Psychotherapy Archives - The School Of Life

We know so well what love should be like; we imagine our desired partners long before we meet them in real life. They will be kind, beautiful, gentle, thoughtful, inspiring and funny. They will be infinitely careful with the precious, vulnerable sides of us, and we with theirs. They will be our refuge and our home.

We keep them in mind through all the difficulties and tragic-comic ordeals of our romantic quests: the absurdities and puzzles of dating, the broken relationships, the fractious marriages, the unsatisfactory affairs. We mock this or that failed candidate or demented or evil partner; we never dare to mock love itself, we never question what we’re trying to do, we just insist that we haven’t yet met ‘the right person’ to do it with.

But we might take advantage of our sad mood to dare to be braver. We have met plenty of people, we have had many opportunities to make things work. Our ongoing travails aren’t a sign that we need to try out yet more candidates; they are evidence that what we long for in love and what other people can plausibly deliver are fundamentally opposed.

Porcupines are herbivorous rodents covered in sharp quills who have only a thin layer of subcutaneous fat to keep them warm. On chilly nights, they must huddle together in burrows with other members of their species – but in so doing, they often badly injure themselves against the quills of their neighbours. It isn’t uncommon to see porcupines stumbling out of the ground at dawn with traces of each other’s blood across their bodies. The rodents have to buy their protection at high cost: it is a choice between hypothermia and injury.

Sigmund Freud thought a lot about porcupines and in tribute to their perplexities around intimacy, he placed a bronze model of one on his desk, first in Vienna and later in London, where it remains to this day.

As his patients detailed their struggles – with wives who felt unloved, husbands who could not be faithful, partners who did not hear each other’s complaints, seducers who could only desire when they were rejected – Freud could look over at the razor sharp bronze quills and know that what he was hearing were no isolated cases of unhappiness, but further examples of the risks we encounter whenever we seek, as we need to, an alternative to our own company.

Psychoanalysis went on to build up an unparalleled understanding of why we should be so prone to bloody ourselves in relationships. Each of us arrives in adulthood with a history that militates against our chances of present-day contentment. The early weeks of passion may go well enough, but our complicated pasts soon make themselves felt. We were once, as children, made to feel worthless and ashamed; now the love of another person will seem unreal and in need of constant challenge. Or because our childhoods left us anxious about the unreliability of others, we don’t stop asking for reassurance and demanding signs of loyalty, which eventually drives away the very person we are so keen to keep close beside us. We may look sweet, we may have our kindly moments, we are not always perturbed, but sure enough, each one of us is covered in quills that will jab and gravely injure anyone reckless enough to come close to us.

We spend far too long regretting our specific choices, and far too little time gaining melancholy comfort from knowing that the task of intimacy is rendered inherently and impossibly problematic by our jagged psyches.

The very best candidates won’t be the ones who don’t hurt us, they don’t exist, they will be those who at least have some sense of how they will do so, and can warn us of the fact in good time, with grace and a touch of humour. We should, on our early dinner dates, learn to turn to a prospective porcupine and ask with a melancholy smile: ‘So how might you jab me with your quills?’

The Body Keeps the Score is the beautiful and suggestive title of a book published in 2014 by a Dutch professor of psychiatry at Boston University called Bessel van der Kolk. The book has proved immensely significant because it emphasises an idea that has for too long escaped psychiatrists and psychotherapists. Van der Kolk stresses that people who are suffering emotionally are unlikely to do so just in their minds. Crucially, their symptoms almost always additionally show up in their bodies: in the way they sit or breathe; in how they hold their shoulders, in their sleep patterns, in their digestion processes, in the way they treat their spots and in their attitudes to exercise.

Taking the body more seriously opens up new avenues for both the diagnosis and treatment of emotional unwellness. Instead of simply seeing a person as a disembodied mind which must talk its way to a cure, a therapist is advised to see the body as a kind of scoresheet of the emotional experiences that its owner has been through – a scoresheet that should be read and attended to as carefully as any mental account.

To take one example, many people who have grown up having to deal with the overwhelming rage of a parent will have learnt to suppress their own anger and their desire to hit back at those who hurt them. In their minds, they will have become meek and precisely attuned to fulfilling the wishes of others, however unreasonable these might be. But, as importantly, in their bodies, they will have learnt to be very still, almost frozen, because a part of them associates the expression of anything exuberant or powerful with the risk of bringing about retaliation from others. These people might sit in a particularly stiff way and have an ingrained resistance to running that has nothing to do with laziness: what is at stake is a fear of one’s own vitality.

In trying to treat such people, Van der Kolk goes beyond advising traditional talk therapy. He would also recommend that they try – under the supervision of a therapeutically trained teacher – kickboxing or karate, competitive running or swimming – sports these people might long have resisted because of a cowed relationship to their strength. They might also try out rhythmical chanting or drumming, thereby additionally releasing pent-up longings to assert one’s right to be.

Traumatised people tend to have bodies that are either too alert – responding to every breath and touch, flinching and bristling at contact. Or else too numb, shut down, heavy and immobile. Treatment seeks to find a more comfortable half-way house between these two extremes.

Van der Kolk’s book helps us to think anew of how to deal with people who, at the start of their lives, were not properly held, caressed and soothed, in the way that young children desperately need to be in order to feel at home in their own skin.

As part of their work, Van der Kolk and his team opened up a sensory integration clinic in Boston, a sort of indoor playground, for children and adults, where one can get back in touch with a body that was not properly, and by loving hands, touched or cuddled, gently swung from side to side or hung upside down for a giggly moment. In the sensory integration clinic, under the instruction of a therapist, one might dive onto foam filled mats, have a roll around in a ball pool, jump on a swing and balance on a beam. It sounds child-like and is meant to be, offering a serious chance to go back a step to correct a long-standing alienation. 

Those who were once neglected by emotionally stunted parents have often almost literally withdrawn from their bodies. They ‘own’ them but they do not properly ‘live’ in them. They might be rendered deeply uncomfortable if anyone touches their shoulders or strokes their back. They might intuitively think their body was ‘disgusting’ , because that’s how it once seemed in the eyes of those who were meant to look after them. For such people, van der Kolk might advise a therapeutically-informed massage to help rebuild a basic trust in one’s skin and limbs. As he puts it, he wants ‘the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage or collapse that resulted from trauma.’

It is no doubt deeply unfortunate that a difficult past appears to give us physical as well as mental symptoms. But the body’s travails can – in Van der Kolk’s optimistic account – also become a source of memory and evidence, when our minds have otherwise seized up or fatally doubt the legitimacy of their own feelings. We can start to remember what might have happened to us by asking ourselves questions in therapy, and at the same time by taking a look at how we are sitting, how we breathe and how we feel when someone we love proposes to hold us. Then we can hope to be healed, not only by wise arguments and kind voices (however consoling these might  be), but also by dancing, swaying from side to side on a gigantic swing, chanting in unison or – best of all – surrendering ourselves to a very long and very nourishing hug from someone we have quietly dared to trust.

The modern world is wonderful in many ways (dentistry is good, cars are reliable, we can so easily keep in touch from Mexico with our grandmother in Scotland) – but it’s also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression.

There are six particular features of modernity that have this psychologically disturbing effect. Each one has a potential cure, which we will only collectively put into action when we know more about the disease in question. Here are the six:

1. Meritocracy:

Our societies tell us that everyone is free to make it if they have the talent and energy. The down side of this ostensibly liberating and beautiful idea is that any perceived lack of success is taken to be not, as in the past, an accident or misfortune, but a sure sign of a lack of talent or laziness. If those at the top deserve all their success, then those at the bottom must surely deserve all their failure. A society that thinks of itself as meritocratic turns poverty from a problem to evidence of damnation and those who have failed from unfortunates to losers.

The cure is a strong, culturally endorsed belief in two big ideas: luck, which says success doesn’t just depend on talent and effort; and tragedy, which says good, decent people can fail and deserve compassion, rather than contempt.

2. Individualism:

An individualistic society preaches that the individual and their achievements are everything and that everyone is capable of a special destiny. It is not the community that matters; the group is for no-hopers. To be ‘ordinary’ is regarded as a curse. The result is that the very thing that most of us will end up being, statistically speaking, is associated, with freakish failure.

The cure is a cult of the good ordinary life – and proper appreciation of the pleasures and quiet heroism of the everyday.

3. Secularism:

Secular societies cease to believe in anything that is bigger than or beyond themselves. Religions used to perform the useful service of keeping our petty ways and status battles in perspective. But now there is nothing to awe or relativise humans, whose triumphs and mishaps end up feeling like the be all and end all.

A cure would involve regularly using sources of transcendence to generate a benign, relativising perspective on our personal sorrows:  music, the stars at night, the vast spaces of the desert or the ocean would humble us all in consoling ways.

4. Romanticism:

The philosophy of Romanticism tells us that each of us has one very special person out there who can make us completely happy. Yet mostly we have to settle for moderately bearable relationships with someone who is very nice in a few ways and pretty difficult in many others. It feels like a disaster – in comparison with our original huge hopes.

The cure is to realise that we didn’t go wrong: we were just encouraged to believe in a very improbable dream. Instead we should build up our ambitions around friendship and non-sexual love.

5. The Media:

The media has immense prestige and a huge place in our lives – but routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It typically attends to the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. At its worst, it edges us towards mob justice.

The cure would be news that concentrated on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that was alive to systemic problems rather than gleefully emphasizing scapegoats and emblematic monsters – and that would regularly remind us that the news we most need to focus on comes from our own lives and direct experiences.

6. Perfectibility:

Modern societies stress that it is within our remit to be profoundly content, sane and accomplished. As a result, we end up loathing ourselves, feeling weak and sensing we’ve wasted our lives.

A cure would be a culture that endlessly promotes the idea that perfection is not within our grasp – that being mentally slightly (and at points very) unwell is an inescapable part of the human condition and that what we need above all are good friends with whom we can sit and honestly discuss our real fears and vulnerabilities.


The forces of psychological distress in our world are – currently – much wealthier and more active than the needed cures. We deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But more hopefully, cures are now open to us individually and collectively if only we recognise, with sufficient clarity, the sources of our true anxieties and sorrows.

Psychotherapy is one of the most valuable inventions of the last hundred years, with an exceptional power to raise our levels of emotional well-being, improve our relationships, redeem the atmosphere in our families and assist us in mining our professional potential.

But it is also profoundly misunderstood and the subject of a host of unhelpful fantasies, hopes and suspicions. Its logic is rarely explained and its voice seldom heard with sufficient directness.

