Self-Knowledge Archives - The School Of Life

It’s one of the great paradoxes of mental life that we’re often unable to access our true feelings about important matters. What we really think about — for example — the character of a friend, or the next best move we should make in our career or our stance towards an incident in childhood… all of our conclusions on such critical topics can remain locked inside us, part of us but inaccessible to ordinary consciousness.

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What we operate with instead are surface and misleading pictures of our dispositions and goals. We may settle, in haste or fear, on the most obvious answers: our new friend is very kind, we should aim for the most highly paid job, our childhood was ‘fun’.

We ignore our truths first and foremost because we aren’t trained to solicit them; no one ever quite tells us that we might need to exhibit the patience and wylyness of an angler while waiting at the river bank of the deep mind. We’ve been brought up to act fast, to assume that we know everything immediately, and to ignore that consciousness is made up of layers, and that it’s the lower strata that might contain the richest, most faithful material. 

We may also be hesitant because the answers that emerge from any descent into the depths and subsequent communion with our inner pilot can sound at odds with the settled expectations we have of ourselves in daylight. It might turn out that we don’t, in fact, love who we’re meant to love, or are scared and suspicious of someone who is pressing us to trust them or are deeply moved by — and sympathetic to — a person we hardly know. It’s the profoundly challenging nature of our conclusions that keeps us away from our inner sanctum. We prioritise a sense of feeling normal over the jolting realisations of the true self.

The steps we need to take in order to check in with ourselves are not especially complicated. We need to make time, as often as once a day, to lie very still on our own somewhere, probably in bed or maybe in the bath, to close our eyes and direct our attention towards one of many tangled or murky topics that deserve reflection: a partner, a work challenge, an invitation, an upcoming trip, a relationship with a child or a parent. We might need a moment to locate our actual concern. Then, disengaged from the ordinary static, we should circle the matter and ask ourselves with unusual guilelessness: ‘What is coming up for me here?’ Holding the partner, work challenge, invitation or disagreement patiently in mind, we should whisper to ourselves: what do we really think? What is the real issue? What is truly going on? What is actually at stake?

We should — to sound a little soft-headed — ask ourselves what our heart is whispering to us or what our gut is trying to articulate. We’re striving to access a sincere part of the mind too often crushed by the barking, harried commands of the conformist executive self.

What we will almost certainly find is that — in a quasi-mystical way — the answers are already there waiting for us, like the stars that were present all along and only required the sun to fade in order to come to light in the circumference of the sky. We already know — much more accurately than we ever assume — who we should be friends with, what is good and bad for us, and what our purpose on this earth is. 

We only need a few moments in the dark at 11pm or 5am to wander the corridors of the deep mind with the flashlight of consciousness, and to ask: ‘What is coming up for me here?’ We will emerge as wise and as knowledgeable as we already are.

When we think of an ‘addict’, certain stock images come to mind: a homeless person in the park sniffing glue, a gaunt figure with a heroine needle in their arm, a breakfast-time vodka drinker…

Detail from ‘Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth, 1751

But such gothic characterisations mask what is in reality a far more universal and less overtly dramatic — though still pernicious — phenomenon. Addiction doesn’t have anything to do with what one is addicted to: it can’t be neatly circumscribed to those who rely on hard drugs or alcohol. In its essence, addiction simply means leaning on something — it could be anything — because it prevents particular ideas from coming into our minds. The addict relies on their chosen pursuit to block unwelcome emotions from storming the theatre of their consciousness. 

The particular object of their addiction might be whisky or marijuana, but it could just as well be their mobile phone or ever more copious buckets of fried chicken. One can be addicted to talking to one’s mother or cleaning cupboards, doing the accounts or tracking migrating birds.

What the addict fears above all is to be left alone, to have nothing to do other than to turn into themselves and to face unbearable sadness or regret, fear or longing.

The popular misunderstanding of what addiction is lets too many of us off the hook. It allows people to claim that they are merely going to the office again or checking the news, toning at the gym or catching up on football results.

Yet addicts are not evil or weak. They are first and foremost scared. The solution shouldn’t — therefore — involve censorship and lectures, rather love and reassurance. We should make moves to allow people to feel as safe as possible about opening more doors in their minds and confident that they can handle whatever might be skulking inside. 

It is never really fried chicken or social media updates we like anyway: we are just at a loss as to how to begin to reflect without terror on the course of our lives.

What should in an ideal world define someone as a writer isn’t that they publish books, or give talks at literary festivals or wear black; it’s that they belong to a distinct group of people who — whenever they are confused or in distress — gain the greatest possible relief from jotting things down. ‘Writers’ in the true sense are those who scribble — as opposed to drink, exercise or chat — their way out of pain.

