Self-Knowledge Archives - The School Of Life

It is completely understandable that we are often maddened by what might be called ‘normal’ humanity. The way in which emotion so regularly triumphs over careful reasoning; the power of group loyalty, even when the group doesn’t seem to deserve much devotion; the vast mechanisms of status-seeking that drive so much excess consumption; widespread selfishness and indifference to the greater needs of more distant others. And we can find ourselves — in the privacy of our heads, or in the occasional late-night outburst — railing against the fools and idiots who (so unfortunately) seem to occupy so many of the prominent places of power, wealth and influence. 

Man is But a Worm” Cartoon in Punch almanac, 1882

In such moods the 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin has much to say to us. He was born in England in 1809 into a well-to-do and intellectually distinguished family. He was much influenced by visiting, in his twenties, the Galapagos Islands where he could see first hand species remarkably different from those that existed elsewhere. In later life he was a quiet, rather withdrawn man (he became the world’s leading expert on barnacles). He achieved worldwide fame for his great work On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection but he felt that people had not quite understood the implications of his ideas and in 1871, when he was in his sixties, he brought out The Descent of Man. 

Title page of The Descent of Man, 1871

Darwin liked to say that he had thought of calling his book ‘the Ascent of Man’ — but that that would suggest some idea of progress. Rather what he wanted to do was show that despite the obvious technical advances of past centuries modern people were still at the same moral level, or perhaps slightly worse, than their remote ancestors. 

His big point is that the basic psychological characteristics of human beings evolved to aid survival in the remote past. At the simplest level, we are (generally) attracted to sweet things because in the very extended period of early human development that meant eating wild berries which are great for our health. It has only been in very recent times that this inbuilt desire has turned against us and given us a craving for sugar, which by Darwin’s time had become a major industrial commodity. 

We also evolved to be highly conscious of our position within our own immediate group, since so much of our survival —  in the past — depended on that; so today being ‘liked’ feels as if it a life or death issue because in the past it indicated that you would be served when the spoils of the hunt were being distributed. 

Practically everything — then — depended on having a mate and reproducing. And so our minds are massively preoccupied by these questions, even though today, they are not at all central to our individual survival or even happiness. And, obviously, emotive behaviour is much earlier and much more deeply rooted than elaborate reasoning, which is a very recent and still terribly fragile development in human culture. 

We can put on clothes and drive in cars, but we’re still carrying our primate heritage and that, though disappointing, is not our fault. 

Caricature of Darwin from The Hornet magazine, 1871

Charles Darwin teaches us to feel compassion for the very large primitive part of who we all are.

It can take a while to see that we aren’t merely polite and well mannered; that we are manically on the side of trying to appease the moods and caprices of others at the cost of our own well-being; that we are inveterate people pleasers.

Photo by Alexey Demidov on Unsplash

Children have no practical or psychological alternatives to trying to cosy up to those who reject them. They naturally seek to place the explanation for their poor treatment on themselves. Their excuses for their wayward caregivers may go on without end, inspiring lifelong degrees of tainted creativity: the violence they were on the receiving end of wasn’t ‘just’ violence, they will tell themselves: it came from pain, it was a sign of strength, it was in a way justified by the bad school report. The emotional neglect was never as bad as such a term makes out: it was merely an old-fashioned toughness linked to admirable traits such as independence and resourcefulness.

We may throw ourselves into our work at school and subsequently in our career as a way of trying to secure the attention of parental figures who seem not to care that we exist. We may make exceptional efforts with our school projects, with our end-of-year exams, with our scholarship papers, because we aren’t only attempting to be good students; we are beneath the surface struggling to be the sort of children and humans that can receive the blessing of their creators. We may become known among our friends as ‘over-achievers’, but the truth is a great deal more poignant: we are the ‘under-loved ones’ who work furiously to try to feel legitimate in our own eyes.

We need to come to a dispiriting but emancipating realisation: those who demand to be impressed by their own offspring are not worthy of impressing; they are ill. It may look as if, with just another effort, we may finally secure the notice we long for, but we would be better off accepting the darker notion that we will never turn around someone who hasn’t already seen the point of us. A healthy parent does not require a child to perform in order to lend them their attention; they may be pleased when the child is doing well, they may be proud of them at moments of victory, but they do not make performance the sine qua non of their love. This requirement belongs to psychopathology, not aspiration.