Here are twenty small essays on its key concepts:

Symptoms and Causes

People typically end up in therapy when they are overwhelmed by painful symptoms whose causes they can’t understand. Why are they always so sad? Why – having done nothing objectively wrong – are they so fearful of being sacked? Why isn’t sex possible any more?

The goal of therapy is to go beneath the surface ‘presenting problem’ in order to locate (and treat) what is really at stake. Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis and its twin, psychotherapy, deserves his place in 20th century history because of his immensely subtle grasp on the devilish way symptoms get disconnected from their real causes. We cannot remember or easily imagine what is ailing us and so cannot recover. On the surface, we might be beset by an urge to clean the house with manic intensity, but over many therapy sessions, we may come to realise that we are unconsciously longing to expunge a sense of being unwanted and ‘bad’ bequeathed by a dismissive parent in early childhood.

It is not coincidental that Freud was a medical doctor by training. In physical medicine, the decisive factor behind bodily suffering is often (at first sight) hugely unexpected; a pain in a toe might be linked to a problem with the abdomen. Freud took this model and applied it to mental suffering, proposing that our current emotional troubles are usually symptoms of problems located in the rarely-visited caverns of childhood memory. Psychotherapy is the discipline that promises to guide us back to our troublesome past in order to give us, once we can address the real causes of our sorrows, the chance of a more liberated, less anxious and more hopeful future.

Childhood Trauma

In ancient Greek, the word ‘trauma’ means a physical wound. Psychotherapy is built round the idea that every childhood involves an inevitable degree of emotional wounding. Nothing particularly sinister need have happened at all for us to have ended up traumatised in ways that harm our chances of finding adult satisfaction. Young children are deeply vulnerable around very ordinary things: parents squabble or are bit distracted; it’s terrifying if they get angry; the child can have intense fears of abandonment and helplessness – even when they are objectively safe. Without being a monster, a parent might be fussily over-protective or highly controlling, rather dismissive or just not very interested. The child’s fragile, immature self can be hugely distorted and damaged by these very normal experiences that occur long before they can be processed or properly understood. In his Outline of Psychoanalysis Freud defines childhood trauma as ‘an inability to deal with early emotional challenges that a person could endure with utmost ease later on.’ In other words, a trauma needn’t sound at all bad to our adult selves for it to have had a severe and lasting impact on our development. Maturity means getting to know our traumas before they are able to spoil too much more of our adult lives.

The Unconscious

The idea of the unconscious is central to psychotherapy. The mind is pictured as divided into two zones. A tiny, intermittent area called consciousness and a vast, complicated, obscure, timeless terrain named the unconscious. Because it is in the nature of the conscious mind to be highly squeamish, we constantly forget or ignore crucial incidents that affect our behaviour and moods in the here and now. These nevertheless live on in the dark continuous present of the unconscious. A traumatic episode – a rebuff or humiliation – that took place when we were little will still be fresh in our unconscious as if it happened yesterday and its effect on our current behaviour can be out of all proportion to what we might ordinarily suppose. Our unconscious selves may still be trying to placate an irritated father or escape the censorious prudishness of a mother. A part of us may be continuing to fear a repeat of an incident of humiliation and breakdown (the catastrophes we fear in the future are generally those that have already happened to us in the past). And these battles, directed at the forgotten past, can take a terrible toll on our adult lives.

The central aim of therapy is to properly reconnect us with our unremembered histories: to give us mastery over lost provinces of mental life and extend our knowledge of our unconscious experiences. Therapy seeks to facilitate the intimate rediscovery of apparently distant emotions so that we can rethink them with our adult faculties and liberate ourselves from their frequently mysterious and painful hold on us.


Psychotherapy is deeply alive to how rare and difficult it is to be able to have satisfying genital sex over the long term with someone one loves. Though this is assumed to be a norm by society at large, psychotherapy knows otherwise: it understands the difficult road that our sexual instincts have to travel down from infancy through to adulthood. Psychotherapy insists that children have what we can think of as proto-sexual feelings and that adult sexual health heavily depends on these feelings being appropriately handled in the home environment. Unwarranted degrees of guilt and shame easily get attached to the body, which then makes intimacy impossible. Furthermore, in childhood, we learn about love from people with whom taboo strictly forbids us to have sex, which means that when we come to love someone as an adult, we might also notice a mysterious waning of sexual interest. It seems like we are merely ‘bored’, but in truth, tender feelings are conflicting with our libido in a way that mirrors the early incest taboo. We may find it far easier to be aroused by total strangers about whom we feel nothing and where love is not an option. By explaining soberly and reasonably how we end up here, therapy makes the stranger zones of our erotic life less humiliating and embarrassing. It also allows us to see that a degree of sexual unhappiness may well be an entirely natural and unavoidable part of a good life.

The Fundamental Rule

When he was trying to describe the process of therapy, Freud said that it required really only one thing of patients: that they must ‘say everything that comes into their head, even if it is disagreeable for them to say it’. Freud called this ‘the fundamental rule’ of therapy – and the only route to successful treatment. Of course, the rule flies in the face of all our impulses. Civilised life constantly requires us, in order to be deemed good, to censor what we say. Very little of what we are actually feeling or thinking makes it out into the world, or even into our conscious minds for long. This may help us in certain situations but it can also, Freud knew, make us deeply sick. There are tricky or disagreeable ideas we need to be able to entertain without cleaning them up – in order that we liberate ourselves from their subterranean grip. According to therapeutic theory, we grow sick when we fail to understand our own more troubling desires and fears, when the story we tell ourselves about who we are no longer tallies with the truth – and the consulting room is a unique space where we can, finally, dare to take a look beneath the surface.

For their part, therapists are properly unshockable and without any desire to moralise: they know human nature, and their own minds, deeply enough never to be surprised. As we watch them accept our darkest secrets with calm and patience, we grow more confident about our own acceptability. We no longer have to keep so many things from ourselves and grow at ease with our underlying strangeness and wondrous oddity – which we share with pretty much everyone on the planet.


‘Parapraxis’ is the specialised, technical name for a bungled or faulty action which nevertheless reveals something fundamental about our deeper selves. More popularly, the concept is known as a ‘Freudian slip’. Freud’s favourite examples include mislaying one’s keys, forgetting a person’s name, knocking over a vase, clumsily bumping into people, spoiling a presentation by jingling coins in one’s pocket as one speaks, missing a train or forgetting the time of an appointment. These may seem very minor matters but occasionally they give us a glimpse of what is happening in someone’s soul. An unconscious hatred of someone may manifest itself in a recurring failure to summon their name; we may hide a secret but risky desire to triumph over a rival by sabotaging our professional performance.

The interest for therapy lies in the way parapraxes offer one access to active, but disavowed, parts of who we are.  Rather than simply being pure mistakes, they are driven by thoughts and feelings circulating deep in the background of our minds. It can be hugely significant when we say ‘bed’ rather than, as we apparently meant to be say, ‘bread’ – or ‘wife’ rather than ‘life.’  Such slips can show us as being more loving, more hostile, more self-destructive, more sexual or more frightened than we typically care to imagine. The aim of studying our slips isn’t to catch us out but to help us recognise the odder, more fragile parts of who we are: the parts that are in need of understanding and assistance. It is part of therapy’s revolutionary generosity to seek to learn something important even from the most seemingly embarrassing trivialities of existence.


Transference refers to the way that, once we have been in therapy for a while, we begin to play out, or transfer onto the therapeutic relationship dynamics which derive from our own psychological histories. For example, we might feel convinced the therapist is weak or a bit of a failure or that they are very happily (or very unhappily) married or snobbish or distinctly admiring of us or systematically hostile – any or all of which possibly bears little relationship to the actual life or thoughts of the therapist, about whom we are meant to know almost nothing. Rather than try to quash these fantasies, therapy makes use of them. The therapist will signal where we are prone to pin to them attitudes or outlooks that they don’t actually have – and in this way, the therapeutic relationship will be used as a unique vehicle for learning about our more imperceptible emotional tendencies. The therapist will (with kindness) point out that we’re reacting as if we had been attacked, when they only asked a question; they might draw our attention to how readily we seem to want to tell them impressive things about our finances (yet they like us anyway) or how we seem to rush to agree with them when they’re only trying out an idea which they themselves are not very sure of.

The relationship with the therapist becomes a template for how we might form relationships with others going forward, freed from the maneuvers and background assumptions that we carried within us from childhood, and which can impede us so grievously in the present.

Defence Mechanisms

Psychotherapy understands that we like to keep away from ourselves because so much of what we could discover threatens to be painful. We might find that we were, in the background, deeply furious with certain people we were only meant to love. Or we might learn that though we wanted to be decent, law-abiding people, we harboured fantasies that went in powerfully deviant and aberrant directions. In order to hide our thoughts, we make use of a range of what psychotherapy calls ‘defence mechanisms’. We get addicted to something; we are addicts whenever we develop a manic reliance on something, anything, to keep our darker and more unsettling feelings at bay. We lie to ourselves by attacking and denigrating what we love – but haven’t managed to get. We dismiss the people we once wanted as friends, the careers we hoped one day to have, the lives we tried to emulate. We lie through a generalised cynicism, which we direct at everything and everyone so as to ward off misery about one or two things in particular. We say that all humans are terrible and every activity is compromised – in order that the specific cause of our pain not attract scrutiny and feelings of shame. We lie by filling our minds with impressive ideas, which blatantly announce our intelligence to the world but subtly ensure we won’t have much room left to rediscover long-distant feelings of ignorance or confusion – upon which the development of our personalities may nevertheless rest.

A defence is a response to fear, so an important part of the work of therapy is to create an environment in which we feel sure we won’t be attacked in our tender spots so we can finally risk examining our defences – rather than deploying them.

Splitting and Integration

Melanie Klein (1882 – 1960) was a Viennese psychotherapist who studied the deep-seated human tendency for splitting. Throughout life, but particularly in infancy, we’re confronted by frustrations and disappointments. We are let down and hurt by people we long to rely on. These frustrations can feel so intolerable, we defend ourselves by splitting people into the purely good and the purely bad. We denigrate certain characters entirely so as to preserve a pure hope around others. Everyone that annoys us becomes evil, everyone who gratifies us is perfect. The therapeutic response to splitting is to gently move us towards what is known as integration. With the help of a therapist, we learn sympathetically to see why we made a split but then slowly and painfully start to acknowledge a more complex reality. A parent can be annoying in some ways yet loveable in others; someone can criticise us, without being mean or stupid; we ourselves can have many genuine failings and yet still be quite good people. Splitting is often observed in romantic life, where we can move from person to person, always falling deeply in love and then abruptly detaching ourselves when we discover a flaw. Therapy teaches us to tolerate the ambivalent nature of everyone – not least ourselves. We can admit we’re wrong without feeling too humiliated. We can properly apologise and and accept the apologies of others. The world becomes a little greyer, but also a lot more bearable.


