The Other Me

A student came to see me this week who was in all kinds of trouble, without being aware in any way that the trouble lay completely within her own mind. The more she spoke, the more obvious it became that she was in the grip of a harsh inner critic, who was triumphantly bulldozing through her fragile sense of self. She could not work, or at least what she produced was terrible, dreadful (I had one of her essays before me; it wasn’t great but it wasn’t that bad, either). She could not work in her room, but she could not work in the library. Ideally she would work with a friend but there were no friends who would work with her. No, she could not approach any of her supervisors, they all hated her now, due to her inability to hand work in on time. She effortlessly blindsided my suggestions for improving her essays; she had tried them all before (she was a first year student at the beginning of her second term!). And her religion meant that she lost one whole day out of the week.

‘There are six others,’ I said, mildly.

She replied with an eloquent shrug.

‘It takes me days to get the reading done. I’m such a slow reader! And then, it takes me even longer to write an essay. Other people can do it in a couple of hours. I need four or five days and even then it’s rubbish.’

‘Well of course it takes you days if every sentence you write is subject to that harsh inner critic in your head,’ I exclaimed. ‘I wouldn’t want to put a sentence in front of it.’

But she could not see it. It was like watching someone who had been taken hostage, or was in the grips of that old-style demonic possession. I daresay, though, that if I had managed to get her to a place where she could recount her experience of herself, it would have been completely different to the one I had of her. There are certain states of mind, usually extremely emotional ones – childish rage and outrage, apathy, consuming distress, where we are more visible to other people than we are to ourselves, because these are the places where, under pressure, the social veneer falls away, and our other self comes to the fore, the unusually fearful, vulnerable or angry parts, which we generally call the unconscious.

People can get very tetchy if you talk to them about their unconscious motivations and desires. Understandably, because it’s not nice to think that in stressful moments the audience gets a clear view of all the ugly bits we’d rather keep hidden. Plus everyone gets fed up and frustrated by the way we all end up repeating situations we dislike, or refusing to do what we know is good for us, or reacting in excessive and illogical ways; it can feel impolite and intrusive to have it pointed out. And then again, the unconscious is precisely that which is beyond our control – so why bother talking about it? This is at the crux of the issue, though: the unconscious works to keep us innocent. My student couldn’t possibly blame herself for being her own worst enemy because she genuinely had no idea she was doing it.

But to see the unconscious as something we just want to hide away, something purely bad and self-denigrating would be to miss the point of our session. What mattered to the unconscious part of my student was not that I should offer facile solutions to her problems but that I should see her overwhelming distress and misery, her sense of imprisonment, her terror of failure. Those powerful emotions were standing on guard at the gates of some unresolved but potent grief, some sense of intolerable insufficiency that had been triggered by the ostensibly minor tragedy of writing a few essays and not feeling very good about them. My student needed rescuing, not advising, and unfortunately, given that I have a deal with college that I will not mess with the student’s minds (for very good reasons), I was not really the person to do that for her.

We tend to think of the unconscious as the repository of bad stuff, and it is certainly at bad moments that we get the clearest view of it, but in fact the unconscious is simply full of masses and masses of stuff. I’ve been reading a fascinating book on the subject, The Infinite Question by Christopher Bollas. You don’t have to get all Sturm und Drang to see what the unconscious is doing or to access the shadowy side of the self. Bollas suggests that the royal route to the unconscious is simply to recount an event with plenty of detail. The internal selection mechanism that chooses some details rather than others, that lingers on, or returns restlessly to, some parts of an anecdote is a handmaid to the unconscious. When I first thought about this, I felt convinced it was true, because it struck me there were two groups who already knew this intuitively: adolescents and writers. The adolescent who answers the questions ‘Where did you go?’, ‘What did you do?’ and ‘Who were you with?’ with the answers ‘Nowhere special’, ‘Nothing much’ and ‘The usual people’ is doing a brilliant job at protecting their tender selves from any kind of unwilling revelation. Novices of their social veneer, they have to shut their loving parents out of everything to be assured they are not showing anything that will unwittingly give them away. Writers, by contrast, want their imagined worlds to be seen, felt, experienced as fully and intriguingly as possible; they know that the right detail at the right moment sends the reader spinning down a track of myriad associations and feelings.  Details in a novel are always so much more than just details; they are packed out with the kind of unexpressed knowledge that the unconscious specializes in.

Unexpressed knowledge, the unthought known: this is where my interest in Christopher Bollas’s work started, and the concept that leads him naturally to the unconscious and its primary role in our mental lives:
‘The unthought known is a form of knowledge that we contain based on our earliest experiences of the object world. Early meanings in human life, whether traumatic or generative, cannot be thought. The meaning of what we learn as infants, toddlers and small children is stored within us in various forms – as images, as paradigms that govern our assumptions, as moods that are part of the orchestral effect of our character. […] the child is too young to bear the emotions of powerful events and the thinking of all early life is deferred. Only later in life – in a kind of second coming – will stored affect be registered, often by attaching itself to a minor life experience.’

