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Calm • Perspective

Why Things May Need to Get Worse Before They Can Get Better

Our lives are often less than they could be because we are – strangely – too good at making things just about bearable for ourselves. We are experts at endurance, we are copers, we are masters of self-reliance. 

Inside, there may be a lot of trouble brewing: intense regret or self-hatred or fear or paranoia. But we are so strong, we don’t allow ourselves to fall, we have built a massive concrete dome over the arduous material within which enables us to lead a semblance of a normal life. We can work hard, we look after a family, we are a good friend – and we have a philosophy that goes with our resilience: we are suspicious of self-exploration, we quickly feel that certain ways of thinking are self-indulgent, we may rather bristle (or sigh) at the thought of psychotherapy. 

We are stuck in a peculiar position: the very things that help us to maintain equilibrium are also holding us back from properly dealing with the troubles inside us. We have become too good at not thinking of certain things at the expense of vital insights and a time of catharsis.

Painting by Giorgione of a storm hovering over in a town, with a man with a staff and a woman feeding a baby in the foreground.
Giorgione, The Tempest, 1506-8

Our skills are not negligible assets; to dismiss us as merely Stoic, as merely repressed, as merely ‘defended’ is to miss just how important our gritty manoeuvres of mind are. At some point in our lives, early on, it was precisely these skills that enabled us to do nothing short of survive. It was because we could get cleanly out of touch with our emotions, it was because we had the capacity not to depend on any one, it was because we could put all our hope, trust and energy into our work rather than our relationships, it was because we learnt to think rather than feel, that we were able to make it to the next stage and not succumb to otherwise intolerable levels of loneliness and fear.

The difficulty is that our defence mechanisms now threaten what remains of life. We have been so good at surviving that we cannot get in a position to thrive. We are buckling because we have no calm way to reduce the tension. We are like a soldier who – many years after the armistice – is still holed up in their bunker, knife and gun at the ready, an expert at combat, when their real priority would be to practise the arts of tenderness, connection, calm and joy.

A slightly paradoxical way out of the problem is for our difficulties to grow to such a pitch that they finally overwhelm our defences and thereby force us to come face to face with the reckoning that we have escaped from for too long. The best way to take the lid off our issues may be for them to boil to such a pitch that the lid blows cleanly away.

To make an analogy with physical illness; perhaps the best thing for a damaged organ whose signs of distress we are overlooking is for these to get so intense, we eventually have no option but to collapse in the doctor’s surgery.

So too our mental recovery may have to wait until the time we no longer know how to cope alone and finally have to look beyond our brilliant array of defences, defences that for so long gave us survival but never life in the true rich sense.

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