Having a breakdown is not, in the eyes of psychotherapy, the problem it often seems like to the rest of the world. A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it is a very real – albeit very inarticulate – bid for health. It is an attempt by one part of our minds to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development which it has hitherto refused to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jumpstart a process of getting well, properly well, through a stage of falling very ill. The reason we break down is that we have not, over years, flexed very much. There were things we needed to hear inside our minds that we deftly put to one side, there were messages we needed to heed, bits of emotional learning and communicating we didn’t do – and now, after being patient for so long, far too long, the emotional self is attempting to make itself heard in the only way it now knows how. It has become entirely desperate – and we should understand and even sympathise with its mute rage. What the breakdown is telling us above anything else is that it must no longer be business as usual – that things have to change or (and this can be properly frightening to witness) that death might be preferable.

In the midst of a breakdown, we often wonder whether we have gone mad. We have not. We’re behaving oddly no doubt, but beneath the surface agitation, we are on a hidden yet logical search for health. We haven’t become ill; we were ill already. Our crisis, if we can get through it, is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo and an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis.

Avoidant Attachment

The English psychotherapist, John Bowlby (1907-1990) was the prime force behind the development of ‘attachment theory,’ the study of the way in which children form an emotional bond with their carers, which becomes the basis upon which they later manage relationships as and with adults. As part of his work, Bowlby identified an ‘avoidant’ attitude in which we habitually push away or act coldly towards people who, in fact, we would very much like to be close to. We do this, Bowlby argued, because our capacity to trust others was damaged in childhood and we learnt a technique of shutting down engagement as a way of preserving our integrity. Without realising we are doing this (because we have forgotten the past), whenever problems arise with a lover, we are so afraid that we may be unwanted, we disguise our need behind a facade of indifference. At the precise moment when we want to be close, we say we’re busy, we pretend our thoughts are elsewhere, we get sarcastic and dry; we imply that a need for reassurance would be the last thing on our minds. We might even have an affair, the ultimate face-saving attempt to be distant – and often a perverse way to assert that we don’t require a partner’s love (that we have been too reserved to ask for).

Therapy offers us the chance to recognise the pathos of what we’re doing and to return and treat the original wound. For Bowlby, the therapist enacts a new and better model of relating: one in which we are carefully listened to and our tentative revelations are warmly received and from this we derive a life-saving lesson: that it is in fact possible to make demands on someone we love.

Anxious Attachment

Anxious attachment refers to a pattern of relating to lovers whereby, when there is difficulty, we grow officious, procedural and controlling. We feel our partners are escaping us emotionally, but rather than admitting our sense of loss, we respond by trying to pin them down administratively. We get unduly cross that they are eight minutes late, we chastise them heavily for not having done certain chores… All this rather than admit the truth: ‘I’m worried that I don’t matter to you…’

The goal isn’t really to be in charge all the time, it’s just that we can’t admit to our terror at how much we need the partner. A tragic cycle then unfolds. We become shrill and unpleasant. To the other person, it feels like we can’t possibly love them anymore. Yet the truth is we do: we just fear rather too much that they don’t love us. If this harsh, graceless anxious behaviour could be truly understood for what it is, it would be revealed not as a rejection, but as a strangely distorted – yet very real and very touching – plea for tenderness.

John Bowlby didn’t see this unfortunate pattern as fixed. In therapy, we can play out our desire to control the therapist, fail at this, and yet still witness that we do, week by week, retain the therapist’s affection – which can lend us a confidence we can take back out into the rest of life. We learn a lesson that our childhoods may have denied us: that someone we can’t control can still be loyal to our needs.

Feeling rather than Thinking 

Thinking is hugely important – but on its own, within therapy, it is not the key to fixing our psychological problems. There’s a crucial difference between broadly recognising, for example, that we were a bit 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. Or we might know, in an abstract way, that our mother wasn’t much focused on us when we were little. But it’s another thing entirely to reconnect with the horrific feelings we had when we tried to show her something we loved or tell her of a deep upset and she wasn’t interested in the least.

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. Therapy demands that we not try to be too clever and accept the need to feel lost and confused.

The Super-ego

‘Super-ego’ is an unfortunate sounding translation, made by Freud’s first English translator James Strachey, of the more forthright and elegant German term ‘Uber-ich’, which means quite literally the ‘Over-I’. By the ‘Over-I’, Freud meant an aspect of the mind that sits over our ordinary day to day consciousness, judges our behaviour and is the guardian of social norms and morality.

The Over-I is an internalisation of actual people we’ve encountered in our early lives, typically parents, and especially fathers. Without noticing the process, we incorporate the voices we have heard around us so that we end up speaking to ourselves in much the same way as others spoke to us. Sometimes, the voice of the Over-I can be encouraging and paternal. We tell ourselves to give it another go and that our superiors will understand and forgive us. But then at other points, our Over-I can be utterly ruthless and punitive. It can be moulded by the most impatient, hostile and critical voices we’ve ever heard. In relation to our failures, it will castigate us mercilessly and leave us with a sense that we truly don’t deserve to exist. It can – at the extreme – push us to suicide.

A lot of the time, our Over-I is way more critical than reality would warrant. It can make us feel like the worst sort of criminals, even though our actual errors are relatively minor. It can make us feel disgusting about sex and very guilty around pleasure in general.

One of the large aims of therapy is to re-educate the Over-I. We can replace the hectoring, unfair, crushing Over-I we’ve built up from childhood with the far more judicious voice of the therapist. We learn to speak to ourselves (and by extension others) in the gentle, helpful way the the therapist spoke to us. We retain a conscience, but we no longer have to feel we’re worthless or (a tragically common sensation) should be dead.

The True and the False Self

This psychological theory of the True and the False Self is the work of the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. We are all, in Winnicott’s eyes, born with a true self. The baby’s true self isn’t interested in the feelings of others, it isn’t socialised. It screams when it needs to – even if it is the middle of the night or on a crowded train. It may be aggressive, biting and – in the eyes of a stickler for manners or a lover of hygiene – shocking and a bit disgusting. Winnicott added that if a person is to have any sense of feeling real as an adult, then they have to have enjoyed a period of letting the True Self have its way. Gradually, a False Self can develop, which has a capacity to submit to the demands of external reality (school, work etc.). Winnicott was not a thorough enemy of a False Self; he simply insisted that it belonged to health only when it had been preceded by a thorough earlier experience of an untrammelled True Self.

Unfortunately, many of us have not been given a chance to be our True Selves. Perhaps mother was depressed, or father was often in a rage, maybe there was an older or younger sibling who was in a crisis and required all the attention. The result is that we will have learnt to comply far too early; we have become obedient at the expense of our ability to feel authentically ourselves.

Therapy gives us a second chance. We are allowed to regress before the time when we started to be False, back to the moment when we so desperately needed to be true. In the therapist’s office, safely contained by their maturity and care, we can learn – once more – to be real; we can be intemperate, difficult, unconcerned with anyone but ourselves, selfish, unimpressive, aggressive and shocking. And the therapist will take it – and thereby help us to experience a new sense of aliveness which should have been there from the start. The demand to be False, which never goes away, becomes more bearable because we are regularly being allowed, in the privacy of the therapist’s room, once a week or so, to be True.


The term ‘sublimation’ has it origins in medieval science, where it names the suggestive process in which solid matter is transformed into a gas, as when a heated lump of coal bursts into flame. It was much associated with the idea of something base and unimpressive being transformed into something wonderful and almost spiritual.

In therapy, ‘sublimation’ is extended to cover the way a usually unhelpful impulse can be converted into a noble ambition. So for example, aggressive instincts to kick or hit can be channeled into sporting prowess; the desire to show off can become the basis of a capacity to address an audience on something of real worth to them; a feeling that no one listens can give birth to a literary career. Freud was particularly interested in the way in which artists turn the often chaotic reality of their lives into something of public use. The artist or writer adapts their ‘private flight from reality’ into the creation of public objects that move, interest and inspire other people. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan focused on the sublimation that can turn a thwarted desire for sex into romantic art; the poetry of love, he argued, flourishes when sex is forbidden.

Sublimation is one of the goals of therapy. The therapist knows that not all our wishes can come true, but this doesn’t have to mean despair on an ongoing basis. We can redirect our problematic drives in as constructive a way as possible. It may not be art we’re going to make, but we should, with the help of therapy, find some way of turning disappointment into a consoling, redemptive activity.


Compliance, meaning bowing to the demands of someone else, normally has a good name. It suggests a dutiful, pliant nature. It sounds worthwhile having a compliant colleague, friend or lover. We tend to assume all is well with compliant people. They don’t pose immediate problems, they keep their bedroom tidy, do their homework on time and are very polite. But the very real secret sorrows – and difficulties – of the compliant person are tied to the fact that they behave in this way not out of choice, but because they feel under irresistible pressure to do so. Eventually, under pressure, these compliant people may manifest some disturbing symptoms: secret sulphurous bitterness, sudden outbursts of rage and very harsh views of their own imperfections.

The compliant person typically has particular problems around sex. As a child, they may have been praised for being pure and innocent. As an adult the most exciting parts of their own sexuality strike them as perverse and disgusting and deeply at odds with who they are meant to be. The compliant person is likely to have problems at work as well. They feel too strong a need to follow the rules, never make trouble or annoy anyone. But almost everything that’s interesting or worth doing will meet with a degree of opposition and will seriously irritate some people. The compliant person is condemned to career mediocrity and sterile people-pleasing.

The desire to be good is one of the loveliest things in the world, but in order to have a genuinely good life, we may sometimes need to be (by the standards of the compliant person) fruitfully and bravely difficult. Therapy is an arena in which we can safely get in touch with our more usefully rebellious, ‘difficult’ and self-assertive sides.


In 1917, Freud published an essay called Mourning and Melancholia. In it he made a distinction between two ways of feeling sad. In the first, mourning, we suffer a loss and consciously recognise that we have done so. We then enter a period where everything seems worthless and deadening and where we think continually of the person, or ambition or hope we have lost. But eventually, mourning comes to an end. We realise that the world, despite the absence of something deeply good we once knew in it, is still worth enduring and exploring.

