unfold automatically simply when one reaches fourteen or seventeen and three quarters.
Adolescence properly understood is a state in which we’re able to explore — with courage and newfound independence — who we might be outside of the projections and mental dictates placed upon us with enormous ingenuity and great force by our parents.
Parents are the greatest propagandists that any of us will ever meet with – and part of their genius is that we rarely know what they are up to. Below the surface they are engaged in a ruthless and ongoing attempt to sell us a version of reality: to tell us what we are ‘really’ like, what we actually need, what life is truly about — and who they have been and what their motives are. It goes without saying that some of their ideas will be eminently correct but the function of adolescence is to take a good long look at, and deal with, the ones that aren’t.
Adolescence is an initially inarticulate and then gradually more discerning protest against everything that has come to feel false, ill-fitting and superfluously applied to our identities since we were born. We may realise, as we progress through adolescence, that we really aren’t interested in particular sides of the workplace that our parents have held in high esteem, that we don’t care about a given approach to morality or vision of politeness and goodness and that we would prefer to join the circus – or Goldman Sachs.
Good parents are secure enough not to mind, they can accept that their child may have turned into that always rather remarkable thing: a separate person. They can even take it if their children are furious for a while, try to kill them in their imaginations and see all their incompetence and stupidity without a filter of sentimentality or fear: what clever people they are to be able to perceive things so distinctly! What a tribute to one’s parenting to allow such loathing to play out!
The difficulty lies with the parents who brook no such opposition; who are too vengeful, depressed or anxious to tolerate dissent and force us to disown bits of ourselves in order to retain their love.
The good news is that it’s never too late for an adolescence. We can start to have one as soon as we realise our right to define ourselves away from parental laws. We can even do it in secret. Without spots to give things away, no one will have to know the critical task that is at play beneath our sober middle-aged facades: a belated search for our true selves.
Perhaps the finest way to develop a loving attitude towards other people is to recall, in the face of their difficulty, that we are, in the end, all children.
The claim is an odd one. Adults are clearly not children. They have powers of reasoning that quite outstrip those of younger people, they have options and a sound grasp of right and wrong, they are capable of causing serious damage; they should know better.
Children, on the other hand, are well-known for their powers to melt our hearts. Partly this has to do with their physical appearance: with their unusually large eyes, their full cheeks, their unthreatening statures, their tiny fat fleshy fingers. But ultimately, the child attracts our tenderness because, when they act in ‘bad’ or tricky ways, it tends to be easy to work out why they have done so: they hit their little sister because they were feeling left out; they started to steal things from the other children because their parents were going through a divorce; they ran away from the party without saying goodbye because they were panicked by a sense of unworthiness.
Overall, when it comes to the psychology of children, we discover a surprising and hugely gentle truth: that ‘badness’ and difficulty are, invariably, the result of some form of pain, discomfort, hurt or wound. The child does not start by being dreadful, they become so in response to injury, fear or sorrow.
With adults on the other hand, confronted by nasty or terrible behaviour, our thoughts do not – for understandable reasons – generally turn to imagining why it might have occurred. We’re satisfied with nimble and compressed reasons: because they’re an arsehole, because they’re crazy. This will do for now.
And yet it is always open to us to wonder why someone acted as they did – and here we are liable to stumble on an always provocative and properly revolutionary idea: the reason why little children and big people do wrong is – despite the differences in age and size – exactly the same. One category may be no bigger than a chair, the other can be gigantic and able to carry guns, post lengthy screeds online or start and bankrupt companies, but in the end, the psychology of blunder, meanness and anger is always the same: evil is a consequence of injury. The big person did not start off evil, their difficult sides were not hard wired from the start, they grew towards malice on account of some form of wound waiting to be discovered.
It is work of extraordinary patience and humanity – it is the work of love – to go in search of what these wounds might be. To search is morally frightening because we too easily imagine that it might require us to wind up thinking well of behaviour we know is abhorrent: it doesn’t at all, we can remain appalled while simultaneously tracing a path back to the true catalytic factors. The work can also be practically frightening because we imagine that it might require us to leave someone at liberty to cause us or others yet more pain: but again, we can keep the wrong doer safely behind very high bars, even as we sensitively explore the origins of their violations.
Once the full stories of our trespassers become known, our perspective may swiftly rework itself. The bully who pursued us online had once worked as a porter, then been fired some years back and fallen into depression and was facing the bankruptcy courts. The angry populist politician was remorselessly belittled by a powerful father. The sexually impulsive person used their addiction to calm themselves down from some unmasterable anxieties related to early emotional neglect. Our judgement on behaviour never has to change; our sense of why it occurred can be transformed.