The people pleaser needs to learn an unusual and little-mentioned art: that of giving up on people. Rather than continuing to maintain that there must be something wrong with them to explain the sour mood of their caregiver, they should take on board the unfamiliar idea that they have grown up around someone who was severely unwell. Rather than spend their life wondering what is so wrong with them, they can turn the tables and wonder what might have been so wrong with their progenitors for making such peculiar and inordinate demands on them.

We should stop expecting that we are about to be treated well, like an overeager puppy always looking out for signs that their owner has relented and will take them out to the park after all. We have been the lovelorn dog long enough, we have waited for our biscuits for an eternity, and now need to move away from those who exert a mesmeric hold on us by denying us what should naturally have been offered to us a long time ago. 

We don’t have to keep searching for an offence we haven’t committed. We have done well enough at work; we are sufficiently intelligent and decent looking. We have served far too long an apprenticeship in the school of suffering. It is time to make the remarkable discovery that we can dismiss others as they have dismissed us and concentrate for the remainder of our days on those blessed souls who already know how to freely grant us the kindness and approval we are worthy of.


We often complain that we have bad memories. We forget our house keys, the names of certain acquaintances and vital items from the shopping list. But what might count as a rank nuisance on a practical level turns out to be an unparalleled blessing on an emotional one. We are rescued from many of our sorrows not by active solutions or nifty work of the intellect but by our reliable tendencies to forget. Our minds are so constituted that the gravest incidents eventually slip from our grasp. We lose sight not only of the beautiful and kind things that have occurred – the bay of Naples at dawn, the taste of figs in autumn and the first night spent in the company of a lover – but also, more usefully, the catalogue of horrors that we were once certain we would never be able to surmount. However hysterical we may be, we can rely on the knowledge that we will soon forget what we are crying about.

Photo by Sandip Karangiya on Unsplash

When in his fifties, the great English literary critic and essayist Cyril Connolly discovered a Latin grammar textbook that he had had at around the age of 10, when he had attended a fashionable preparatory school in Eastbourne, St Cyprian’s. On the flyleaf of the book, he had written in his most careful script, ‘Never [underlined three times] forget
how unhappy you were today, February 11th, 1913.’
Now, many decades later, he hadn’t the faintest recollection of what had so deeply upset him on that distant day, even though it must have seemed as if it would burn forever in his thoughts, sending echoes of misery across the entirety of his existence.

Our habit of forgetting might feel like a betrayal. A part of us wants to remain eternally loyal to the sufferings that consume our thoughts and to which our identities can feel indelibly bound. But our minds are efficient, unsentimental places that need to clear space for novel experiences, so eventually even our worst recollections become hazy and
neutered. We might realise that years have gone by without having given a single thought to a mistake that we had once imagined would darken our lives in perpetuity.

We may lament our far-from-perfect memories, but we should be grateful for them. If we had a recollection of every occasion when someone had been unkind to us, of every slight that had come our way, every mistake we had committed and every hope that had been frustrated, life would swiftly grow untenable. Fortunately, we have been endowed with a special incapacity. The slate is always, gradually being wiped clean, ensuring that we end up ignorant of what once left us certain that we should end our lives by nightfall.

For many of us, a fundamental priority is that we should never, ever end up in a psychiatric hospital — what used to be called an asylum (or, as some might put it pejoratively, a madhouse or loony bin). We are – for understandable reasons – deeply wedded to the idea of our sanity.

And yet looked at more generously, ‘sanity’ is not an unassailable island with rigid or impregnable boundaries: it is a continent that is constantly suffused with waves of trouble, pain and confusion. A degree of mental perturbance belongs to health. A share of madness is, and should be, present in every good and sane life.

Vincent Van Gogh entered the Saint- Paul Asylum in Provence in May 1889 and was to remain there until May the following year. He had grown increasingly exhausted in the previous months, his mood veering between exultation and despair, visionary fervour and dejected self-loathing. At first, he spent a lot of time in bed – sleeping, thinking and writing to his brother. Then gradually he felt well enough to paint and did so both in his room and in the grounds. He particularly loved the asylum’s gardens: its pine trees, caterpillars, butterflies and flowers (bluebells, dandelions and – most famously – irises). It was here that he painted some of his best-loved works; the Van Gogh we know was reborn in this walled garden in Provence.

