Trauma & Childhood Archives - The School Of Life

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.

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.

Latest Articles

Self-Archaeology

Self-Knowledge

Self-Archaeology

The most fundamental idea at the heart of modern psychotherapy is that in order to heal ourselves from our neuroses…
View
On Projection

Self-Knowledge

On Projection

One of the most continuously fascinating ideas in psychotherapy is the concept of projection. What this means, simply put, is…
View
The Upsides of Being Ill

Self-Knowledge

The Upsides of Being Ill

It sounds really strange to speak of the upsides of being ill. Surely there are only downsides? But rather than…
View
On Being ‘Triggered’

Calm

On Being ‘Triggered’

The phenomenon of being ‘triggered’ — though it may, at times, be applied too liberally — sits on top of…
View

One of the most continuously fascinating ideas in psychotherapy is the concept of projection. What this means, simply put, is that all of us have a storehouse of assumptions about what other people are like and how they will behave — which, in reality, owes very little to actual people who we meet today and a lot more to complications in our childhoods that we have generally forgotten all about.

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.

Latest Articles

Self-Archaeology

Self-Knowledge

Self-Archaeology

The most fundamental idea at the heart of modern psychotherapy is that in order to heal ourselves from our neuroses…
View
On Projection

Self-Knowledge

On Projection

One of the most continuously fascinating ideas in psychotherapy is the concept of projection. What this means, simply put, is…
View
The Upsides of Being Ill

Self-Knowledge

The Upsides of Being Ill

It sounds really strange to speak of the upsides of being ill. Surely there are only downsides? But rather than…
View
On Being ‘Triggered’

Calm

On Being ‘Triggered’

The phenomenon of being ‘triggered’ — though it may, at times, be applied too liberally — sits on top of…
View

The most fundamental idea at the heart of modern psychotherapy is that in order to heal ourselves from our neuroses in the present, we have to understand what went on in our childhoods.

Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

Though this thesis makes impeccable theoretical sense, there is one enormous problem with it: amnesia. Simply put, almost no adult remembers a single thing that happened to them before they were three years old: countless days and nights, a succession of complicated moods, sensations and events will have vanished into thin air, like a library of precious books that is sent up in smoke or dumped unceremoniously into the sea. Furthermore, most of us remember very little of what went on before we were seven. This may seem like an obvious point, but it has momentous implications. A period that we’ve identified as extremely central is also going to be entirely nebulous.

Another basic fact of every childhood is that even though the past may have been extremely strange and regrettable, it will also — in key ways — now seem rather normal and beyond easy analysis or questioning. Our childhood is — quite literally — what we’ve grown up with and, as we know, what has always been around has a habit of not signalling its oddity. We might sense that something was peculiar around our caregivers but to really get a proper understanding of what these people were up to tends to be far beyond our ordinary powers. We prefer to think of something else — and to run fast in an opposite direction.

This fixes us in a conundrum which entrenches our neuroses. But there is one extremely useful way to make progress: we should look at ourselves in the present. Everything we need to know of the past is contained in what’s going on for us right now. We don’t need to try to remember all sorts of things that have in reality escaped us totally; we just need to check in on who we are today. The legacy of the past will be active, rich and vibrant (for better and for worse) at every moment of our adult lives.

One of the first questions we need to ask ourselves — as archaeologists of our pasts — is what, day to day, in the adult realm, we are afraid of.

Let’s imagine a list of someone who is asked to complete the sentence ‘I’m terrified of…’:

— I’m terrified of being thought an idiot

— I’m terrified of being found ugly and unacceptable.

— I’m terrified of being arbitrarily humiliated, mocked and rejected.

— I’m terrified that people will be extremely nasty to me.

What we dread at the hands of everyone we meet nowadays will inevitably be a version of what we once feared at the hands of very specific caregivers in a very specific and yet very forgotten childhood.

This gives us a huge amount to go on; indeed, it offers us nothing less than the tools for our recovery. It means we can take our list as an archaeological map to guide our thinking. The self questioning might go like this.

Someone terrified you of being an idiot: who might it have been and how did it happen?

Someone found you ugly and unacceptable: what might have occurred here?

Someone has, it seems, arbitrarily humiliated, mocked and rejected you: does that ring any bells?

Someone probably gave you an experience of extreme nastiness: is this somehow familiar?

Though we might not be used to thinking in this way, with such prompts at hand, rich and vibrant thoughts may rise up from the unconscious. We might get a new perspective on our caregivers and on what we underwent. Framed in this way, we might see with newfound clarity that quite a lot more was going on in those early days than we generally like to imagine.