The discipline of psychotherapy has been central in helping us to chart the sometimes unobvious or contrary connections between a symptom and its genesis. Boastfulness may have its roots in fear; anger can mask terror; hatred can be a defence against love. The haughty air of the grown up can take hold as a way of compensating for invisibility. A satirical manner can be a shield against an exiled longing for sweetness.
The prison system in most countries tends to place people below the age of eighteen in separate young offenders’ institutions, which treat inmates with a degree of kindness and hope – in order to delve into the psychology of transgression with a view to understanding and overcoming its causes. But after this age, for the most part, prisoners are locked up in bare cells and the key is – metaphorically – thrown away. They should, after all, have known better.
And yet we are all, as it were, young offenders, however old we might actually be; in other words, we all need our crimes to be treated with a degree of sympathy and empathetic investigation. It is an exquisite feat of mind to be able to imagine them as always still, at some level, infants in a cradle.
For a long time, we may cope well enough. We make it to work every morning, we give pleasant summaries of our lives to friends, we smile over dinner. We aren’t totally balanced, but there’s little way of knowing how difficult things might be for other people, and what we have a right to expect in terms of contentment and peace of mind. We probably tell ourselves to stop being self-indulgent and redouble our efforts to feel worthy through achievement. We are probably world experts in not feeling sorry for ourselves.
Decades may pass. It’s not uncommon for the most serious mental conditions to remain undiagnosed for half a life time. We simply don’t notice that we are, beneath the surface, chronically anxious, filled with self-loathing and close to overwhelming despair and rage. This too simply ends up feeling normal.
Until one day, finally, something triggers a collapse. It might be a crisis at work, a reversal in our career plans or a mistake we’ve made over a task. It might be a romantic failure, someone leaving us or a realisation that we are profoundly unhappy with a partner we had thought might be our long-term future. Alternatively, we feel mysteriously exhausted and sad, to the extent that we can’t face anything any more, even a family meal or a conversation with a friend. Or we are struck by unmanageable anxiety around everyday challenges, like addressing our colleagues or going into a shop. We’re swamped by a sense of doom and imminent catastrophe. We sob uncontrollably.
We are in a mental crisis and, if we are lucky, we will know to put up the white flag at once. There is nothing shameful or rare in our condition; we have fallen ill, as so many before us have. We need not compound our sickness with a sense of embarrassment. This is what happens when one is a delicate human facing the hurtful, alarming and always uncertain conditions of existence. Recovery can start the moment one admits one no longer has a clue how to cope.
The roots of the crisis almost certainly go a long way back. Things will not have been right in certain areas for an age, possibly forever. There will have been grave inadequacies in the early days, things that were said and done to us that should never have occurred and bits of reassurance and care that were ominously missed out on. On top of this, adult life will have layered on difficulties which we were not well equipped to know how to endure. It will have applied pressure along our most tender, invisible faultlines.
Our illness is trying to draw attention to our problems, but it can only do so inarticulately, by throwing up coarse and vague symptoms. It knows how to declare that we are worried and sad, but it can’t tell us what about and why. That will be the work of patient investigation, over months and years, probably in the company of experts. The illness contains the cure, but it has to be teased out and its original inarticulacy interpreted. Something from the past is crying out to be recognised – and will not leave us alone until we have given it its due.
It may seem – at points – like a death sentence but we are, beneath the crisis, being given an opportunity to restart our lives on a more generous, kind and realistic footing. There is an art to being ill – and to daring at last to listen to what our pain is trying to tell us.
It is a characteristic temptation of the mind to declare things to be either very very good or very very bad. Nuance is not our species’ strong point or natural resting place.
It was the singular achievement of the mid-twentieth century child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein to trace this problem back to early childhood. For Klein, infants and small children are inveterate dividers of the world into opposing camps of the brilliant and the awful and they act in this way from the moment they emerge and have their first feed at the breast. Klein proposed that a newborn has no clear idea, at the very start, that its mother is even a whole person. She is just, at the outset, a pair of breasts from which stem the source of all life and goodness. Sometimes, when a feed is going well, when the milk is flowing strongly and nourishingly, the breast is a source of delight and perfection, it is impeccable and superb, it is scrupulously good. But at other points, when it’s hard to latch on to the nipple, when the milk is resistant, the frustration is intolerable. The baby deems the breast defective, vengeful, useless and definitively bad. And so, in a mental process that Klein famously termed ‘splitting’, the infant ends up dividing the mother into nothing less than a good and a bad breast.