The second state of sadness, melancholia, is far more open-ended and far more difficult to handle. Here too, we have suffered a loss and the world seems sad and dispiriting. The problem is that we are not consciously aware of what we have lost. The loss is too difficult for us to factor in, perhaps it took place before we understood our situation properly or maybe it feels like an affront to our self image. We might have forgotten how much we miss someone; we might be repressing our love for an ambition we’ve had to surrender; we can’t bear to think how much a parent has hurt us.

In such circumstances, we are no longer merely sad, we are numb. We cannot pinpoint any specific source of grief and therefore everything becomes hopeless and without meaning. We are depressed.

The goal of therapy is to try to reunite our sad feelings with the forgotten events that will, somewhere in the past, have triggered them. With the therapist there to comfort us, we may feel braver to explore tragedies that have hitherto been too large for us to be able to feel. We realise that we aren’t sad about everything; simply about a few things it felt unbearable to confront. Therapy knows that, when we can cry over something specific, we are well on the way to recovery.

‘Good Enough’

The English psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, who specialised in working with parents and children, was disturbed by how often he encountered in his consulting rooms parents who were deeply disappointed with themselves. They felt they were failing as parents and hated themselves intensely as a result. They were ashamed of their occasional rows, their bursts of short temper, their times of boredom around their own children and their many mistakes. What struck Winnicott, however, was that these people were almost always not at all bad parents. They were loving, often very kind, very interested in their children, they tried hard to meet their needs and to understand their problems as best they could. As parents they were – as he came to put it in a hugely memorable and important phrase – ‘good enough.’

Winnicott was putting a finger on a crucial issue. We often torment ourselves because we have in our minds a very demanding – and in fact impossible – vision of what we’re supposed to be like across a range of areas of our lives. This vision doesn’t emerge from a careful study of what actual people are like. Instead it’s a fantasy, a punitive perfectionism, drawn from the cultural ether.

With the phrase ‘good enough’, Winnicott wanted to move us away from idealisation. Ideals may sound nice, but they bring a terrible problem in their wake: they can make us despair of the merely quite good things we already do and have. By dialing down our expectations, the idea of ‘good enough’ resensitises us to the lesser – but very real – virtues we already possess, but which our unreal hopes have made us overlook.

A ‘good enough’ life is not a bad life. It’s the best existence that actual humans are ever likely to lead.

The Goals of Therapy

Therapy cannot make us happy every day. But its benefits are tangible nevertheless. After a course of therapy, we’ll stand to feel substantially freer. We’ll realise that what we had believed to be our inherent personality was really just a position we had crouched into to deal with the prevailing atmosphere. And having taken a measure of the true present situation, we may accept that there could – after all – be other, sufficiently safe ways for us to be.

Also: we had learnt to be ashamed and silent. But the therapist’s kindness and attention encourages us to be less disgusted by ourselves and furtive around our needs. Having once voiced our deeper fears and wishes, they can become ever so slightly easier to bring up again with someone else. There may be an alternative to silence.

And we can be more compassionate: we will inevitably, in the course of therapy, realise how much we were let down by certain people in the past. A natural response might be blame. But the eventual, mature reaction (building on an understanding of how our own flaws arose) will be to interpret their harmful behaviour as a consequence of their own disturbance. The people who caused our primal wound almost invariably didn’t mean to do so; they were themselves hurt and struggling to endure. We can develop a sad but more compassionate picture of a world in which sorrows and anxieties are blindly passed down the generations. The insight isn’t only true to experience, holding it in mind will mean there is less to fear. Those who wounded us were not superior, impressive beings who knew our special weaknesses and justly targeted them. They were themselves highly frantic, damaged creatures trying their best to cope with the litany of private sorrows to which every life condemns us.


Therapy at The School of Life

The Book of Life is brought to you by  The School of Life – a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. You can find our classes, films, books, games and much more online and in our branches around the world. Below you can find out more about the therapy services we offer:

The Importance of Therapy  

Therapy isn’t for the select or distressed few; we believe that therapy is for everybody.

To help dispel the slight taboo which sometimes surrounds it, we have created a welcoming home for psychotherapy for when you feel stuck in a rut, anxious about your relationships or simply unsure about what’s going on in your life. Our therapists are based at our London HQ in Bloomsbury, but we also offer online sessions, via video conference for those unable to come to London.

We offer the following types of therapy: Psychotherapy, Couple Counselling, Career Counselling (London only)

Learn more >>

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:

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.

Image result for Winnicott child

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.



Therapy at The School of Life

The Book of Life is brought to you by  The School of Life – a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. You can find our classes, films, books, games and much more online and in our branches around the world. Below you can find out more about the therapy services we offer:



The Importance of Therapy  

Therapy isn’t for the select or distressed few; we believe that therapy is for everybody.

To help dispel the slight taboo which sometimes surrounds it, we have created a welcoming home for psychotherapy for when you feel stuck in a rut, anxious about your relationships or simply unsure about what’s going on in your life. Our therapists are based at our London HQ in Bloomsbury, but we also offer online sessions, via video conference for those unable to come to London.

We offer the following types of therapy: Psychotherapy, Couple Counselling, Career Counselling (London only)

Learn more >>

One of the most surprising but powerful explanations for why we may, as adults, be in trouble mentally is that we were, in our earliest years, denied the opportunity to be fully ourselves, that is, we were not allowed to be wilful and difficult, we could not be as demanding, aggressive, intolerant, and unrestrictedly selfish as we needed to be. Because our caregivers were preoccupied or fragile, we had to be preternaturally attuned to their demands, sensing that we had to comply in order to be loved and tolerated; we had to be false before we had the chance to feel properly alive. And as a result, many years later, without quite understanding the process, we risk feeling unanchored, inwardly dead and somehow not entirely present.

This psychological theory of the True and the False Self is the work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers, the English psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott. In a series of papers written in the 1960s and based on close observations of his adult and infant patients, Winnicott advanced the view that healthy development invariably requires us to experience the immense, life-sustaining luxury of a period when we do not have to bother with the feelings and opinions of those who are tasked with looking after us. We can be wholly and, without guilt, our True Selves, because those around us have – for a time – adapted themselves entirely to our needs and desires, however inconvenient and arduous these might be.

The true self of the infant, in Winnicott’s formulation, is by nature asocial and amoral. It isn’t interested in the feelings of others, it isn’t socialised. It screams when it needs to – even if it is the middle of the night or on a crowded train. It may be aggressive, biting and – in the eyes of a stickler for manners or a lover of hygiene – shocking and a bit disgusting. It wants to express itself where and how it wants. It can be sweet of course but on its own terms, not in order to charm or bargain for love. If a person is to have any sense of feeling real as an adult, then it has to have enjoyed the immense emotional privilege of being able to be true in this way, to disturb people when it wants, to kick when it is angry, to scream when it is tired, to bite when it is feeling aggressive. The True Self of the child must be granted the imaginative opportunity to destroy the parent when it is in a rage – and then witness the parent surviving and enduring, which lends the child a vital and immensely reassuring sense that it is not in fact omnipotent, and that the world won’t collapse simply because it sometimes wishes or fears it could.

When things go well, gradually and willingly, the child develops a False Self, a capacity to behave according to the demands of external reality. This is what enables a child to submit to the rigours of school and, as it develops into an adult, of working life as well. When we have been given the chance to be our true selves we do not, at every occasion, need to rebel and insist on our needs. We can follow the rules because we have, for a time, been able to ignore them entirely. In other words, Winnicott was not a thorough enemy of a False Self; he understood its role well enough, he simply insisted that it belonged to health only when it had been preceded by a thorough earlier experience of an untrammelled True Self.

Unfortunately, many of us have not enjoyed such an ideal start. Perhaps mother was depressed, or father was often in a rage, maybe there was an older or younger sibling who was in a crisis and required all the attention. The result is that we will have learnt to comply far too early; we will have become obedient at the expense of our ability to feel authentically ourselves. In relationships, we may now be polite and geared to the needs of our partners, but not for that matter able properly to love. At work, we may be dutiful but uncreative and unoriginal.

In such circumstances, and this is its genius, psychotherapy offers us a second chance. In the hands of a good therapist, we are allowed to regress before the time when we started to be False, back to the moment when we so desperately needed to be true. In the therapist’s office, safely contained by their maturity and care, we can learn – once more – to be real; we can be intemperate, difficult, unconcerned with anyone but ourselves, selfish, unimpressive, aggressive and shocking. And the therapist will take it – and thereby help us to experience a new sense of aliveness which should have been there from the start. The demand to be False, which never goes away, becomes more bearable because we are regularly being allowed, in the privacy of the therapist’s room, once a week or so, to be True.

Winnicott was famously calm and generous towards his patients when they were attempting to refind their True Selves in this way. One of them smashed a favourite vase of his, another stole his money, a third shouted insults at him session after session. But Winnicott was unruffled, knowing that this was part of a journey back towards health, away from the deadly fakeness afflicting these patients in the rest of their lives.

We can be grateful to Winnicott for reminding us that contentment and a feeling of reality have to pass through stages of almost limitless delinquent selfishness. There is simply no other way. We have to be True before we can be usefully a bit fake – and if we have never been allowed, then our sickness and depression is there to remind us that we need to take a step back, and therapy is there to allow us to do so. 

One of the best ways to understand what psychotherapy involves is to read accounts of what happened to people when they went: the problems they came in with, the discussions that were had, and how things changed as a result. What follow are four representative case studies of the therapeutic process:


It ought to be a source of immense satisfaction for a parent to see their child secure success and esteem in their chosen career. But in reality, this is only possible if the parent has learnt to be comfortable with being superseded by their child, if they have the inner resources not to mind surrendering leadership, if their own sense of self is robust. It is not enough to know how to feel tender around the helplessness of an infant; an equally crucial, though less recognised, challenge is to cope with their eventual strength as an adult.

Twenty-seven year old Nathan [not his real name] arrives in therapy complaining of a sense of listlessness and despair. He had always seemed marked out for a special destiny. His father is one of the city’s most powerful bankers, a self-made man who overcame a deprived childhood to achieve extraordinary wealth and renown. 

His mother, a former beauty queen, is on the board of the opera, the museum and several children’s charities. Nathan is their only son. There has long been a feeling that he would achieve something commensurate with the status of his parents. At a young age, his mother called him ‘little genius’. Family friends would joke to his father that his son looked exactly like him (the resemblance is striking, even though the son retains a handsome head of hair) and would soon be one to watch in the trading world.