Vincent Van Gogh, Tree Trunks in the Grass, late April 1890, 1890

Nature wasn’t just a pretty spectacle, it was evidence of the human capacity to endure and overcome appalling degrees of loss and shame. This was a man who had thought very seriously of killing himself only months before; in nature, he found a stream of counterarguments. His tree trunks were weathered and experienced, they had known storms and years of buffeting and damage by the wind, but they were hardy and determined. Growing around them, his dandelions appeared innocent, copious and hopeful.

Part of the reason we break is that we do not – ordinarily – allow ourselves to bend. We believe we have no option but to keep going, to put up a front and to be so-called brave. But recovery only begins the moment we accept that we cannot cope, that it has become too much and that the disturbances we have been warding off for too long have now got the better of us.

However alarming our state might be to those around us, we might almost be grateful for our collapse. A breakdown can be a prelude to a breakthrough. In the midst of our despair or mania, things may be rearranging themselves inside. We are, confusedly, expressing a longing for a new kind of life: a more caring relationship, a more authentic career path, a more compassionate acceptance of ourselves and our past.

One day, we might find ourselves in an asylum. We shouldn’t despair that this is where we have ended up. Many have been here before us – and some of them understood life better than anyone. We should feel proud of how courageous we have been in admitting that we are defeated. At last we have an opportunity to cry, to think and to heal. We don’t need to do very much; we can lie in bed for hours and when we feel up to it, at our own pace, go out for a quiet wander among the pine trees. The old way wasn’t working; this is a new start.

When the sun comes out, we might find a comfortable bench from which to contemplate a medley of flowers with the sort of mystical delight, open-hearted joy and love for life known only to those who have, in their darkest moments, been tempted to give up entirely.

Our refusal to forgive ourselves for our mistakes tends to hang on a strong sense of how much these were, in the end, avoidable. We obsessively go back over our slips and errors and contrast what did happen with what could so easily have been skirted if we had not been so fatuous and so witless. We experience recurring jabs of pain at the disjuncture between the agonising present and its now-vanished alternative: we should never have written that email, we should never have become involved with that person, we should have listened more closely to the advice, we should never have borrowed the money…

Photo by mark tulin on Unsplash

Alongside the pain come questions: Why didn’t we have greater foresight? Why couldn’t we muster more self-restraint? How could we have been so indiscreet? From this close up, there are no realistic, let alone kind, ways to answer our punitive self-interrogations; as a result, they are likely to go on forever, without let up in agony. We will at best conclude that we messed up because we were greedy, because we were vain, shallow, intemperate and weak-willed; that we have ruined our lives because we are lustful, hare-brained, immature and egocentric. 

Our self-hatred will grow ever more intense as we contrast our soiled lives with the impeccable choices of others. The reasonable and good ones, the calm and happy ones, had it right all along: they didn’t succumb to temptations, they stayed steady and dutiful, they kept their priorities straight and paid due respect to public opinion. The overall conclusion is that we are simply awful people, who should probably (depending on the severity of the problem we are in) kill ourselves forthwith.

If we are to avoid eternal self-loathing or suicide, we will have to find another approach. We cannot forever explain our mistakes by examining this or that local flaw in our characters. We need to lean on a far more holistic and objective answer. We messed up because we are human, which in this context means that we belong to a species that is compelled by its very nature to steer through life without the knowledge and experience required to ensure goodness and wisdom, kindness and happiness.

We may regret this or that error, but from the right distance, we are fundamentally steering blind and are therefore doomed to slip up with greater or lesser severity at some point or other. We can’t know exactly whom we should marry. We don’t have fool-proof knowledge of where our real talents lie, let alone how the economy will perform, and therefore can’t determine the sort of career we should optimally invest ourselves in. We may make a reasonable guess at what activities and situations might be dangerous, but we cannot know ahead of time exactly where the true risks lie; there are landmines buried everywhere. Assumptions made in one era may fail to be correct in another. We can be caught out by swift changes in mores: what could have been acceptable at one point can turn into an indecency a few years later.

Certainly, we may have experienced a particularly jagged edge of life that has destroyed us in a very specific way. But though the wound is local, the injury is almost endemic. It could have been foretold from the start that something bad would happen to us at some moment, not because there is anything especially deficient about us, but because human brains are lacking the necessary matter to lead us faultlessly through the decades-long obstacle course of life. 