What will be the next step? We’ll need to go back over the past, with a lot of patience and courage, while also bearing in mind that what we have been projecting willy nilly onto every man and woman in the present, and every difficulty we face in the here and now, actually had very particular origins — which, the more we understand them, the more we’ll feel liberated and unburdened.

Our future won’t have to feel so constantly difficult or fear-laden once we trace back its real difficulties to a point of origin. As psychotherapy has always insisted and promised, remembering truly will set us free.

Latest Articles

Self-Archaeology

Self-Knowledge

Self-Archaeology

The most fundamental idea at the heart of modern psychotherapy is that in order to heal ourselves from our neuroses…
View
On Projection

Self-Knowledge

On Projection

One of the most continuously fascinating ideas in psychotherapy is the concept of projection. What this means, simply put, is…
View
The Upsides of Being Ill

Self-Knowledge

The Upsides of Being Ill

It sounds really strange to speak of the upsides of being ill. Surely there are only downsides? But rather than…
View
On Being ‘Triggered’

Calm

On Being ‘Triggered’

The phenomenon of being ‘triggered’ — though it may, at times, be applied too liberally — sits on top of…
View

There’s a strange law of psychology that reveals that small children who are treated badly by their parents will always — rather strangely — blame themselves, and not their parents, for their injuries. They hate who they are rather than hating those who have done them wrong.

Small children immediately notice when they are not loved as much as they might and need to be. They understand nothing of the reasons for the hard-heartedness but feel all of the pain. And yet they need to locate some form of explanation nevertheless and quickly and intuitively settle on the one that always feels most compelling to them: that they have done something wrong

Why is mummy so agitated? 
Because they have done something wrong

Why is daddy so cold? 
Because they have done something wrong

Why aren’t they being treated kindly? 
Because they have done something wrong. 

Why is their little sister being preferred to them? 
Because they have done something wrong. 

After a little while of this, their whole character becomes oriented towards guilt: they are — in numberless ways — simply and primordially ‘bad’. 

In adult life, it takes very little to reignite a feeling that somewhere along the line, they have said and done something awful. What precise offence they believe themselves to have committed shifts according to events in their lives and the prevailing public mood: in a religious age, they may feel they have done something wrong in the eyes of god. In an age obsessed with paedophilia, they will fear they have done harm to a child. When racism is being highlighted as a leading public sin, they will be tortured that they harbour racist feelings. 

Closer to home, they will fear that they have upset their partner, hurt their friends or offended an employee. Whenever they make a new friend, they know that soon enough, the friend will realise they are ‘bad’ and let them go. What makes the guilt so hard to shake off is that they cannot exactly pinpoint its origin. 

A diffuse mood hangs over them whose title is simply: ‘I have done something wrong…’ The mood is particularly prone to descend when they are lonely; guilt thrives on isolation (just as it is love that may disperse it). 

When the mood reaches a pitch, the sufferer may fantasise about going to a police station and handing themselves in. There could be such relief in finally being able to tell the officials: I am awful, I am guilty, I have done so many wrong things… 

One could be put into handcuffs and led to the cells and there, finally, gain some relief from the awful tension. 

Needless to say, there will be no such benefit in reality; the only way to cure the guilt is to unpick its origins, that is, to realise that we are not bad at all, rather that we have been bullied without justice. 

We need — at last — to exchange self-flagellation for anger.

Latest Articles

Self-Archaeology

Self-Knowledge

Self-Archaeology

The most fundamental idea at the heart of modern psychotherapy is that in order to heal ourselves from our neuroses…
View
On Projection

Self-Knowledge

On Projection

One of the most continuously fascinating ideas in psychotherapy is the concept of projection. What this means, simply put, is…
View
The Upsides of Being Ill

Self-Knowledge

The Upsides of Being Ill

It sounds really strange to speak of the upsides of being ill. Surely there are only downsides? But rather than…
View
On Being ‘Triggered’

Calm

On Being ‘Triggered’

The phenomenon of being ‘triggered’ — though it may, at times, be applied too liberally — sits on top of…
View

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.

In certain moods, the founding principle of modern psychotherapy — that it is all to do with one’s childhood — can sound especially irritating. Why should we be forever tied to things that happened infinitely long ago? One hardly ever sees one’s mother now and dad might have died twenty years ago. And anyway, aren’t genetics more important?

Nevertheless, the maddening idea refuses to go away as we’d love it to. There is too much — in the end — that keeps backing it up. Our characters appear to be miserably determined by dynamics that unfolded within the family circle before our fifteenth birthdays. 