But none of the early promise has born fruit. Nathan did not feel his grades in maths were good enough to follow his father into business. He was more naturally drawn to the arts and, after graduating, tried to write a novel. He kept at it for three years, but after yet another rejection letter, put the manuscript aside. He also started and abandoned three film scripts.

He complains of his love life. He is often in the role of pursuing women who want to be his friend but not lover. Sex can be awkward.

Nathan is currently working in a basic administrative role in an art gallery in a run-down part of the city. His salary doesn’t start to cover his rent, which is taken care of by his father. Payment involves a complex administrative rigmarole, in which Nathan is required to show up at his father’s office every month with a receipt from the landlord and is asked by the PA to wait outside for up to an hour while his father finishes apparently urgent business inside.

Nathan is, he says in a dry sardonic voice, with shoulders stooped, the ultimate loser.

On the surface, parents invariably speak of wanting the best for their child. But if they are nursing, somewhere within, a wound of neglect and humiliation, it may be intolerably envy-inducing to see a child succeed against odds smaller than those they had to endure.

The adult will feel compelled to keep winning, even against the child they ostensibly love: it might be at table tennis or Monopoly, in exam grades or political arguments. Or at life more generally. But there is a basic sense that there cannot be two winners in the same household and that in the choice, it is the senior party who has to triumph.

Nathan has always admired but been intimidated by his father. He mentions in an early therapy session trying (he would have been no more than seven) to identify something to buy his father for his birthday but realising that he would never be in a position to afford anything this potentate of finance actually needed.

He also remembers a time, the first and only time, he beat him at tennis. They were at their house in the Bahamas. Nathan was fifteen. The father was proud of his game. But this time, Nathan won. Clearly and unambiguously. Yet the father accused Nathan of being a ‘cheat’ and stormed off the court in fury. They didn’t speak all day – and never played again.

In the unconscious mind, a child facing parental competitiveness understands that they are being offered a deal: a choice between love and early retirement; or success and possible expulsion. Unfortunately, it mostly doesn’t feel like a choice. The capacity to stand up for oneself requires enough of an experience of unconditional love at the outset for the threat of its loss to seem endurable down the line. But without inner ballast, the child has no realistic way forward other than to put aside their ambitions and submit to (imperceptible and never-quite-stated) parental edicts.

For Nathan the work of therapy involves seeing that his father’s seeming support is really an expression of rivalry. His father is generous with money, but the way it is distributed serves to reinforce the idea of Nathan’s dependent, inferior position.

At the same time as bringing the father’s competitiveness to consciousness, therapy helps Nathan appreciate its origins. The father is not so much vindictive as fragile. His power in the world is almost inversely proportionate to his feeling of inner security. The more he dwells on his father’s past, the more Nathan starts to feel sorry for, and almost protective of, him. It cannot be much fun to be an adult threatened by an adolescent’s growing skill at backhand.

One way to meddle with the ambitions of a child is to imply the child cannot be a success; the other, equally harmful way, is to insist that he or she must be one.

Nathan’s mother’s greatest wish had once been to study literature and become a university professor. It didn’t happen.

She has always been extremely encouraging to Nathan – in a way. When he was little, he started reading extremely early, which began her habit of referring to him as a genius. When he turned thirteen she gave him the complete works of Nabokov. Now she sends him links to literary articles and talks about new novels he must read. She has taken the rejection of her son’s novel very badly – perhaps worse than Nathan himself did. She urges him to give things another go and to meet up with a creative writing teacher she met who has offered to help with plot structure. Nathan can’t bear to tell her that he’s thrown away his book and all its accompanying notes. He dreads that one day he will have to inform his mother of a greater truth: that he is not the genius she needed him to be.

It is as harmful to require a child to succeed as it is to require them to fail. In both cases, the child’s true developmental needs are sacrificed to the parent’s psychological requirements. Sincere love is in this area neutral; it doesn’t mean needing someone either to succeed or to fail, rather to grow on their own terms, which might be compatible with being either quite ordinary or, perhaps, even a bit exceptional.

In the course of a year of therapy, Nathan recognises that the world is broader and more robust than he had first imagined. A client of the gallery where he works offers him a new job in his architecture firm. Nathan accepts that he won’t ever write a novel, and perhaps never even wanted to. It’s an uncomfortable lunch with his mother, but it’s only one lunch.

Though it means tightening his expenditure dramatically, Nathan decides that he doesn’t need his father’s money for his rent. He tells him politely but firmly that he won’t come uptown for another cheque – which creates an unexpected response. His father immediately offers to give him a large upfront lump sum, no questions asked. Nathan is grateful but hasn’t touched the money yet.

At around the same time, he develops a new confidence around women – and meets a young German architect in the office. The sex is pretty good.

Nathan is, step by step, starting to discover something even more satisfying than knowing how to please his parents: leading his own life.

The Good Child

We tend to assume that all is well with good children. They don’t pose immediate problems, they keep their bedroom tidy, do their homework on time and are willing to help with the washing up. But the very real secret sorrows – and future difficulties – of the good child are tied to the fact that they behave this way not out of choice, but because they feel under irresistible pressure to do so. They are trying to cope with a legacy of caregivers who had no capacity to deal with their more complicated, and inevitably sometimes rather darker, reality.

Eva works in a top law firm. She is hugely coveted and has been made partner at the age of only thirty, an almost unparalleled achievement.

She comes to therapy because she recently collapsed on stage at a conference where she was delivering a keynote speech. It was hugely embarrassing but also deeply mysterious. The doctors could find nothing wrong. Eva interprets it as almost a deliberate act of self-sabotage. She registers an impulse in herself to let her firm down, to fail and mess up – like she has never done before.

She doesn’t know where the impulse is coming from but, after too long of being very good, there’s an occasional – but powerful – longing to try to be bad. ‘I wonder what it would be like to blow everything sky high,’ she tells her therapist, with a burst of almost childlike glee, which she then quickly checks, feeling a need to reassure the therapist of her fundamentally law-abiding nature.

On one occasion, she rather enjoyed taking a day off work, pretending she was ill in bed, and then spending many hours with a girlfriend at an upscale shopping mall instead. But she became terrified that wind of her ‘bad behaviour’ might reach her colleagues.

We imagine good children to be fine because they do everything that’s expected of them. But the good child isn’t good because, by a quirk of nature, they simply have no inclination to be anything else. They are good because they lack other options. Some good children are good out of love of a depressed harassed parent who makes it clear they just couldn’t cope with any more complications or difficulties. Others are good to soothe a violently angry parent who threatens to become catastrophically frightening at any sign of less than perfect conduct.

Eva’s parents were immigrants. From the first, they instilled in her a ferocious work ethic. When Eva’s father left the family, her mother had to support three children on her own. Eva was the eldest. She remembers hearing her mother wake up at 4 a.m. to start her first shift.

There was little room for laughter. Eve took school very seriously, desperate to get good grades, and pulled herself through university, working in the evenings and at weekends in a care home. There has been a lot of disappointment in Eva’s mother’s life. Eva always struggled hard to ensure she would not be another.

Now her mother, who lives very near her, expects to hear every detail of her daughter’s life and invariably has a lot of very firm advice about what Eva should do.

The repression of the good child’s share of challenging emotions, though it produces short-term pleasant obedience, stores up enormous difficulty. The good child becomes a keeper of too many secrets and a poor communicator of unpopular but important things.

In one session, Eva arrives having cut her hair short – and shows the therapist a small new tattoo she has on her wrist. She’s excited by these steps but nervous about the reaction her mother will probably have when she sees her at the weekend. The session focuses on how to understand the mother’s worries. Eva’s mother will think that it’s impossible for her be a partner in a law firm and have short hair or a discrete tattoo. The fears are exaggerated, of course, but her mother is trying to express as best she can her intense hopes for, and love of, her child. Her mother will be angry – but that’s because she’s frightened, she cares and she is sure that any indication of unorthodox behaviour will be catastrophically punished by the world. But with the therapist Eva can consider the evidence: the law firm is quite conservative but there’s no reason at all to think that her new hairstyle will damage her career.

The trouble of the good child is that they have no experience of other people being able to tolerate, or remain calm in front of, their badness. They have missed out a vital privilege accorded to the healthy child; that of being able to display confident or envious, greedy or aggressive sides and yet be met with toleration and love nevertheless. Perhaps a rebellion isn’t always easy for a resilient family, but – like a storm – everyone takes it in their stride.

The excessively good person typically has particular problems around sex. As a child, they may have been praised for being pure and innocent. As they become an adult however, like all of us, they discovered the ecstasies of sex, which can be beautifully perverse and excitingly disgusting – which may be radically at odds with what they believe is right.

They may in response disavow their desires, go cold and detached from their bodies – or perhaps give in to their longings only in a disproportionate way that is destructive to other bits of their lives and leaves them disgusted and frightened.

Eva hasn’t been in a sustained relationship; there have been people (both men and women) she’s really liked but when things got sexual it’s always become difficult. She would become very wary and unresponsive. At work she overheard some people talking about ‘the ice queen’ and she’s sure they were referring to her.

She has had some intense sexual encounters – once in the restroom of a restaurant – that she’s deeply embarrassed to mention and which she describes as ‘sordid’. They were with people she hardly knew and who she’d ‘never normally have anything to do with.’

It’s been difficult for Eva to discuss her sexual fantasies in sessions; she was sure the therapist would be appalled by some of her ‘perverted’ imaginings. It took many months to reassure her that there was no surprise or horror at her revelations – and that someone could entirely respect her and also properly understand her sexual character. It had seemed to her impossible that anyone competent and decent could do both. This wasn’t something she realised in one go; it took many re-encounters with the same anxiety for a degree of trust gradually to evolve.

Now Eva has become interested in finding someone ‘for love and sex’; she’s still looking but she has recently had dates with a couple of people she loves talking to and with whom she can imagine having the kind of sex she really wants. It’s still early days but it no longer feels impossible.

Maturity involves a frank, unfrightened relationship with one’s own darkness, complexity and ambition. It involves accepting that not everything that makes us happy will please others or be honoured as especially ‘nice’ by society – but that it can be important to explore and hold on to it nevertheless. The desire to be good is one of the loveliest things in the world, but in order to have a genuinely good life, we may sometimes need to be (by the standards of the good child) fruitfully and bravely bad.

