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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

Why We Need to Go Back to Emotional School

A way to think about many of us who suffer from difficult psychological symptoms — low self-esteem, panic attacks, depression — is that we are, in certain ways, the victims of an arrested emotional education. There were particular lessons — about sanity, hope or self-love — that we were denied and cruelly missed out on along the way, and whose absence explains our present difficulties. We are not unwell as a result of some obscure biological quirk; we’re ailing because we didn’t learn certain things when we might have done. Not hard subjects, like Maths or French, but soft, essential, life-giving subjects…like faith and steadiness, self-love and self-reliance. 

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

In effect, traumas take us out of ‘school’ and cut us off from themes essential to sound emotional growth. When we needed to start on the ‘self-esteem’ module (we might have been six months old), the ‘teacher’ (who was probably also our parent) might have started to humiliate us and turned their attention to a sibling instead, and so ensured that we would never understand anything much about how to bear our own being. Or else, as we were embarking at the age of three on the subject known as ‘Staying Calm in Challenging Circumstances,’ we might have witnessed our ‘teachers’ losing their tempers and sliding into violence and alcoholism. We skipped the class and moved on to the rest of our lives with a central bit of knowledge missing — leading us, perhaps, to years of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders or self-harm.

Unfortunately for us, missing emotional lessons tend not to signal their absence very clearly. It can take an extremely long time to realise that we are even lacking. Our maladjustments become second nature. 

We should — to save ourselves — seek out what we could term ‘remedial lessons.’

The world is well set up for remedial lessons in many subjects. There’s no end of clever people who offer to help us to relearn, as adults, how to spell properly or do maths successfully.

But there are entire schools missing when it comes to emotional subjects. Where can we go to learn self-belief? Where is the art of learning to like ourselves taught? How can someone fill us in on the missing module on serenity or love? What would lessons in these subjects even look like?

We are at the dawn of grappling with such odd-sounding questions — but raising the topic may at least help us to feel creative in our search for solutions. 

Some forms of remedial work can be found in fifty minute sessions with psychotherapists. But this by no means exhausts our requirements. In the future, we can imagine responses that are more in-depth, perhaps residential, that make use of our bodies, and that have involve us returning to aspects of childhood. We got ill long ago and so it is logical to think that getting better will require us to go back many stages to relearn some basic elements — the sort that are naturally taught to children between zero and ten in functioning families. We might, as middle aged people, have to repair to learning environments that owe quite a lot the atmosphere of the nursery. Perhaps a ‘class’ would mean going to a dimly lit, warm, soft environment in the company of people who were extremely kind, loving, generous and undemanding, a little like an ideal family might be around a toddler. The classes might need to go on for a number of years until strength and courage could gradually build up (if it takes us six or so years to learn French, learning self-esteem or courage might be no less speedy to acquire). 

While society finds its way to such classes, we can ask ourselves questions:

— What sort of lessons do my symptoms indicate I missed out on?

— What sort of remedial measures might I respond to and crave? (we should be wild and free in our responses. Perhaps we need to play with crayons or drums or stay in bed for a year; as people do after car crashes — emotional accidents deserving no less compassion and care).

Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

Trauma is a form of interrupted learning. We should do our utmost to understand what lessons our symptoms indicate we have not benefited from and show stubbornness and ingenuity in correcting what we have been denied.

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