The act of writing, especially in a journal or diary, is filled with therapeutic benefits. So deeply do certain ideas threaten the status quo, even if they ultimately offer us benefits, the mind will ruthlessly ‘forget’ them in the name of a quiet life. But our diaries are a forum in which we can raise and then galvanise ourselves into answering the large questions which lie behind the stewardship of our lives: What do I really want? Should I leave? What do I feel for them? 

We may not quite know what we want to say until we’ve started to write; writing begets more writing. The first sentence makes the second one clearer. After a short paragraph that was summoned from apparent air, we start know where this might be going. We learn what we think in the process of being forced to utter ideas outside of our swampy minds. The page becomes a guardian of our authentic elusive self. 

Here we can make vows and attempt to stick to them: No more humiliation! The end of masochism! Ordinary life can seem to have no place for stock-taking and moments of grand enquiry. But the page demands and rewards them: What am I trying to do? Who am I? What is meaningful for me? We’d never get away with such things at the dinner table, even among people who claim to love us — but here they make sense.

We can look back at what we’ve written and understand. The page is a supreme arena for processing. We can drain pain of its rawness. We can get used to disasters and stabilise joys. We can turn panic into lists. Five ways to survive this. Six things I am going to tell them. Four reasons not to despair. We won’t need to be so jittery in the world outside after we have told the notebook all this. 

The page becomes a laboratory in which to try out what might shock and surprise. We don’t need to honour everything we say. We’re giving it a go and seeing how we feel. It’s the first draft of a letter to ourselves.

Looking back at what we have written should be embarrassing, if what we mean by that is hyperbolic, disjointed, uncertain and wild. If we aren’t appalled by much of what we have said to ourselves, we aren’t beginning to be truthful — and therefore won’t learn.

If in ordinary life we make a little more sense than we might, if we are a bit calmer than we were, it’s perhaps because — somewhere in a drawer — there are pages of tightly compressed handwriting that have helped us to understand our pain, safely explore our fantasies and guide us to a more bearable future.

Part of the pain of growing older is that we can start to see how much, at certain points, we misunderstood ourselves, what the costs of missing self-knowledge were and how beautiful it could be if we could just build ourselves a time machine and go back and correct all our mistakes.

It’s because – at the age of seven – we had no idea about standing up to an adult that we let ourselves get trampled upon by a parent and then grew up as a target for bullies for much of our lives.

It’s because at seventeen, we were so uncertain about our value that there was no way we could seduce someone we liked and wasted what might have been some of our most promising years in loneliness and self-hatred.

It’s because at thirty, we couldn’t understand how our romantic tastes had been formed by our family histories that we embarked on an incautious relationship that spoilt multiple lives.

The better responses, when we do finally achieve them, are so simple as to be almost insulting. But something can be no less crucial for sounding ‘minor’: a missing screw can, after all, bring down a 55 tonne airliner. We may realise – far too late – that we need to believe in ourselves, overcome the snobbishness of our parents, correct the distorted images we have of figures of authority, stop worrying what others think, live by our own values and be free.

If only we could land our elegant time machine next to our younger selves and whisper them such advice: we’d have left home with our dignity intact, we’d have had the love we craved, we’d have spared ourselves relationship agonies. It’s so tantalising, no wonder we often stay up late fantasising about being able to go back in our time machine knowing then what we know now.

But not picking up key lessons wasn’t a casual oversight. Wise lessons were around, but we weren’t ready. Our inattention was inevitable rather than accidental. We might have laughed defensively if someone had suggested going to psychotherapy aged seventeen. We would have called emotional intelligence ‘psychobabble.’ We were wedded to our illnesses. 

We might try to be kinder to ourselves by recalibrating how easy certain emotional steps ever really are. They can certainly be summed up to sound simple. But there is nothing at all simple about correcting mental unwellness. It can legitimately be the work of a lifetime, and the achievement of which we are by far the most proud, to one day be able feel fundamentally content with ourselves, not scared all the time, reconciled to our careers and holding the hand of an ordinary kind clever person who loves us and whom we love. That only ever looks easy; in reality, there’s nothing more complicated in the universe.

However healthy it often is to try to fit in and assume we must just be like everyone else, there are also benefits in sometimes accepting that we might in the end be simply rather odd — though this needn’t be a cause of particularly concern or shame.

Perhaps we simply do belong to the peculiar tribe of those who love — above pretty much anything else — to introspect, that is, to try to make sense of themselves, to process their emotions, to analyse their immaturities and to understand the psychological mechanisms they inhabit. We, the happy odd few, belong to that minor clan of the avid self-knowers who take entirely to heart the Ancient Greek command to ‘Know yourself’.