That said, our self-contempt tends to be heightened because we refuse to think about luck. We look at where we have ended up and compare it with the more fortunate places of others and come to only one verdict: we must have been more stupid than they are, our characters must have been more corrupt than theirs. But in the process, we miss out on a critical explanatory factor: whatever our flaws may have been, we may have had to contend with a particularly vicious swerve of fate. There have been people every bit as hasty or unreasonable as us who (for now) have sailed on unmolested. Events have pressed more harshly on the vulnerable parts of our personalities. Anyone who would have been tested as we were would have failed in comparable ways. In assessing our destiny, we should remember to claim a very large role for the forces of foul luck. 

Photo by Simon HUMLER on Unsplash

At the same time, we do ourselves an injury by comparing ourselves only with those above us, rather than considering our state in the round. In our abject moods, we look enviously at those who are presently riding high while failing to consider the hundreds, even millions, of those who have endured destinies every bit as cruel as our own. The human condition has seldom been a smiling one: we should not compound our difficulties by refusing to consider all those who have wept every bit as much as us and lost even more than us.

Nor should we keep equating ourselves with people who, while they might have some superficial similarities with us in terms of age or educational background, in the end had incomparably different psychological beginnings. They didn’t have our parents, they didn’t have to go through what we did, they didn’t have to master our emotional immaturities. They may seem to be our equals but they in fact belong to a more blessed cohort. We should nurture sympathy for ourselves based on a fine-grained appreciation of the specific burdens we had to take on.

A degree of regret may sometimes be helpful: it can help us to take stock of errors and to avoid the worst of the pitfalls next time. But runaway self-hatred serves no useful purpose; it is, in its masochistic way, an indulgence we can’t afford. We may be foolish, but this doesn’t single us out as particularly awful or unusual; it only confirms that we belong to the human race, a fact for which we deserve limitless sympathy and compassion.

There is a paradox at the heart of what it means to be a loving person. On the one hand, the aspiration would seem to necessitate that we be as ‘good’ as possible. On the other, those who feel that they are very good, who consider their record as spotless and their actions as blameless, can end up exhibiting a rigidity and sternness of heart that may veer into self-righteousness and a distinct sort of cruelty. We have to conclude that truly good people never feel beyond reproach; they know how much is crooked and unfortunate in their souls and on this basis go easy on the transgressions of others. They are properly kind because they never feel very pure themselves.

Photo by Ramez E. Nassif on Unsplash

For most people, the moment of maximal perceived purity tends to be in late adolescence, a phase that for many of us, psychologically speaking, can continue deep into middle age. We awaken from the fog of childhood to acquire a newly robust impression of moral clarity. We see for the first time how bad people really are, and grow determined to call out evil deeds that we feel we have ignored for too long. The teachers are, as we are now able to see, mostly only in it for themselves, the government is filled with time-wasters and egoists, corporations only want to protect their own interests, and closer to home, our parents are nauseatingly compromised, sentimental, selfish and variously lustful or weak-willed.

These lapses outrage our sense of right and wrong and fire a crusading spirit. It seems beyond belief that certain people who need to be exposed and expunged could be quite so venal in their actions: why would a respectable company not do more to help the forests and the seas? Why would a politician care so much about narrow party interests? Why would someone break up a family because of a passing infatuation? Why would an adult lose their temper over minor details? Why would a person get involved in the status race and worry so much about their earnings or how big their house was?

Adolescent minds can be particularly exercised by the idea that valuable things might have murky and muddled origins. In response, they will be in no mood to make excuses. If the talented painter behaved badly at home, then their work should be taken down from galleries and museums. If the benefactor turned out to harbour racist views, they should be stripped of their honours and made to disappear from history.

The adolescent is able to be so outraged because the flaws that drive unfortunate behaviour are so unknown to them from the inside. They have never yet felt the pull between duty and desire. They haven’t experienced the temptations of power. They haven’t been inducted into how desperate one may grow after years in a relationship. They haven’t been under the sort of professional pressure that means one can end up shouting intemperately even at people one loves. They haven’t witnessed the slow death of many of their dreams or the onset of unmasterable moods of indolence and self-hatred. They haven’t known from close up the agony that can ensue when friends succeed – and our own professional stagnation is thrown into relief.