Eventually the child develops a capacity for more integrated and complex thoughts. It makes an astonishing realisation: that the breasts actually belong to a full person. And more importantly, that this person happens to be (strangely) both good and bad, both helpful and frustrating, both gratifying and maddening. Furthermore, a lot of people seem to have this dual nature; they can be fun and interesting one moment, then really very irritating at another. Far from reflecting some rare deficiency, this duality is part of every human being, not least itself. The child begins to accept that it too is a mixture of the good and the bad – but that this is no reason to hate or give up on itself. Life can be lived in shades of grey.
Klein was under no illusion about how easy these realisations might be to reach. She suggested that surrendering a black and white view is so hard for children that doing so will throw them into a period of melancholy thoughtfulness and contemplation that she called ‘depressive realism’. In this mournful state, they will shed some of their uninhibited early liveliness and process grave and difficult thoughts as to the ambivalent nature of everything. They begin to recognise that the world has nothing entirely pure to offer them – but then again, to compensate, that there are far fewer utterly horrible things as well. Mummy is very nice but also deeply annoying; daddy is funny but properly idiotic. Nursery isn’t constantly great, but it isn’t hell either.
In the course of her therapeutic work, Klein realised that not every adult has managed to go through the stage of ‘depressive realism’. A huge number of us are still stuck somewhere deep in the ‘splitting’ phase. That is, we continuously imagine that people and situations are completely pure and wonderful or appalling and detestable. Someone who doesn’t agree with us politically is, for example, immediately a thorough villain: corrupt, hateful and deserving of total infamy. An ex partner who has frustrated us must be a monster guilty of heinous behaviour and the worst motives. Someone who holds us back at the office is evidently entirely nefarious. The person we met on a dating site two and a half days ago is wholly beautiful and sensational to the core. The world contains one or two true goodies, and a lot more complete baddies waiting for justice to be served.
Klein’s insight was to associate maturity with a rejection of all divisive ‘split’ positions. To be a proper grown up is to realise that there are no paragons and monsters, no deities and total reprobates. There are only people somewhere in the middle, trying to act well, making mistakes, striving to say sorry, hoping to do better – and always full of regrets, embarrassment and a longing for forgiveness. Little babies are very sweet, but splitting is anything but. It lies at the heart of the most noxious forms of totalitarianism, vengefulness, intolerance and political oppression; there is an angry splitting toddler inside the general who orders the extermination of prisoners and inside the revolutionary who coldly has their victims eliminated. One of our greatest of all achievements is a melancholy and essential realisation: that everyone, not least ourselves, is a mixture of devil and angel and that therefore tolerance and forbearance are truly non-negotiable features of a bearable world.
Some of the reason why adult life can be greyer and more miserable than it should be is that our earliest years are generally made up of a prolonged and highly formative encounter with the idea of obedience. Throughout childhood, there is little doubt that the path to maturity must involve doing a litany of substantially unpleasant things demanded of us by figures of authority whom we cannot question. No one asks if we would be particularly interested in learning about the angles of triangles or what a volt really is, but we obey in any case. We give over our days and much of our evenings and weekends to complying with an agenda elaborated for us by people whose concern with our happiness is at best highly abstract. We put on our blue or grey jumper and sit at a desk and study the plotline of Macbeth or the chemical properties of helium – and trust that our boredom and distaste must be substantially wrong.
We then become inclined to extend this attitude into our dealings with the wider world. We assume that what we particularly want should never be the important factor. We opt for a career on the basis that – to others – it looks like the right thing to subscribe to. At parties we’ll be able to answer the question what do you do? in a way that – by consensus – is unobjectionable or somewhat impressive. At the same time, we learn to see freedom as both appealing and, in a way, absurd. We’ll be free, we feel, when we don’t have anything else to fill our time with: on Saturday mornings or when we’re retired.
In the process, we become highly adept at rationalising our frustrations. We tell ourselves that we have no option. We have to stick with a job that we resent or a marriage that has grown stale because (we say) we need the money or our friends would be disappointed or it’s the kind of thing everyone like us has to do. We become geniuses at elaborating excuses that make our unhappiness look necessary and sane.
The mid-twentieth century British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott encountered many patients – often high-performing and prestigious ones – who were in acute distress because they were, as he put it, ‘too good.’ They had never felt the inner freedom and security to say no, largely because their earliest caregivers would have viewed the expression of their authentic feelings as a threatening insurrection they had to quash. Winnicott proposed that health could only come about from counteracting this tendency to subordinate too quickly – and too trustingly – to the preferences of others, including people who might claim to care a lot about us. Being ‘bad’ in a salutary way in Winnicott’s vision wouldn’t have to mean breaking the law or becoming aggressive; it would mean finding the inner freedom to do things others might find disconcerting on the basis that we, our authentic selves, have a sincere wish to explore them. It would be founded on a very profound view that others can never ultimately be the best custodians of our lives, for their instincts about what’s acceptable haven’t been formed on the basis of a deep knowledge of our unique needs.