After a year in therapy Eva has started to see less of her mother – she’s genuinely grateful and considerate but can politely but firmly push back on her excessive demands to be informed about everything. The phrases ‘I love you, but I can’t see you on Sunday’ and ‘I love you, but I’m going to keep that one to myself’ have been important to her because they put into words the idea that she can let her mother down in certain ways and still appreciate her mother’s past efforts.

At work, Eva has had a fruitful, though tricky, confrontation with a senior partner: when a number of impossibly tight deadlines were imposed on her team, she was able to explain that they couldn’t all be met; she couldn’t be a good colleague simply by pretending that everything could be done; she could only do her job well by making a bit of a fuss and making sure extra resources were assigned to the project, even though that wasn’t the answer her superiors wanted to hear.


The pioneering mid-20th century Viennese psychoanalyst Melanie Klein drew attention to something very dramatic that happens in the minds of babies during feeding sessions with their mothers. When feeding goes well, the baby is blissfully happy and sees mummy as ‘good’. But if, for whatever reason, the feeding process is difficult, the baby can’t grasp that it is dealing with the same person it liked a lot only a few hours ago.

So it splits off from the actual mother a second ‘bad’ version – whom it deems to be a separate, hateful individual, responsible for deliberately frustrating its wishes, and in the process, protecting the image of the good mother in its mind. In the baby’s world, there is a ‘good’ mother who is ideally lovely and perfect and another ‘bad’ mother who is entirely horrible. When there’s any difficulty, the baby feels, that the ‘bad’ mother has turned up, and that if she could just be made to go away – by being annihilated or banished – the ‘good’ mother would come back and everything would be fine. This process is known in therapy as ‘splitting’. It can cause us immense difficulties – and it doesn’t just happen in babies.

Miriam is strikingly beautiful; she has a very engaging personality: open, direct and friendly. She’s worked in various impressive roles around the media. She’s got an assured, cosmopolitan air. What’s brought her to therapy is that for years she’s been in a painful romantic cycle with men: she falls madly in love with someone wonderful; then after around three months, normally after a relatively small incident, she falls quite dramatically out of love with them again.

She’s savagely funny when she describes what turned out to be wrong with each of the men she’s been out with. There was the fantastically ‘anal’ graphic designer who was obsessed with ironing his socks and underpants and who would ‘practically froth at the mouth’ if he discovered a fork in the knife section of the cutlery drawer; there was a Finnish film maker with a habit of going into extended monologues about [here she copies his accent] ‘how he wanted to get back to the ways of the forest’; there was a banker who (she says) was in love with his sister.

But behind the wit, there’s a grim pattern: the people Miriam loves all turn out to be ‘buffoons, narcissists, lost-boys, scum-bags, weirdos or maniacs – or some novelty combination of them all.’

Ideally, over time the child manages to put together the two images of their carer. Painfully and with much constructive disappointment they see that there aren’t really two versions: there’s just one person who is a bearable combination of nice and frustrating – who is delightful in some ways and a bit disappointing in others. If things go well, the child comes, sadly but realistically, to grasp that there is no ideal, ‘perfect’ mummy – just one person who is usually lovely but can also be cross, busy, tired, who can make mistakes, and be very interested in other people. And they see – by extension – that this is how other people generally are and that what look like their failings are often tied to what is attractive about them: they are a bit fussy, because they are so caring; they are a touch boring at times, because they are rather serious about one or two things. The child (in the best possible scenario) comes to be reconciled to reality – and able to love people as they are.

Miriam lost her father when she was young. She cherishes memories of him. He was great fun, clever and kind. She loved it when he used to take her swimming; he often read to her at night and put on different voices for all the characters.

But she never discovered the full reality of who he was. She didn’t get to know directly the more complex sides of his character; she’s never really heard anything about his sexuality or what he was like in relationships. Her picture of her father is an idealised one. Which means that her frustration around the men in her life is built on a background accusation that they are not as good as someone whose true nature she never knew.  

A central theme of therapy for Miriam has been realising that she could imagine ways in which her father was far from perfect – without feeling that this is being unfair to him or damaging to her deep loyalty to the good things she remembers. He could have been (and certainly was) both a very good father in some important ways and a very ordinarily flawed and muddled man. Had he lived, she would inevitably have clashed with him in lots of ways, found him annoying, embarrassing and disappointing – because these are standard parts of growing up. Miriam realises the cost of not having had an adolescence around her father.

Although childhood may be long over, the tendency to ‘split’ those close to us is always there. We can find it extremely hard to accept that the same person might be very nice and good in some ways and very disappointing in others. The bad version can appear to destroy the good one, though (of course) in fact these are really just different and connected aspects of one complex human being.

Across many therapy sessions, Miriam has been reconsidering her relationship history. The men she’s so good at mocking were indeed annoying in certain ways – but they were also (to varying degrees) kind, intelligent, generous, tender and hard working. And they were all fascinated by her. She was disturbed by flaws which needn’t necessarily have been fatal. She realises that there is unavoidably going to be something wrong with whomever she is with – not because she has ‘crazy taste in men’ but because everyone is revealed as rather odd and frustrating when we get to know them well.

Recently Miriam has become closer to her grandmother, her father’s mother. The grandmother has fleshed out the picture of her son – always in loving, but not always in flattering ways. She’s been able to accept that her father could be very moody; that he could be rather sly and underhand; and that at certain points he was quite irresponsible about money. He was far from perfect – and yet he was lovely.

Now Miriam has started going out with a man who – she admits – she really wasn’t mad about at first. His taste in clothes leaves something to be desired; he talks too much about his work; and she doesn’t like all his friends. But they’ve had some very interesting weekends together and she likes the way he warmly makes fun of her more eccentric sides. He’s also hit it off with her grandmother.

Anxious and Avoidant Attachment

Depending on what happened when we were growing up, many of us tend – as adults – to have a bias towards either an Anxious or an Avoidant way of behaving in relationships. With an Anxious pattern of being around our lovers, when there is difficulty, we may grow officious, procedural and controlling over small matters of domestic routine. We feel our partners are escaping us emotionally, but rather than admitting our sense of loss and our fear, we respond by trying to pin them down administratively. We get unduly cross that they are eight minutes late, we chastise them heavily for not having done certain chores, we ask them strictly if they’ve completed a task they had agreed vaguely to undertake. All this rather than admit the underlying, poignant emotional truth: ‘I’m worried that I don’t matter to you…’

Jayathri (a GP) and Arun (who works in IT) have been together for four years. Eighteen months ago, they bought a house together – with the idea that one day they might start a family. But increasingly they’ve been arguing a lot. The rancour can last for days. There are sulks, bitterness and a bad atmosphere that refuses to budge. They both regret it, but are at a loss as to what to do.  

In the first session, Jayathri complains that Arun is appallingly unreliable: he says he’ll pick up the dry cleaning, and then not actually do so; or when they’ve arranged to go out to dinner, he’ll tell her at the last minute he’s going to be 15 minutes late. At home she finds it properly maddening when Arun checks his phone, just when she’s trying to tell him something important about a food delivery or his mother.

When she complains, to make matters worse, he doesn’t say anything. He just looks into the middle distance, then sneaks off to do some computer thing in the room upstairs. It seriously annoys her that he can’t even speak. Almost in tears, she describes how he ‘tunes-out’ and how she ends up having to take charge of everything herself.

Avoidant attachment is pattern of relating to lovers whereby, when there is difficulty, we grow unusually cold and distant – and deny our need for anyone. We may desperately want to communicate, to be reassured and to get our point across, but feel so unconfident that we may be unheard or unwanted, we disguise our need behind a facade of indifference. Rather than stay present and struggle towards closeness, we say we’re busy, we pretend our thoughts are elsewhere, we get sarcastic and dry; we imply that a need for reassurance would be the last thing on our minds.

Visibly agitated, Arun says he feels he’d often rather be on his own than have his girlfriend nagging him. Why can’t she just be kind? He resents the way she’s so bossy and tries to direct what he does with his phone. The worst thing is when Jayathri stands on the landing and shouts at him through the door of his computer room. She can go on and on. Half an hour or more. Arun is normally quite reserved during this tirade but it does eventually make him furious. Sometimes he’ll scream at her to ‘fucking leave me alone’ – and then return apparently calmly to Windows OS.

Patterns of attachment are not easy to budge of course, but it is hugely beneficial to understand which one we might have, so as better to warn those we love, and apologise after the storm.

Arun grew up in a lively, busy family; his parents (originally from India) were – and still are – both academics, often at conferences and preoccupied by work. When he was a child, they entertained a lot at home; no-one minded if he left the grown ups having long loud conversations round the dining table and went to watch television in his bedroom.

On one occasion he wasn’t feeling very well and went down to the kitchen to tell his mother. She gave him a hug, but didn’t stop talking to her friends. He felt his parents weren’t very bothered about what was happening at school. They were so taken up with teaching students it was as if they didn’t think anything really mattered ‘until you went to university’. When he was fourteen, he tentatively tried to tell his father there was a girl he was interested in and his father (Arun rolls his eyes as he says this) went off into a kind of lecture about ‘the Western Myth of Romantic Love.’ It was, in that kind of setting, pretty pointless trying to explain very much.

The crucible of Avoidant attachment is the child’s sense that a parental figure is lacking concern. To seek closeness is to guarantee humiliation. The child gives up on hoping for warmth and closeness; they withdraw, and bury their longing for affection, so as to avoid any rebuff. They learn not to care whether anyone says anything sweet or tender; they close down any interest in gentle little signs of reassurance or playful gestures of affection. They feel cautious and uneasy around the expression of emotion, whether in themselves or by others. They may find this rather an advantage in a professional environment, but around relationships they can instinctively push away a partner who seeks deeper a deeper connection. They’re not – at the core of who they are – truly without emotional needs, but they have over the years committed a lot of resources to coming across this way.

For her part, Jayathri spent her childhood in Sri Lanka where her family were involved a number of businesses, mainly around textiles and construction. It was a volatile and rather chaotic upbringing; her parents could be very bountiful and warm one day and cold and quite frightening the next; there was a huge falling out across their extended family over an inheritance. Twice, when she was seven and then nine, she had to abruptly change schools for reasons that were never made clear to her. When she was fifteen, she was sent to a school in England where she was very lonely at first but later did well – getting prizes in Biology and Chemistry: ‘I had to pull myself together and just get on with it.’