To be so intensely concerned with self-knowledge has probably equipped us with a number of strange traits. We are likely to very much enjoy our own company. We might not mind spending a whole day alone, marinading in ourselves. It’s never a problem if someone cancels dinner on us. We might keep a diary or a file on our computer where we spend hours taking matters apart. We might like hot baths or solitary walks, often in the evening. We might read a lot but in a distinctive way: always looking out for the ways in which the words of others shed light on, and more clearly define, bits of ourselves. We’re likely to be impatient with people who seek relentlessly to stay on the surface of things. Probably someone once asked us over dinner — slightly defensively — why we were ‘interviewing’ them and we weren’t at all; we were just directing to them some of the manic curiosity we normally devote to ourselves. 

In love, half the fun won’t be about sex or cuddles, it will be that there is someone there to discuss one of the world’s most interesting phenomena — relationships -— in real time with us.

We might try therapy and even though we may have had our share of disappointing shrinks, it will continue to be an area of intrinsic fascination: many of our favourite books will be psychological ones. As therapy inspires us to do, even though it might have been a long since we lived with our family of birth, we will continue to explore how the past informs our present; we’re never quite done with reflecting on mum and dad. We’re no longer angry with them as we once were, we’re just very interested.

People may often try to persuade us to do other things they call fun — go to the beach, come to a party, go shopping — and even though we’ll agree and there’ll be pleasant moments, the truth is that our favourite pastime remains sitting at home, probably in bed, with a notebook, trying to work out what it means to be alive. 

That’s ideally how — after many years — we’d like death to find us. Not scared or oblivious, but curious and attentive, wondering what we’re about to undergo and still speculating on what the brief passage through existence was really all about. We won’t have finished knowing ourselves but we’ll have been most alive whenever we tried to do so.

One of the most useful realisations we might come to about ourselves is that we are ‘paranoid.’ The word is easy to laugh off as impossibly eccentric, evoking people who insist that they are being tailed by the secret service or watched over by an alien species. But the reality is lot more normal-looking and far less comedic-feeling. To be paranoid in the true sense is to suffer from a repeated feeling that most people hate us, that most situations are extremely dangerous and that some kind of catastrophe is likely to befall us soon.

Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

It may not be immediately obvious what connects up — for example — our impression that a colleague is taking us for a fool, with our fear of being talked about unkindly by our friends, with our impression that the waiter has deliberately placed us at the worst table and our dread that we’re about to be caught up in a scandal.

But our sense that the world is permanently and imminently conspiring to belittle, attack and humiliate us is most likely the outcome of a very particular string of experiences of belittlement, attack and humiliation that will have occurred at the hands of just one or two people in our formative years — and yet that will have been carefully submerged and overlooked. And this will have been done because we have implicitly preferred to fear the world rather than acknowledge the reality of the torment we underwent at the hands of characters — who might also be our mother or father — whom we would have liked so much to trust and to love.

It’s unfortunate that our minds need to discharge their toxins somewhere and that if they have been blocked from doing so in the appropriate location, they will seek to do so anywhere that feels remotely relevant: the office or the restaurant, the party or the newspaper article. The hatred and viciousness we fear from colleagues, friends or social media is only a proxy for what we once received from sources close to home — and which we have lacked the support required to return back to their senders.

Understanding who has crushed and scarred us constitutes a critical part of adult self-knowledge. It is also — we should recognise — an insight we may be deeply reluctant to secure, opting to be forever terrified rather than raise arguments against our treatment by care-givers whom we have chosen to believe are innocent. It may one day feel as though far fewer people are actually laughing at us and that there is far less risk of a scandal soon — once we understand that the mockery and shaming we anticipate for tomorrow already unfolded in our heartrendingly anguished and unexplored yesterdays.

There are few more important tasks for parents than to be able to listen properly to their children, that is, pick up on and give room to, their children’s moods, hatreds and enthusiasms, even when these run contrary to their own inclinations. It’s on the basis of having been listened to with close sympathy and imagination that a child will later on be able to accept themselves, remain in touch with what they feel and find partners who are interested in their core selves.

Why should listening properly prove so hard for many parents? Partly because what children say and do can prove so threatening to parents’ sense of their identity. We may as parents have said a very firm goodbye to vulnerability, imagination, frankness, sexual fluidity or sadness. But our children come into the world unaware of any such repudiations; what we have put into our shadow sides may lie in the midday sun of our offspring’s young lives. The kids have no compunction saying that granny is a big fat poo, that they want to dress like an opposite gender or that they long to live in a bigger house. They may in addition be terrible at maths and hopeless at tying their own shoelaces. This may rattle us to the core: how could we have worked so hard to expunge weakness from our personality, only for it to show up in the next generation? How can they be so shockingly needy and difficult, so illogical and impolite?

There can be jealousy behind much of the resulting non-listening. Parents may not take their children’s cries to heart because no one paid particular attention to their own lamentations. Why would they be patient with another’s petty sorrows when they had to grow up with brutal speed? The best way for parents to protect themselves against registering their latent frustrations and regrets can be to ensure that their children also don’t get what they want.