It may take a while until life’s appalling complexity hits the adolescent mind; until they notice that, in spite of all their worthiness, they have in certain areas acted with some of the very malevolence they have hitherto located only in other people: the fraudulent CEO, the degenerate politician, their unpleasant father. They may have judged many people with steely implacability before they find themselves falling in love with one person even while they are pledged to another, before they act unreasonably with their own child, before they are dragged down by moods of despair and sadness they cannot get past, before they feel so weak and ignored inside that they start to boast and buy goods that they can’t afford in the hope of being noticed and admired.

They may be greying by the time someone whose good opinion they crave turns around and, with cold-hearted fury, accuses them of having been a ‘selfish, ungrateful idiot’ and they are made to recognise that they truly have been such a thing – despite being, in so many other ways, kind and humane, thoughtful and courteous, committed to protecting the environment and enlightened in their attitudes to redistributive taxes. At last, the former adolescent is ready to take on board the agonies of adulthood and to be appropriately kind in response.

We have to learn how corrupt we are, how insipid we can be, how little we understand, in order to be in any position to bestow adequate warmth on our fellow humans. We will be ready to love when we have absorbed the full extent of our capacity to be bad.

One of the most difficult things about being human is how easily influenced we are by our childhoods — and more particularly, our parents.

The human mind between the ages of one and ten is dauntingly receptive, infinitely attuned to its environment. A somewhat cold forbidding father or an erratic mother really may be all that are required to breed an elevated degree of anxiety or self-hatred that colours the next eight decades

Photo by Chris Curry on Unsplash

And yet this kind of parental imprinting is very hard to spot — and therefore overcome. Most of us would be highly surprised to think that a parent or two might be living inside our heads. The way we think seems to us to be the result of our own will. We seldom come across any voices or attitudes that feel actively foreign or externally sourced.

Nevertheless, given how long we were exposed to them and at what formative stages, our parents may have left more of a mark on us than we normally recognise — and may be constantly commenting on our lives from inside like a chorus of unhelpful marionettes. 

When we fail, a voice inside us may say, ‘You should never get above your station.’ When a relationship breaks down, an inner voice might whisper, ‘Never expect anything from others.’ When a nasty rumour spreads about us, we hear: ‘You were always too impulsive.’

It can help to ask ourselves a number of questions about our parents’ views — as experience has taught us to conceive of them. 

We might, without thinking too hard (and thereby allowing our defences to choke our spontaneous insights), finish the following sentences:

My father gave me a feeling that I am a…

My mother left me with a sense that I am a…

My father would now think that I am…

My mother would now think that I am…

What our inner parents have to say is often not especially enlightened or in line with what we want for ourselves. And yet we can observe how deeply such ideas sink into us nevertheless. 

We can continue the exercise:

If I really needed him, my father…

If I really needed her, my mother…

To disagree with my mother would mean…

To disagree with my father would mean…

If I made a mistake, my father would…

If I made a mistake, my mother would…

Our parents’ views rarely stick out in our minds; they merge with our own; they lose their identifying labels, they become sides of everyday consciousness, indistinguishable from what we more broadly want and believe. 

Yet we should try to reverse the process of absorption, and to recover some distance between ourselves and impulses and attitudes that may bear no relation to our healthier aspirations. 

It’s bad enough to suffer; it’s even worse to do so at the hands of what we might as well term, with no supernatural associations, a coven of unfriendly ghosts.

In order to recover from many kinds of mental distress, there’s really no alternative but to get acquainted with psychotherapy. 

Though often dense and complicated, the central ideas of psychotherapy can be summarised as follows:

1. Every human is in part neurotic. A neurosis is any pattern of thinking or behaviour that blocks the full flowering of our personalities and potential. We may be neurotic in love or at work, in our friendships or in our attitudes to creativity or politics. It should be part of every evolved human’s mission to seek to understand and unpick the neurotic elements of their own personalities. The enquiry ‘And how are you neurotic?’ should not be taken as an insult, but rather a sensible and kindly request for more information on our particular share of humanity’s warps.