Across sessions, without ever being direct, the therapist gets Arun and Jayathri to focus on the underlying concepts of ‘Anxious’ and ‘Avoidant’ relationship styles. As a child Arun had developed an avoidant strategy to cope with his parents lack of attention. When now he goes off to his room, it’s not actually because he doesn’t care but because he feels he’ll never be listened to and that he can’t explain anything to another person. Technology appeals to him so much because it’s automatically responsive; it won’t ask him to account for himself or shout when there’s a distracted look in his eyes.

Jayathri’s Anxious pattern of behaviour stems from her childhood way of coping with family relationships she felt were unstable and untrustworthy. She resorted to imposing external order as a way of coping with a sense of emotional flux. When she feels lonely or sad, her instinct is to try to micro-manage. It’s not that she’s essentially domineering: when she says ‘turn off your phone’ or ‘take the rubbish out now, how many times do I have to ask you?’ it’s a garbled way of trying to say ‘I need you and I want to be close to you.’

When we are Anxious in relationships, we can’t (we believe) force the partner to be generous and warm. We can’t force them to want us (even if we haven’t asked them to…). The goal isn’t really to be in charge all the time, it’s just that we can’t admit to our terror at how much we need them. A tragic cycle then unfolds. We become shrill and unpleasant. To the other person, it feels like we can’t possibly love them anymore. Yet the truth is we do: we just fear rather too much that they don’t love us. As a final recourse, we may ward off our vulnerability by denigrating the person who eludes us. We pick up on their weaknesses and complain about their extensive practical shortcomings. Anything rather than ask the question which so much disturbs us: does this person love me? And yet, if this harsh, graceless anxious behaviour could be truly understood for what it is, it would be revealed not as a rejection, but as a strangely distorted – yet very real and very touching – plea for tenderness.

Initially these interpretations of their own and each other’s behaviour felt very alien to Arun and Jayathri. But after several months of weekly sessions together, the true meaning of their rather behaviour to one another is starting to come into view.

Arun is learning to say ‘I feel you’re not listening and that makes me feel like running away from the terror of not being heard’ rather than retreat to his ‘cave’. Jayathri can sometimes say ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed and I’m worried you don’t love me’ rather than ‘we’re meeting Karen and David at 7.30 so you’ll need to be back by 6.50 at the latest; the taxi is at 7.15 and you should wear the dark blue shirt.’

They still squabble quite often and things are far from perfect; but the tensions tend to get resolved much more quickly; they can sometimes calm down after a vital few minutes. They’re more accepting of their needs. Jayathri can admit that Arun is a bit more solitary than she is – and it’s not a rejection of her; Arun can see that Jayathri likes to plan and organise and that this doesn’t have to be an attack on him. It’s not a perfect match – there are still tensions – but on the whole they are a great deal more comfortable with their life together.

The School of Life offers psychotherapy, in person or online. For more, see:

One of the most basic facts about the human condition is that we know ourselves from the inside, but know others only from what they choose or are able to tell us, a far more limited and edited set of data.

We are continuously and intimately exposed to our own worries, hopes, desires and memories – many of which feel overwhelmingly intense, strange, vulnerable or sad. Yet when it comes to others, we are tightly restricted to knowing them through their public pronouncements, to what they can or choose to reveal. The hints and clues we are left to play with are hugely imperfect guides to the reality of another person’s existence.

The result of this Psychological Asymmetry is that we almost always think of ourselves as far more peculiar, shameful and alarming than other people we run into. Our experiences of anxiety, anger, envy, sex and distress appear to be so much more intense and disturbing than those of anyone in the vicinity. We aren’t, of course, in truth really so odd: we just know a lot more about who we are.

The results of Psychological Asymmetry are loneliness and shyness. We are beset by loneliness because we cannot imagine that others long and desire, envy and hate, crave and weep as we do. We feel ourselves cast out into a world of strangers, inherently different from everyone we live alongside – and potentially fundamentally offensive to all those who might know us properly. It appears, in dark moments, that no one could possibly both know and like us.

We also get shy, easily intimidated by people who we assume cannot share in our vulnerabilities and whom we imagine would be entirely unable to relate to the petty, grand, perverse or idealistic thoughts that pass moment by moment through our minds. If we reach important positions, we feel like impostors, beset by an impression that our quirks separate us from others who have occupied comparable roles in the past. We grow boring and conventional, mimicking the externals of other people on the false assumption that this is what they might truly be like inside.

The solutions to Psychological Asymmetry lie in two places: Art and Love. Art provides us with accurate portrayals of the inner lives of strangers and, with grace and compelling charm, shows us how much they share in troubles and hopes we thought we might be alone in experiencing. And Love gives us an occasional, deeply precious sense of security to reveal who we really are to another person and the opportunity to learn about their reality from a position of extreme proximity.

To overcome the effects of Psychological Asymmetry, we must constantly trust – especially in the absence of any evidence – that everyone is likely to be far closer to what we are (that is, far shyer, more scared, more worried and more incomplete) than they are to resemble the personas they show to the world. We are fortunately not, any of us, quite as odd, or quite as special, as we might assume or fear.

Some of what we want deep down, in our primitive unconscious, threatens to be pretty dark. We may want to do no work, to steal, to injure others, to give way to despair or to have sex in very taboo and damaging ways. Yet most of us do very little of this. In fact, we often pour our energies into worthwhile projects and go out of our way to try to be good and helpful to those around us.

That we’re able to do this fascinated the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud – who gave a special word to this ability to put our primitive, egoistic, destructive energies to good use. He called the process sublimation (in German Sublimierung). It was an idea that came to Freud while he was reading a well-known and charming travel book, The Harz Journey, by the 19th-century poet Heinrich Heine. In it Heine mentioned meeting a legendary German surgeon called Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach (1792-1847) who had been extremely selfish and sadistic as a boy, loving to cut off the tails off stray dogs for sheer twisted pleasure, but then as an adult, had matured into a profoundly selfless and brilliant surgeon, who had made some pioneering discoveries in the fields of reconstructive and plastic surgery.


Freud felt that this evolution – from a person who had sadistically used a knife to wound to one who had nobly used it to mend – could not have been a mere coincidence; and proposed that what was at play belonged to a widespread pattern of behaviour whereby an early harmful or shocking drive gives rise to precisely its opposite, with the strength of the negative determining the power of the positive. Freud felt that this desire for compensation lay at the heart of many of the greatest achievements in the arts, politics and science. So a great police detective might – at an unconscious level – be defending themselves certain of their own illegal wishes and a politician committed to the plight of the poor might be sublimating an early experience of raging greed.

In an essay on Leonardo da Vinci (Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci, 1910), Freud presented the claim that da Vinci had been an extremely sexually active child, who had then sublimated his sexuality into scientific research and art. As Freud put it, a forbidden desire for sexual pleasure (in this case, for his mother and then other boys) had turned in da Vinci into a hugely honourable and powerful ‘general urge to know’.


The theory of sublimation is so hopeful because there is so much about what we all want that proves impossible. While there would be infinite reasons for anger and sterile nihilism, Freud notes our capacity to seek compensation and alternative fulfilments. Repeatedly in his work, he stressed a fact which (though it sounds absurdly obvious) we nevertheless usually fail to give enough weight to: that all of us started out as babies. In that state, we wanted only immediate pleasure and satisfaction. Our ‘drives’ in their initial forms were to things that couldn’t work out for us and that had to be painfully surrendered. We believed that if we didn’t get all we wanted at once, it would be a catastrophe and we would die (this kind of thinking explains the shrieking and wailing of infants in a tantrum). We thought the world revolved just around us – and couldn’t be generous to others. And yet we turned into healthy adults by managing to substitute our original narcissistic aims for more ethical and fruitful alternatives.

Freud added soberly that we’re never quite done with sublimation. We continue to be frustrated in what we really want, most often around sex. Continually we encounter people we would love to sleep with but mustn’t, and yet rather than this energy going nowhere, we have an ability to use our deep frustration to power other things: creative endeavours, scientific breakthroughs, care for the vulnerable.


In Freud’s eyes, pervasive disappointment is inevitable; our longings systematically outrun reality. But sublimation remains the one hugely helpful option for us. Under its guidance, envy can turn into effort, wounded egoism into a capacity for gratitude and appreciation, sexual rejection into a film or novel. As Freud saw it, psychoanalysis is the field designed to help us discover how we can use our disappointments more productively, how we can grow up to be not embittered or shut down, but – paradoxically – energised by some of our greatest underlying griefs.

A good life isn’t one where we get exactly what we want. It’s one where we find fulfilling second bests and where we have the inner freedom to redirect our disappointments with maximal imagination; a life where we have learnt – as Freud tried to show us – to sublimate well.

He described himself as an obsessional neurotic.


For although the father of modern psychology told us so much about our inner lives, he was touchingly vulnerable himself.

Sigmund Schlomo Freud was born to a middle-class Jewish family in 1856, in what is now the Czech Republic. He had a deep love for his mother, who called him her “golden Sigi”, and an equally deep hostility to his father, who may have threatened to cut off little Sigi’s penis if he didn’t stop touching it.

His professional life was not an immediate success. As a young medical student, he dissected hundreds of male eels in an unsuccessful attempt to locate their reproductive organs, and ultimately failed to publish on the topic. He then turned his attention to a new exciting anaesthetic drug, trumpeting its amazing properties. But unfortunately cocaine turned out to be dangerous and addictive, and Freud had to stop advocating its medical use.

A few years later, he began at last to outline the discipline that would ultimately make his name: a new psychological medicine he called psychoanalysis. The landmark study was his 1900 book The Interpretation of Dreams. Many others followed, most importantly The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), The Cases of ‘Little Hans’ and the Rat Man’ (1909), Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930).

Despite his success as a doctor, author, and psychological expert, he was often unhappy. He was a workaholic and confided to a friend, “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable.” During a particularly strenuous part of his research he recorded, “The chief patient I am preoccupied with is myself…”

He could be very jealous of his colleagues. He once fainted watching Carl Jung give a talk, and he forbid nearly all his students from even seeing Alfred Adler. He was convinced he would die between 61 and 62 and had great phobias about those numbers. He once panicked during a stay in Athens when his hotel room’s number was 31, half of 62. He soothed himself with his beloved cigar, but he was also very self-conscious about it, because he thought it was a replacement for his earlier masturbation habits.


Freud with some of his colleagues. He was especially jealous of Carl Jung (far bottom right)

Yet his private sorrows and anxieties were in fact part of his greatest contribution: his investigation into the strange unhappiness of the human mind. His work shows us that the conscious, rational part of the mind is, in his words, “not even master in its own house.” Instead, we are governed by competing forces, some beyond our conscious perception. We should attend to him-–however strange, off-putting, or humorous some of his theories may seem–because he gives us a wonderfully enlightening account of why being human is very difficult indeed.


