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Calm • Perspective
The Catastrophe You Fear Will Happen has Already Happened
Many of us are daily tortured by a feeling of imminent catastrophe. Something terrible seems about to happen to us:
– We’re going to be abandoned
– We’re going to be shamed and humiliated
– We’re going to be publicly mocked
– We’re going to lose physical control over ourselves
– We’re going to be seen as a loser, weirdo or monster
The fear of such imminent catastrophes leads to a state of hypervigilance: where we are permanently on the alert, permanently worried, permanently scared, and permanently really very unhappy.
People may try to reassure us, but reassurance goes nowhere; the terror remains.
One way to break the deadlock is to reflect on one of the most telling phrase in all of modern psychotherapy, uttered by the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: ‘The catastrophe you fear will happen has already happened.’ But, added Winnicott, the catastrophe has been forgotten; and that is what is making us so ill and sick with worry. If the future is to get brighter, we will need to remember the catastrophe and locate it where it really belongs: safely but also poignantly and tragically in the past.
It is strange that we should have forgotten the catastrophe. But that’s the point with trauma; it disappears from memory. It is too painful to be held in active consciousness, to be processed and verbalised – and it therefore gets pushed into the unnameable unknown zones of the mind, where it creates ongoing havoc.
To start to master trauma, we can reverse engineer a picture of what must have happened long ago, in years that we can’t now easily think about; we can take what we fear of the future and picture that a version of this terror actually already unfolded. The best clue to our past lies in our fears of the future.
Imagine filling in a simple table. Start with the left-hand column first: The logic of the exercise dictates that we should, for every entry in the left, be able eventually to think of an entry in the right. Bringing this to the surface is liable to be immensely difficult. One can’t do it on command. It requires time, very relaxed circumstances, perhaps music, a long train or plane journey, a chat with a friend or therapist, a night or two when one stays up very late with a pad and paper and no phone and just thinks while the rest of the world sleeps.
The logic of the exercise dictates that we should, for every entry in the left, be able eventually to think of an entry in the right. Bringing this to the surface is liable to be immensely difficult. One can’t do it on command. It requires time, very relaxed circumstances, perhaps music, a long train or plane journey, a chat with a friend or therapist, a night or two when one stays up very late with a pad and paper and no phone and just thinks while the rest of the world sleeps.
But eventually, some memories are likely to resurface, along with a lot of sadness and (ideally) compassion for oneself. One isn’t about to be revealed as a monster; one was – already – made to feel like a monster. One isn’t about to be abandoned, one was already left…
This doesn’t mean that there is never anything to be afraid of in the present. But we have to draw a distinction between abject terror and fear. There are things to fear in the here and now but there aren’t things to be abjectly terrified of – and for one central reason: because we are adults and it is the privilege of adults to have a basic freedom, agency and independence. We can take action, were bad things to occur to us, in a way that children who were traumatised never could. Life may yet get very tricky for us, but we never need be as terrified of it we were when the original catastrophe occurred.
Most likely, nothing as bad as we have feared will ever occur, not because we are lucky but because we were very unlucky in the past – and it is this bad luck, rather than something in the real world, that is leading us to be so unjustly and so cruelly afraid of living today. With sufficient exploration of the past, the terror of what is ahead could – just – be relocated to the category of historic trauma where it truly and cathartically belongs.