2. The origins of most of our neuroses lie in our childhoods — before we were old enough to deploy adult mechanisms to process events. What causes neuroses are incomprehensible, cruel and intolerable frustrations and pains that we can collectively refer to as traumas. A trauma may be as immediately shocking as a rape or as seemingly innocuous as years of continuous petty criticism or emotional neglect; something qualifies as a trauma because of an unmasterable dimension, the child is not able to make sense of the agony it faces — and so suffers a grievous blow to its sense of self and command of trust, intelligence and love.

3. Every parental inadequacy tends to give rise to a neurosis. Where there is an over controlling parent, there will be a child with problems around autonomy. Where there is a belittling parent, there will be a child with difficulties of confidence and self-esteem. Where there is sexual rivalry or seductiveness, there will be issues of guilt or shame. Every character defect on the side of the parent necessarily imposes a toll on a child. 

4. There is no such thing as an un-neurotic parent. Rather than deny that they could have done anything ‘wrong’, all parents must simply put up their hands gracefully, perhaps humorously too, and then assist their child in figuring out the particular difficulties they will have bequeathed to them. 

5. Trauma leads to repression which over time inspires the formation of neurotic symptoms. Neuroses that have not been understood continue into perpetuity: time never weakens them. 

6. Healing comes through self-awareness. To improve, we need to dynamite the concrete of repression and recover contact with the original trauma. And in order to do that, we need to accept — before anything else — that doing so would be a good idea. We have to agree that self-knowledge will be what can save us. 

7. It won’t be enough to know the past, we will need to feel it too. We may have a workable sense of the central details of our childhoods, but an intellectual grasp won’t be enough. We need to viscerally re-experience (rather than merely intellectually know) the past so as to free ourselves from its hold. Our neuroses will weaken or dissolve once the traumas that fire them are finally known — and, even more importantly, felt.

That is the challenge — and the promise — of psychotherapy.

One of the strangest and saddest phenomena of psychological life is that there are parents, too many parents, who end up — while sometimes only half realising it — bullying their own children.

The bullying may take many forms: from suggesting the child is ugly and stupid all the way to physically and sexually abusing them. It’s quite literally one of the saddest things in the world.

Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash

Why do parents bully their children? In short, in order to try to feel better about themselves. Because they suffer intensely in the very same area that they are bullying their child in. If we, as children, want to know what our parents were afraid of or haunted by, we only need to ask: in what areas did they bully me? What did they make me feel scared or inadequate about? Someone made them feel awful and they surmise — by twisted logic — that they will feel better through the process of making their own child feel very bad indeed. They aren’t doing it personally, the child is collateral damage to a misguided project of healing and attenuation of symptoms. It doesn’t make any sense of course,  but it may actually work for the parent, for a time.

Let’s imagine a parent who harbours a terrible fear of being stupid; somewhere in their own past, they were belittled and made to feel hugely inadequate. Now a child comes along, their own child, full of the normal hesitations and weaknesses of early infancy. Without really realising what they are up to, the parent grows inflamed and incensed by this child’s apparent stupidity — and starts to mock and attack in another what they fear and hate in themselves. It makes them feel a bit better. The child becomes a repository of all that they fail to tolerate in themselves. They (the child) are the dumb one, so they (the parent) don’t have to be; they (the child_ are the stupid and ugly one, so they (the parent) don’t have to be. The child is a cry baby, a weakling and a pathetic twig. And therefore the parent is liberated to live more easily within itself. The bad is contained and localised; it can’t be in them, if it is all in little him or her. ‘Don’t be such a moron or a ninny. Stop being such a wimp,’ the parent screams at the child, in the hope that no idiocy or weakness remains in them.

The same logic operates in the most appalling form of bullying that is child abuse. Let’s imagine that the parent is carrying a sense of being corrupted, ill and soiled. Perhaps they too were abused — as so often happens — long ago. By abusing a child of their own who is as pure, hopeful and innocent as they once were, they hope to rid themselves of their poison, to inject it into some other being in order to live more freely and lightly. The child will go around thinking it is bad and wrong so that the parent no longer has to. It will be doomed and perhaps the parent will get a new lease of life.

It can take bullied children a very long time to realise they have been bullied. They don’t, after all, grow up thinking that someone else has actually made them feel stupid or made them feel ugly or made them feel soiled — let alone their own parent, whom they depend on and admire and long to be loved by. They simply think they are stupid, ugly and soiled. There is no call for an explanation or a cause. 