Freud first put forward a theory about this inner conflict in his essay “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning,” written in 1911. There he described the “pleasure principle,” which drives us towards pleasurable things like sex and cheeseburgers and away from unpleasurable things like drudgery and annoying people. Our lives begin governed by this instinct alone; as infants we behave more or less solely according to the pleasure principle. As we grow older, our unconscious continues to do the same, for “the unconscious is always infantile.”


Babies mostly follow the pleasure principle and directly seek pleasure while avoiding pain.

The problem, Freud said, is that as we get older we can’t simply follow the pleasure principle, as it would make us do crazy things like sleep with members of own family, steal other people’s cheeseburgers, and kill people who annoy us. We need to take into account what he called “the reality principle.”

Ideally, we adjust to the demands of the reality principle in a useful, productive way: “a momentary pleasure, uncertain in its results, is given up, but only to gain along the new path an assured pleasure at a later time.” This is the underlying principle of so much of religion, education, and science: we learn to control ourselves and put away short-term pleasure to achieve greater (and usually more socially-acceptable) pleasure in the long run.

But Freud noticed that in practice, most of us struggle with this. He believed that there were better and worse kinds of adaptations to reality; he called the troublesome ones neuroses. In cases of neuroses, we put aside–or repress–the pleasure drive, but at a cost. We become unhappy or even–in a sense–crazy, but we don’t understand the symptoms.

For example, we might struggle to repress our attraction to people who are not our partner. However, this struggle is too painful to experience directly all the time, so we’ll unconsciously repress it. Instead, we’ll experience delusions of jealousy about our partner, and become convinced they are cheating on us. This is a projection of our true anxiety. It will quell some of our guilt about our wandering eye, but it may also drive us mad. It’s an adaptation to the challenges we face–but, of course, it isn’t really a very good one.

Freud thought that life was full of these kinds of neuroses, brought on as the result of a conflict between our “id,” driven by the pleasure principle, and the “ego” , which rationally decides what we should do about the drives of the id. Other times neuroses come about because of a struggle between the ego and the superego, which is our moralistic side.

In order to understand these dynamics, we’ll usually need to think back to the time in our lives that generated so many of our neuroses:


Childhood is really the time when we learn different adaptations to reality, for the better or (often) for the worse. As babies, we emerge full of raw, unprincipled desires. As we are raised, however, we are “civilised” and thus brought into line with social reality. If we don’t adjust well, trouble will emerge.

First in our psychological history comes what Freud termed the “oral phase,” where we deal with eating. We’re born wanting to drink from the breast whenever we want. Yet over time, we have to be weaned. This is very difficult for us. If our parents aren’t careful (or worse, if they’re a little sadistic) we might pick up all kinds of neuroses: internalised self-denial, using food to calm ourselves down, or hostility to the breast. Most of all, we struggle with dependence. If our mothers wait too long, we may grow up to be very demanding and surprised when the outside world doesn’t provide everything we want. Or, we may learn to distrust dependence on others altogether.

Then comes the “anal phase” (more commonly known as “potty-training”) where we face the challenges of defecation. Our parents tell us what to do and when to go–they tell us how to be good. At this phase we begin to learn about testing the limits of authority. We might, for example, choose to withhold out of defiance. We may then, as adults, become “anally retentive” and excessively tidy. We also might hold back from spending money. Alternatively, if our parents are too permissive, we may test authority and other people’s boundaries too frequently. This leads not only to “making messes” as a toddler, but also to being spendthrift and inconsiderate when we are older.

Freud says that the way our parents react matters a great deal. If they shame us when we fail to comply, we may develop all kinds of fears and anxieties. But at the same time we need to learn about boundaries and socially-appropriate behaviour. In short, potty training is the prime time for navigating the conflict between our own pleasure seeking and the demands of our parents. We have to adapt to these demands appropriately, or we’ll end up with serious problems.


Freud and his family; the family as the focal scene of neurosis formation.

Next comes the “phallic phase” (it goes until about age 6), where we address the problems of genital longings and newly-emerged, impossible sexual wishes. Freud shocked his contemporaries by insisting that little children are sexual: they have sexual feelings, they get erections, they masturbate, they want to rub themselves on various objects and people (even now, the idea makes people uncomfortable). In Freud’s time, the kid would be told to stop it violently; now we tell them this gently. But the point is the same: we can’t permit childhood sexuality. For the child, this means that a very powerful part of their young self is firmly repressed.

This is even more complicated because children direct their sexual impulses towards their parents. Freud described what he called the Oedipus complex (named after the Greek tragic figure), in which we are all unconsciously predisposed towards “being in love with the one parent and hating the other.” It sounds very strange, but it’s worth attending to all the same.

It starts like this: as children, most of us are very attached to our mothers. In fact, Freud says that little boys automatically direct their primitive sexual impulses towards her. Yet no matter how much she loves us, mum will always have another life. She probably has a relationship (likely with our dad) or if not, a number of other priorities that leave us feeling frustrated and abandoned as children. This makes our infant selves feel jealous and angry – and also ashamed and guilty about this anger. A small male child will particularly feel hatred towards the person who takes mum away and also be afraid that that person might kill him. This entire complex–now the word makes sense–provides a huge amount of anxiety for a small child already. (In Freud’s view, little girls have it no easier–they just have a slightly different complex).


Childhood is fraught with jealousy and related attachment issues, especially towards our mothers.

Then comes the problem of actual incest. Adults should not have sex with children; this is a very serious incest taboo on which society depends. We’re not supposed to have sex with people we’re related to either. But even though we claim to all be horrified by it, as if incest were simply the last thing on our mind, Freud reminds us that things are never made into a taboo unless quite a lot of people are keen on breaking the taboo in their unconscious. This explains all the hysteria around incest and sex with children–the idea of it is lurking somewhere in the back of our minds.

In order to prevent sex in the family, the child has to be weaned off the desire to have sex with mum or dad. Mum or dad need also to be kind and not make them feel guilty about sex. But all kinds of things can go terribly wrong.

Most of us experience some form of sexual confusion around our parents that later ties into our ideas of love. Mum and dad both give us love, but they mix it in with various kinds of troubling behaviour. Yet because we love them and depend on them, we remain loyal to them and also to their destructive patterns. So for example, if our mother is cold and makes belittling comments, we will be apt nevertheless to long for her or even find her very nice. As a result, however, we may be prone to always associate love with coldness.


Ideally, we should be able to have genital sex without trouble, and in the long term, fuse love and sex together with someone who is kind. Of course, it rarely happens.

Typically, we can’t fuse sex and love: we have a sense that sex doesn’t belong with tender feelings. “A man of this kind will show a sentimental enthusiasm for women whom he deeply respects but who do not excite him to sexual activities,” noted Freud, “and he will only be potent with other women whom he does not ‘love’ but thinks little of or even despises.” 


Freud compared the issues we so often have with intimacy to hedgehogs in the winter: they need to cuddle for warmth, but they also can’t come too close because they’re prickly. He borrowed this analogy from another Great Thinker, Schopenhauer.

Neuroses aren’t just created within individuals. The whole of society keeps us neurotic. In his book Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Freud wrote that a degree of repression and psychological dysfunction is simply the cost of living in a society. Society  insists on regulating sex, imposes the incest taboo, requires us to put off our immediate desires, demands that we follow authority and makes money available only through work. A non-repressive civilisation is a contradiction.


Freud attempted to invent a cure for neurosis: psychoanalysis. But from the outset, the offering was very limited. He thought the patient should be under fifty, or else their minds would be too rigid. It was very expensive, especially since he thought his patients should come four times a week. And he was quite pessimistic about the outcome: he believed that at best he could transform hysterical unhappiness into everyday misery. Nevertheless, he thought that with a little proper analysis, people could uncover their neuroses and better adjust to the difficulties of reality.


Freud’s office in London, with a couch for his patients to sit or lie on as they were analysed

Here are some of the things Freud sought to “analyse” in his sessions:


Freud believed that sleep was a chance for us to relax from the difficulties of being conscious, and especially to experience what he called wish-fulfilment. It might not seem obvious at first. For example, we might think we dream about failing our A-levels simply because we’re stressed at work. But Freud tells us that we actually get these kinds of dreams because some part of us wishes that we’d failed our A-levels, and thus didn’t have all the responsibilities of adulthood, our job, and supporting our family. Of course, we also have more intuitive wish-fulfilment dreams, like the ones where we sleep with a beguiling co-worker we had never, in the day, known we liked.

Once we wake, we must return to the world and the dictates of our moralistic superego–so we usually repress our dreams. This is why we quickly forget the really exciting dreams we had. 


Freud loved to notice how his patients used words. He thought it was particularly telling when they had a slip of the tongue, or a parapraxis (we now call these revealing mistakes “Freudian slips”). For example, Freud wrote of a man who asked his wife (whom he didn’t actually like) to come join him in America. The man meant to suggest that she take the ship the Mauretania, but in fact he wrote that she should come on the Lusitania – which was sunk off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine in WWI, resulting in the loss of all on board.


Freud thought that humour was a psychological survival-mechanism. In his Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, he explained: “Jokes make possible the satisfaction of an instinct (whether lustful or hostile) in the face of an obstacle that stands in its way.” In short, jokes–like dreams–allow us to bypass authority and satisfy wishes.


In 1933, the Nazis rose to power. “What progress we are making,” Freud told a friend. “In the Middle Ages they would have burnt me; nowadays they are content with burning my books.” Even he failed to see what the world was up against with the Nazis. Elite friends and a sympathetic Nazi officer helped him and his family escape to London, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in 1939 of jaw cancer.

Following in Freud’s footsteps, other analysts developed new psychoanalytic techniques, and eventually the wide and varied field of modern psychiatry. Much of modern therapy is very different from Freud’s, but it began with his premise of discovering the dark and difficult parts of our inner lives and unwinding them, slowly, under the guidance of a trained listener.

We may think we’ve outgrown him, or that he was ridiculous all along. There’s a temptation to say he just made everything up, and life isn’t quite so hard as he makes it out to be. But then one morning we find ourselves filled with inexplicable anger towards our partner, or running high with unrelenting anxiety on the train to work and we’re reminded all over again just how elusive, difficult, and Freudian our mental workings actually are. We could still reject his work, of course. But as Freud said, “No one who disdains the key will ever be able to unlock the door.”