Non-listening parents are to be found constantly rewriting their children’s experiences: ‘That’s nonsense,’ they will say, ‘I know you love going for walks in the rain!’ Or: ‘Why would my brave little soldier cry about something like that!’ Or they’ll insinuate that there is simply no way to devote oneself to something (ballet or business, being shy or dressing as a fairy) and remain legitimate and loveable.

The legacy of not being listened to is a split personality, in which we are unable to allow in the sadness or anger, vulnerability or confidence that our parents once denied in us.  Properly growing up may involve asking ourselves a very unfamiliar question – what sides of me could my parents not accept? – and making friends with the answers.

One of the great impediments to understanding bits of our lives properly is our overly-ready assumption that we already do so. It’s easy to carry around with us, and exchange with others, surface intellectual descriptions of key painful events that leave the marrow of our emotions behind. We may say that we remember — for example — that we ‘didn’t get on too well’ with our father, that our mother was ‘slightly neglectful’ or that going to boarding school was ‘a bit sad.’

Vincent Van Gogh, River Bank in Springtime, 1887

It could — on this basis — sound as if we surely have a solid enough grip on events. But these compressed stories are precisely the sort of ready-made, affectless accounts that stand in the way of connecting properly and viscerally with what happened to us and therefore of knowing ourselves adequately; if we can put it in a paradoxical form, our memories are what allow us to forget. Our day to day accounts may bear as much resemblance to the vivid truth of our lives as a postcard from Naxos does to a month-long journey around the Aegean. 

If this matters, it’s because only on the basis of proper immersion in past fears, sadnesses, rages and losses can we ever recover from certain disorders that develop when difficult events have grown immobilised within us. To be liberated from the past, we need to mourn it and for this to occur, we need to get in touch with what it actually felt like; we need to sense, in a way we may not have done for decades, the pain of our sister being preferred to us or of the devastation of being maltreated in the study on a Saturday morning. 

The difference between felt and lifeless memories could be compared to the difference between a mediocre and a great painting of spring. Both will show us an identifiable place and time of year, but only the great painter will properly seize, from among millions of possible elements, the few that really render the moment charming, interesting, sad or tender. In one case, we know about spring, in the other, we finally feel it.

This may seem like a narrow aesthetic consideration, but it goes to the core of what we need to do to get over many psychological complaints. We cannot continue to fly high over the past in our jet plane while high-handedly refusing to re-experience the territory we are crossing. We need to land our craft, get out and walk, inch by painful inch, through the swampy reality of the past. We need to lie down, perhaps on a couch, maybe with music, close our eyes, and endure things on foot. Only when we have returned afresh to our suffering and known it in our bones will it ever promise to leave us alone.

It’s an enormous privilege to have an adolescence — and, to an extent rarely spoken about, not everyone gets the chance to have one. Adolescence isn’t just a particular time of one’s second decade, and it won’t unfold automatically simply when one reaches fourteen or seventeen and three quarters.

Adolescence properly understood is a state in which we’re able to explore — with courage and newfound independence — who we might be outside of the projections and mental dictates placed upon us with enormous ingenuity and great force by our parents.

Photo by Louie Castro-Garcia on Unsplash

Parents are the greatest propagandists that any of us will ever meet with – and part of their genius is that we rarely know what they are up to. Below the surface they are engaged in a ruthless and ongoing attempt to sell us a version of reality: to tell us what we are ‘really’ like, what we actually need, what life is truly about — and who they have been and what their motives are. It goes without saying that some of their ideas will be eminently correct but the function of adolescence is to take a good long look at, and deal with, the ones that aren’t.

Adolescence is an initially inarticulate and then gradually more discerning protest against everything that has come to feel false, ill-fitting and superfluously applied to our identities since we were born. We may realise, as we progress through adolescence, that we really aren’t interested in particular sides of the workplace that our parents have held in high esteem, that we don’t care about a given approach to morality or vision of politeness and goodness and that we would prefer to join the circus – or Goldman Sachs.

Good parents are secure enough not to mind, they can accept that their child may have turned into that always rather remarkable thing: a separate person. They can even take it if their children are furious for a while, try to kill them in their imaginations and see all their incompetence and stupidity without a filter of sentimentality or fear: what clever people they are to be able to perceive things so distinctly! What a tribute to one’s parenting to allow such loathing to play out!

The difficulty lies with the parents who brook no such opposition; who are too vengeful, depressed or anxious to tolerate dissent and force us to disown bits of ourselves in order to retain their love.

The good news is that it’s never too late for an adolescence. We can start to have one as soon as we realise our right to define ourselves away from parental laws. We can even do it in secret. Without spots to give things away, no one will have to know the critical task that is at play beneath our sober middle-aged facades: a belated search for our true selves.