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Self-Knowledge: Melancholy


Why Do Bad Things Always Happen to Me?

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Much is constantly happening that annoys us. Trains pull out of platforms as we approach them; taps snap off their moorings; shopping bags leak; suppliers go bankrupt; colleagues resign; cars break down. It is all — undoubtedly — maddening. But the question is how much does it all, beneath the surface, have to feel intentional as well?

For a certain kind of personality, it is very hard to hold on to the idea that many troubles might come down to something as innocent as chance. It simply seems implausible that awful things might repeatedly unfold, at terribly inopportune moments, without some kind of malevolent intent being involved. It can’t be just an accident that the dinner order went missing, or that the cinema seat was double booked, or that the phone’s battery has died. Why did their dry cleaning — and no one else’s — end up being stolen and their new shoes spring a leak? Why is there a strange smell just next to where they are seated on the plane? How come there is a small beetle in their salad? 

It’s as though someone is trailing them, undermining them, laying traps for them – and laughing at them. It seems like there is some kind of conspiracy to make them look like a cretin to the world (why else have they been walking around all day with a sticker on the back of their coat and why does their zip jam exactly ten minutes before an important dinner?). No wonder they may get very cross indeed.

The sad and touching truth is that there is – of course – almost never any conspiracy at play. But that it strongly feels like there is one on the inside tells us a lot about the origins of paranoic hypersensitivity: it is the bitter fruit of self-hatred

When we heartily dislike ourselves, it is only natural to have the impression that the world is ridiculing us in turn. The hotel concierge knows exactly how awful we are; that’s why they’ve given us the room with the malfunctioning air-conditioning unit. The waiter has deep experience of our revoltingness; that’s why they chose our trousers on which to drop a piece of butter. The phone company knows that we are an idiot (and that we think dreadful things); that’s why they’ve made sure our mobile would give out on the second day of our trip.

We need to be given the chance to see that our suspicious natures are a symptom of a self-hatred that owes its origins not to the prevalence of actual plots and schemes, but to childhood dynamics in which we lacked the reassurance, attention and care we deserved – and for this, we deserve immense, ongoing sympathy. The world doesn’t hate us, we have just learnt to have contempt for ourselves which returns to haunt us in the form of imagined plots.

No one is actually laughing at us; we weren’t loved properly and now don’t like ourselves very much. That’s the true outrage for which we should reserve our anger and our self-compassion.

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