Bollas argues that what is known this way but not yet thought has a pressing need to be mastered and understood. Hence the unconscious is stubborn and insistent; the same problems crop up time and again, the same patterns assert themselves, demanding to be explored. The more we resist, the more likely we are to put ourselves back in difficult situations we long to avoid, when they contain a structure or a problem that causes us unconscious internal pressure. This is why Bollas suggests that ‘people are driven to work unconsciously, to seek realizations, insights and, above all, psychological change. […] Although we shall always resist certain recognitions, no resistance can outlast the dense power of the quest for knowledge.’ This is not, I should add, simply about the return of repressed memories of trauma or abuse. We all have unconscious data that requires processing, regardless of the kind of childhood that we had, because we were all once children, stranded in a world where we knew nothing in a momentous and threatening and even hopeful way. What comes out of that configuration lasts us a lifetime, because the need to understand is never fully assuaged, nor do we reach an end of problems and challenges. We cannot find the cure for life, as it were, only continue to puzzle away at its more pressing questions.

Which is why my student will continue to turn up at doors, whether mine or other potential rescuers, driven there by despair and bewilderment, until such time as she finds the courage and the context in which to deal with her other, uncomprehending, self.


20 thoughts on “The Other Me

  1. A great post. As an occupational psychologist, this form of total paralysis in the face of a form of perfectionism is something I’ve seen in lots of people – usually people find some way of forcing themselves through it but that takes massive energy and usually doesn’t end up with the kind of results they (and others) know they could achieve. And is a form of resisting as discussed above. In the process they feel terrible (and ashamed) – and are gripped by an irresistible urge to procrastinate further. A real vicious circle. I guess that being at high status university is a real trigger for this kind of thing if people such as your student are (harshly and unfavourably) comparing themselves with their peers. Probably very common though not talked about much.

    A couple of books that can help with this are “The Compassionate Mind” by Paul Gilbert, and “Mindset” by Carol Dweck, and also good approaches through mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. But if often needs real contact with skilled people too to encourage new ways of thinking – those harsh inner critics can have VERY persistent voices. And yes – it takes real courage to turn around and face them.

    Very thought provoking – and I hope your student finds that courage to seek help from the psychological services that I would very much hope are available to her.

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  3. Great post! Classic Litlove. I love this line: ‘People can get very tetchy if you talk to them about their unconscious motivations and desires.’ And then this one from Bollas: ‘Although we shall always resist certain recognitions, no resistance can outlast the dense power of the quest for knowledge.’ I’ve experienced this myself and seen it in people around me and it is so joyous and freeing when it finally happens. Resistance is futile! Hope your student comes through.

  4. You’ve got me very curious about the Bollas book, I’ll see if my library has a copy. I like this idea of the unknown thought and how you’ve associated it with how writers select detail. Thanks, Litlove.

  5. Great post, and boy are you compassionate!

    I wrote my second NF book this year and, for the first time in my life — after 30 years as a fully confident journalist and author — could not even approach the computer after some harsh words from my editor. I avoided writing for many long months as I could not imagine being able to give what she needed, and demanded. Then I was asked to revise the “final” draft even further, 10 of 12 chapters. Talk about self-doubt!

    I did it. Readers are loving it. But I had to turn to fellow writers, a first for me as well in this respect, for some compassion and spine-stiffening. It can be much more frightening than anyone can imagine to face your fears about your own writing/thinking abilities.

  6. Such a thoughtful essay. I love this line: “We cannot find the cure for life, as it were, only continue to puzzle away at its more pressing questions.” I also think the contrast (and comparison) of teenagers and writers is brilliant.

  7. Beautiful.

    It’s hard, hard, hard! to get through to anyone at this age, about these big things … their brains aren’t fully developed, and they are still so close to that secretive shadowland of adolescence. But later in life, she will remember you. I remember the people who cared enough to try to get through to me at that time of my life. Although I wouldn’t let them, the truth they tried to tell me bolstered me up later.

  8. Your poor student! Hopefully she is able to figure things out and get the psychological help she needs. I have a coworker who just turned 30 last year and ever since has been going through an existential crisis. She hates her work, she hates her life, she doesn’t know what she wants to do and somehow thinks that finding a husband and having children will solve everything but she doesn’t want to date because it’s too much effort. It’s a sad thing to listen to her talk herself around in circles and get absolutely nowhere.

  9. How challenging it must be to see students struggle in this way, and to be able to help them only so much! I’m sure you do help them a lot, but since you’re not their therapist, there’s a limit to your role. I love your portrayal of adolescents worrying about betraying themselves. Oh, do I remember those days!

  10. I love my subconscious! Yes, it is frequently unkind, but also frequently, it sends me really good dreams with nifty symbols. (I am always sad when people tell me their dreams, and their dreams very obviously say something in particular, like “I resent my father” or “I am nervous with girls”, and they don’t realize they’re saying that to me. If only they would pause for reflection, I think they would realize their dreams were super-revealing.)