Yet if we are those now grown up bullied children, we don’t need to wonder too much more about what might have happened to us. We simply need to take stock of how we feel about ourselves and guess that the terrible judgements and sensations that we have about ourselves did not arise spontaneously. They are the outcome of events — physical behaviours as well as words and atmospheres that we were subjected to. The feelings we harbour of ourselves are legacies of real occurrences in the world. Someone, who isn’t necessarily owning up to it, made us feel a certain way — and that is why we are now in such pain.

Typically, those who have been bullied don’t look backwards. Their illnesses point them relentlessly to the present and the future. The bullied anticipate terrible things happening to them that echo events that once happened to them but they don’t remember these in any way. They are cause-less paranoiacs, self-haters and worriers. Catastrophe is never far away. A person feels they are ugly because two decades ago, a mother made them feel as much. A person feels they have done something very wrong because, even further back, someone did something very wrong to them. The fear contains the imprint of unconscious history.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

We overcome our bullying when we learn to discriminate: between what actually belongs to us and what was placed in us, between who we are and what we’ve been told we are, between how our caregivers like to present themselves and what they have actually done. Our triggers and apprehensions lie along the faultlines of our early traumas; they can guide us back to what we were suffered through when we are ready to explore.

It’s sad enough that children are bullied by their parents; it’s even sadder that a legacy of this is that children can’t realise what happened to them. And instead typically fall victim to the same tricks played out by substitute figures in their later lives: partners, colleagues, even the media. 

We’re on our way to overcoming bullying when we can say, at last, I am not ugly, I was made to feel unacceptable. I haven’t done anything wrong, something wrong was done to me. And in general: I am not awful — something awful happened to me.

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Photo by Isi Parente on Unsplash

Furthermore, these projections tend to be distinctly and unfruitfully negative. We think worse of people than we should, and we are quicker to be afraid, angry and uncooperative than we need to be, because our imaginations are filled with dark experiences which reflect our painful origins and yet fail to do justice to a broader, more innocent, more hopeful present.

As a result, our projections gum up our relationships with the world around us. We arrive in the presence of others with a great deal more aggression, suspicion, fear or doubt than is warranted in the here and now.

The theory of projection sounds simple and plausible enough. The difficulty is that it is extremely hard to work out what it is we are actually projecting. We are far too much inside ourselves to see our own biases. We can’t tell how we’re distorting our assessments of others; there’s no gap between our judgements and our reason.

Yet we stand to make a little progress through a simple exercise which involves a little reflection on our most characteristic assumptions of other people taken as a whole. In a quiet reflexive mood, we should title a blank sheet of paper: What I expect other people will be like… and then see what comes up for us. 

A list might look like this:

— Older men in authority are judgemental and angry.

— Other people can suddenly turn around and viciously attack you.

— People only respect money and status.

— Nice people aren’t very competent or worthy of respect

— People can’t be relied upon to help when you need them.

— People might be laughing or silently ridiculing.

The list might — to an extent that surprises us — be extremely negative. Now the next question should be: why are we thinking this way? Common-sense tells us: because this is what reality is like. But the more therapeutic line counters: because this is what our childhood was like and that is what has unconsciously influenced, and poisoned, our assessment of all strangers in the present.

In order to honour the true complexity as well as hopefulness of the world as it is now, we should then ask what specific individuals from our past might be held responsible for inspiring our panoply of particular, and particularly dark, assumptions. To every generalisation on our sheet of paper, we should — with a different coloured pen — write down a particular name who might have inspired an especially caustic assessment of humanity.

If we’ve had a certain sort of childhood, we should in time be able to arrive at a definite set of names and memories. Once we start to explore, we’ll be able to see that a statement like ‘Older men in authority are judgemental and angry’ really relates to a very particular man in a very particular moment while the unhelpful idea that no one can be relied upon is the sediment of an earlier situation in which specific people didn’t help us when we badly needed them to have done so.

There are few things harder to see than our biases. But we can — with the help of exercises — learn to free ourselves from some of their more vicious though invisible tentacles. Other people can often be extremely difficult, of that there is no doubt, but to an extent that may well surprise us, it isn’t really people ‘in general’ who are the problem. It’s almost certainly people in particular who troubled us a long time ago and who we’ve taken great care to forget all about.

We may have a lot more faith in humanity once we can be more forensic and sad about a few key figures in the past.

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