We tend to fantasise about freedom in terms of not having to work or of being able to take off on long trips. But if we dig into its core, freedom really means no longer being beholden to the expectations of others. We may, quite freely, work very hard or stay at home during the holidays. The decisive factor is our willingness to disappoint, to upset or to disconcert others in doing so. We don’t need to relish this – we may by nature be inclined to get on well with as many people as possible. But we can live with the idea that our central choices might not meet with general approval. At the party, we can risk someone not being at all impressed by what we do, or regarding our living arrangements as unorthodox or our opinions as odd. But we don’t mind too much – because we’ve become free. Our sense of what our life is about is no longer so confused with the notion of meeting the expectations of others.
To be free, ultimately, is to be devoted – in ways that might be strenuous – to meeting our own expectations.
It’s natural to think of ourselves as a single person. We have – after all – only one body and answer to only one name. But inside our minds, we are in truth far more like an assemblage of voices or – as we might put it at its starkest – of ‘people.’
We could picture our minds like a theatre, much of it sunk in darkness, with a brightly illuminated lectern and microphone at the center of the stage. At different moments of our days and nights, contrasting characters will seek to step up to speak and interpret the world unfolding before our eyes. Sometimes, it will be the panicker, a prominent figure alarmed by everything, someone who has always known it will all go wrong and quickly resorts to weeping and wailing in the face of even minor difficulties. Sometimes it will be the self-flagellator, the one who speaks very sternly, insists that everything is our fault and berates us that we don’t, ultimately, deserve to exist. Sometimes it is the depressive, who knows that existence is an appalling error, that hope cannot survive and that our direction is towards doom and catastrophe. What unites these characters is that they are, in their diverse ways, very keen to speak and very very unhelpful.
But we need to keep a surprising idea in mind, that we all also have – though we are not quite aware of the fact and therefore rarely do anything to encourage them to come forward – an adult inside us. The adult may be lingering in the wings, they may be in a seat at the very back of the theatre or in some dark winding corridor backstage. But they are there. We have – over the course of our lives – all had just enough experience of other kindly, impressive adults, for this character to have taken shape and developed a capacity to interpret life, even if only in somewhat tentative form.
When we can allow them on stage, the adult brings some key virtues to the microphone in our minds. They are, above anything else, resourceful. In the face of trouble, they look for solutions. They know there can be some way through. They don’t despair at the first hurdle. It might be hard right now, but things will work themselves out eventually; they always do. What’s more, the adult is kind: they extend compassion to us for our difficulties: they know our troubled histories and how easy it would have been for anyone to slip up in our position. They can bring perspective to bear on questions: in the wider scheme, something may be of only miniscule importance; the adult applies distance to problems. They have a sense of how long life can be and how much time there is for us to recover. They are practical too: at moments, they will simply but authoritatively tell us to go to bed, not to think about it till morning and to make sure we are eating properly.
The good news is that however unused we are to hearing the adult speak to us on the stage of our minds, they can – with patience – be coaxed into doing so far more regularly than they do right now. We can develop how often, and how loudly, the adult inside delivers its verdicts. And what’s more, encouraging this adult voice requires no particular technical skill or arcane practice. All we need to do – at important moments when our other inner characters will be rushing to get to the microphone of the mind – is to hold them all back purposefully, breathe deeply and ask ourselves one simple but categorical question: what would the adult say here?
For example, in the course of a difficult conversation with a partner, our question to ourselves should be: what would the adult say…? When we’re feeling low and dejected, we should know to ask: what would the adult say…? When someone hasn’t called us, we should interrupt the panic and whisper: what would the adult say…?
We can thereby, with a little practice, come to see that we invariably have a choice about who speaks inside us. Of course the panicker, the depressive and the self-hater will always be offering their services to make lengthy speeches to us about our failings and our dark prospects. But we have an option to call time on them and request someone else to take to the stage. We may need to search for them a bit more assiduously, we may need to do a certain amount of persuasion and training to help them find their way up the steps in the semi-darkness in good time. We might have to implore them to come up right now. But it can be done. At any moment of difficulty, we can simply say: What would the adult me do here?
And miraculously, there will always be an answer in our minds, because however difficult our past might have been, we’ll have banked enough experience of adulthood to put this character together. Now the challenge is regularly to check in and ensure that the adult has as much of our airtime as possible. It’s entirely within our remits to shape the running order of who speaks to us and when. The adult is already inside us, now we need to give them the stage – and ensure we listen to the wisdom they, and therefore we, already well know about how to lead the rest of our lives.