Photo by Thanh Tran on Unsplash

We can accept well enough that we once learnt to speak an entire language around our families: tens of thousands of words, hundreds of declensions and a host of complex rules of syntax were all picked up while we played in the garden or drew sunflowers in the kitchen. It should — by extension — be no more implausible that we simultaneously learnt an entire emotional language (that is now as much part our nature as our native tongue): a language about how to express love, what we can expect of men and women, the declensions of desire — and what the rules are around happiness.

We need to think about our families a lot — not necessarily because we like or miss them. It’s the opposite; we need to reflect on them in order to get over them. We should be unembarrassed about our search for the details of how our particular family — like all families — was, and has rendered us, mad.

We may feel that it is a uniquely Western neurosis, especially one afflicting people who have spent too long in therapy, to go on about one’s parents and their contribution to one’s unhappiness — to be twenty-five or sixty-two and still turning over in one’s mind (often while sobbing) how ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’ have been responsible for spoiling one’s relationships or ruined one’s life.

But lest we be overly struck or appalled by this approach, we should keep in mind that every society, whatever its level of development, appears to entertain extremely elaborate and ongoing thoughts about its ancestors and their powerful impact on the lives of the living. From Cambodia to Peru, Papua New Guinea to Burkina Faso, the patterns are the same: one’s parents or relatives die and one then has to handle their ghosts or spirits with immense care — because the dead are known to have powers to cause grave mischief. They may unleash guilt, they can destroy sex for us, they may put a curse on our ambitions at work, they can cause us insomnia or chronic stomach pains. Much time and energy therefore has to be spent managing their memories, which might involve bringing them presents, honouring them with cakes or songs — or, if all else fails and their characters are too mean and far gone, actively trying to drive them away into the nether world.

In Madagascar, in the ceremony of Famadihana, every year the dead have to be unburied and are invited to a big party in the village, where their relatives sacrifice oxen and dance with their corpses above their heads — in the hope that these ever more mouldy cadavers will rest easily in the months to come.

Famadihana reburial ceremony in Madagascar

Quite what one might have to do to keep an ancestor from ruining one’s life may change from society to society but the underlying feeling that one must try something is universal. One might have to disinter them and treat them to a dance, or one might need to lie on a couch and analyse their hold on one’s psyche through free association. But the idea is fundamentally the same. The spirits of the past have the power to throttle the present. The headaches or the impotence, the paranoia or the bad marriage have to do with ghosts. Mummy and daddy are everywhere, doing unholy things – and the wise pay them enough attention to loosen their punitive grip and get on with their lives.


Part of why it is so hard to understand ourselves is that people are constantly doing things to us that defy the common-sense of view of how human beings might plausibly behave around people they claim to care about. We expect that those who might carry the title of mum or dad or husband or wife would, unless they had very clear reasons to do otherwise, show us kindness. And yet the brutal reality (which we must take on board for our own sanity) is that humans are frequently beset by feelings that are so intolerable and difficult, they develop urges to pass them on to others in a version of emotional pass the parcel. 

Put another way, humans can end up being cruel, not for money or territory, but in the hope of alleviating their own sufferings by making someone near them suffer in their stead. Cruelty is at heart an attempt to make ourselves feel better by doing to someone else a version of what was done to us. 

Amidst the seeming normality of family life, people will hence inject someone else (a spouse, a child) with a poison — an ill will, a contempt, a hostility — which they then deny ever having put into their bloodstream and which the victim themselves can’t clearly detect, so invested are they in thinking well of those around them.

A mother might, for example, inject her daughter with a poison that ‘says’: ‘Don’t ever succeed in your life; it would make me feel too bad about myself.’ Or a father will inject his son with poison whose meaning is: ‘I want you to fail in your career to alleviate my sense of disappointment.’ Or a spouse will inject their partner with a poison that carries the meaning: ‘I will constantly but very subtly disrespect your intelligence and your sexuality to lessen the feelings of rage and powerlessness I experienced when I was little.’

Such injections wouldn’t work if they were noticed, so enormous energy goes into the cover-up. It’s debatable how much the injector even understands what they are up to; they are more ‘driven’ to act than cleanly aware of how or why they are doing so.

A big part of self-knowledge means realising that those we love and have trusted may have put some hugely damaging ideas inside us that need to be identified and corrected to help us to attain the freedom and light-heartedness we crave and deserve.

