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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

Knowing Things Intellectually vs. Knowing Them Emotionally

Knowing our own minds is difficult at the best of times. It is extraordinarily hard to secure even basic insights into our characters and motivations – of a kind that we hope can free us from some of the neuroses and compulsions that spoil so much of our lives. It is therefore especially humbling and at moments truly dispiriting to realise that dispelling ignorance of our psyches with knowledge isn’t going to be enough by itself. Or rather, we stand to realise that there is going to need to be a further and yet more arduous distinction to observe between knowing something about ourselves intellectually and knowing about it emotionally.

We might, for example, come to an intellectual understanding that we are timid around figures of authority because our father was a remote and distant figure who didn’t give us some of the support and love we needed to tolerate ourselves. Assembling this insight into our characters might be the work of many years and, having reached it, we could reasonably expect that our problems with timidity and authority would then abate.

But the mind’s knots are sadly not so simple to unpick. An intellectual understanding of the past, though not wrong, won’t by itself be effective in the sense of being able to release us from the true intensity of our neurotic symptoms. For this, we have to edge our way towards a far more close-up, detailed, visceral appreciation of where we have come from and what we have suffered. We need to strive for what we can call an emotional understanding of the past – as opposed to a top-down, abbreviated intellectual one.

We will have to re-experience at a novelistic level of detail a whole set of scenes from our early life in which our problems around fathers and authority were formed. We will need to let our imaginations wonder back to certain moments that have been too unbearable to keep alive in a three-dimensional form in our active memories (the mind liking, unless actively prompted, to reduce most of what we’ve been through to headings rather than the full story, a document which it shelves in remote locations of the inner library). We need not only to know that we had a difficult relationship with our father, we need to relive the sorrow as if it were happening to us today. We need to be back in his book lined study when we would have been not more than six; we need to remember the light coming in from the garden, the corduroy trousers we were wearing, the sound of our father’s voice as it reached its pitch of heightened anxiety, the rage he flew into because we had not met his expectations, the tears that ran down our cheeks, the shouting that followed us as we ran out into the corridor, the feeling that we wanted to die and that everything good was destroyed. We need the novel, not the essay.

Psychotherapy has long recognised this distinction. It knows that thinking is hugely important – but on its own, within the therapeutic process itself, it is not the key to fixing our psychological problems. It insists on a crucial difference between broadly recognising that we were shy as a child and re-experiencing, in its full intensity, what it was like to feel cowed, ignored and in constant danger of being rebuffed or mocked; the difference between knowing, in an abstract way, that our mother wasn’t much focused on us when we were little and reconnecting with the desolate feelings we had when we tried to share certain of our needs with her.

Therapy builds on the idea of a return to live feelings. It’s only when we’re properly in touch with feelings that we can correct them with the help of our more mature faculties – and thereby address the real troubles of our adult lives.  

Oddly (and interestingly) this means intellectual people can have a particularly tricky time in therapy. They get interested in the ideas. But they don’t so easily recreate and exhibit the pains and distresses of their earlier, less sophisticated selves, though it’s actually these parts of who we all are that need to be encountered, listened to and – perhaps for the first time – comforted and reassured.

We need, to get fully better, to go back in time, perhaps every week or so for a few years, and deeply relive what it was like to be us at five and nine and fifteen – and allow ourselves to weep and be terrified and furious in accordance with the reality of the situation. And it is on the basis of this kind of hard-won emotional knowledge, not its more painless intellectual kind, that we may one day, with a fair wind, discover a measure of relief from some of the troubles within.

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