One of the saddest and most puzzling phenomena of psychological life are the incidents commonly known as ‘breakdowns’, in which people find themselves suddenly unable to carry out their normal duties – and fall silent, take to bed and cannot stop crying.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

It can look mysterious from the outside, but what is almost always happening is an attempt to untie a lie that someone else has surreptitiously knotted into our lives. Beneath the breakdown, a long-repressed truth is trying to break through layers of deception. A person is unable to function ‘normally’ because ‘normality’ has grown riddled with something incoherent, mean and impossible. The breakdown is a logical bid for health and truth masquerading as an illness.

What has made us ill tends to be a variety of perverse injunctions under which those we trusted may have made us live, for example: I’m ostensibly asking you to succeed – but I won’t love you if you do. Or: You must fail – in order that I can bear my disappointments. Or: You must feel terrible about yourself – to shore up my sense of worth.  Or: Worry all the time – so that I can be carefree.  Or: You can never be happy – for it would make me too sad.

We have probably been trying to make sense of these paradoxical messages for a long time, but now, rightly so, we can’t take it any more. We are compelled to untangle the perverse position we have been placed in. Our illness acts as our conscience; it won’t let up until we have figured out the truth; it can’t tell us the truth by itself, but it is urging us to make the effort to find it out. The twitching, paranoia or despair are there to keep us honest. The illness’s contract with us is: understand me, and I will leave you alone; ignore me, and I will upset normality to prevent you from deceiving yourself any longer. Illness is the midwife of truth.

The fortunate ones among us manage to decode the riddle. We begin to get a sense of who may have aggressed us – and how odd and sad it is that they should have done so (not least, because they might be our parent or our spouse). We have fallen ill because we have been victims of a cruelty which we needed the cover of ‘madness’ to be able to look at. We aren’t really ill at all — we may be closer to sanity than we have ever dared to be.

There is a kind of person who seems at first glance to have an admirable degree of self-motivation, thoroughness and drive. They are up at dawn, they rarely take holidays, they are always sneaking in an extra hour or two of work. Their bosses are highly impressed, they are constantly promoted, their grades have been excellent since primary school, they never miss an appointment or turn in a piece of work that is less than stellar.

We like to say that such a person has high standards; we might even anoint them with the term ‘perfectionist’. It might seem churlish to locate any problems here. Why complain about a somewhat overzealous devotion to perfection in a troubled and lackadaisical world? There could surely be nothing too awful about high exactitude? What could be so imperfect about perfectionism?

The concern is not so much with the work of the perfectionist (its recipients are in a privileged position) as with the state of their soul. Perfectionism, tragically, does not spring primarily from a love of perfection in and of itself. It has its origins in far more regrettable feeling of never being good enough. It is rooted in self-hatred, sparked by memories of being disapproved of or neglected by those who should have esteemed us warmly in childhood.

We become perfectionists from a primary sense of being unworthy; uninteresting, flawed, a disappointment, a let-down, a nuisance. So powerful is this sense, so appalling is its pressure on our psyches, we are prepared to do more or less anything to expunge it. Working all hours, currying favour with authority, doing twice as much as the next person – these are the tools with which we seek to cleanse our apparently undeserving selves.

One part of the mind promises the other that the completion of the next challenge will finally usher in peace. We can be good at pretending that our ambitions are sane, but our work has a Sisyphean dimension: no sooner have we rolled our working boulder up the hill then it will tumble back down again. There will never be a point of rest or a lasting feeling of completion. In truth, we are ill rather than driven.

We aren’t interested in perfect work at all: we are trying to escape from a feeling of being awful people, and work simply happens to be the medium through which we strive to grow tolerable in our own eyes. But because our problem didn’t begin with work, work can never prove the solution.

Our real goal is not, as we think, to be an ideal employee or professional, it is to feel acceptable. But responsibility for a sense of acceptance cannot be handed over to our bosses or customers or a ceaselessly demanding capitalist system; these will never let us rest easy because it is in their nature, with no evil intent, always to demand more.

We need to shift our sense of where our drive is coming from. We are not unnaturally interested in working perfectly, we are labouring under an unusually intense impression that we are dreadful people – a problem for which working harder cannot be the answer.

We need to allow ourselves to imagine that we deserved to be accepted from the start and that it cannot forever be our fault in our minds that we were not. It is not up to us to try to prove that we have a right to exist. It is asking too much of ourselves to have to experience a referendum on our legitimacy every time we hand in a report, every exam we have to pass, every customer we have to serve. Working well is an admirable goal, but it becomes a symptom of mental perturbation when it becomes the cover for a secret aspiration to correct a deficit of early love. We should welcome an ability to tolerate periods of laziness, not because we are congenitally idle, but because it is a sign that we have learnt to speak more kindly to ourselves and to be appropriately angry with those who could not at the outset accept us for who we were without a surfeit of trophies and prizes.