  11. Ohhhh, Litlove, I really needed to read this today. I too have a harsh inner critic and it can be really, really hard just to ignore them (because don’t they have a point? Don’t you know they’re at least partially correct?) and crank out work that might not be magnificent, just for the sake of getting past whatever set off the HIC. Today I have a set of 8 little paintings staring at me from under a coat of matte medium. They are all ready to be painted but I am afraid I’ll mess them up, and haven’t even opened the new brushes. (YOU KNOW YOU AREN’T A VERY GOOD PAINTER! says the critic) Thanks for reminding me to get over myself.

  12. That poor child. Those tapes of self-doubt constantly playing in her head…thank goodness she has you to talk to. I remember a long time ago someone said something to me along the lines of my being beautiful (Litlove, I’m just repeating what was said, and not that I agreed – I promise), and I said, “No one ever told me that before.” “Well, that’s because everyone thinks you already know,” came the reply. I didn’t know any such thing and never did know it. All I saw were the flaws. We waste so much of life. So sad.

  13. A terrific post if I may say so, as one who can suffer from such swirling doubts myself. I think your teenagers comment is spot on, and of course it is an aspect in some teenagers’ refusals to enter classroom discussions, which can open them to being ‘recognised’ too.

  14. I really liked this post litlove. I often gain a new understanding of myself and others when I read your blog. My harsh inner critic has been quite relentless for the past six months or so, caused mostly by pushing myself through it during the first semester of last year. I particularly liked the sentences: “Although we shall always resist certain recognitions, no resistance can outlast the dense power of the quest for knowledge” and “We cannot find the cure for life, as it were, only continue to puzzle away at its more pressing questions”.

  15. Dear LL – You must never leave your job (OK, an overstatement perhaps but for emphasis! How important it is for the students, from the troubled to the triumphant, to visit you. (I am sure you see triumph, too, right?)

    I am curious about the Bolla book, and as always, know I need to stretch my wings in terms of my reading and understanding, the latter being the important issue. Funny, I had my hand on a book yesterday called WHY WE MAKE MISTAKES and it related to our unconscious decisions, even separately as men and women, that leads to mistakes and oversights.

    It’s good to know the “why” of things.
    It’s even better to learn it here, where you’ve found something to share that otherwise I might not see or hear about.

    That being said, without curling up with something insightful, I will proceed to the bank, the cleaners and the grocery store. Ah, but the promise of something fine to read dangles for mid-afternoon,perhaps.

  16. I’m reading a book by Brené Brown at the moment called The Gifts of Imperfection. I truly like it and would have been glad to know it when I was much younger. Brown is a specialist in shame research. She shows very well how perfectionism and feelings of shame are linked. As the book I am reading at present is aslo labelled self-help, a category I am afraid many people feel uncomfortable with I wasn’t too sure if I should review it… Reading your post I think, I should. Maybe someone who could profit from Brené Brown’s work will read it. I admire her openness and honesty.

  17. Sarah – I should have given her the link to your blog, I think! You describe the process exactly right – it takes huge energy to overcome those harsh inner voices, and often whether the student does or doesn’t a great deal of shame and self-blame take place. We have loads of resources here for our students in trouble, but of course, part of the culture is not admitting to being in trouble, so that makes things difficult at times. This student in particular is expressing much pain but refusing all possible avenues of help – but the nurse and I are hatching a plan, so hopefully we’ll find a way forward.

    Charlotte – it’s amazing that something so life-enhancing should be something we resist like mad. And yet, we do! The resistance to change and enlightenment is phenomenal, and I say this as someone who knows from experience!

    Michelle – I can thoroughly recommend Bollas. I might start with The Unthought Known, or The Mystery of Things.

    Jodie – I adore psychobabble, always have, always will.

    broadsideblog – I think this is SO true. It is incredibly hard to face criticism of one’s work over and over again. It’s deadening to creative faculties that just want to play, and damaging, potentially, to self-esteem. I think turning to a network of friends (even better if they’ve been through it too) is an excellent idea. Solidarity is the way forward in so many of life’s tough situations.

    Lilian – thank you! Students and their vagaries, with a sideline to adolescence, seems to be my thing, these days!

    David – that’s really encouraging. I often read things about the time of teaching – which is to say the fact that teaching can often take place a long time after the encounter between student and teacher. I’ve got to hope that’s true.

    Stefanie – oh the going around in circles is so hard – it’s maddening to listen to, and hardly satisfactory to the person doing it. But it’s the effect of secondary emotion – the emotion that gets used to cover up what’s really at stake. When people get repetitive or stuck, you know that’s the secondary, protective emotion, because the primary emotion provokes real change. But real change is scary and so… out comes the self-pity or the defeatist attitude or melancholy or whatever it might be. Good luck to your colleague too. Here’s hoping her prince will just turn up regardless.

    Dorothy – it seems to take all my ingenuity to figure out how I can help them without intervening in ways I’m not allowed! And the results are mixed, but still… I guess it’s always useful to have a go. I think I relate to students well because at heart I’m still an adolescent, trying to cover up what I’m feeling! 🙂

  18. Jenny – well there you go, that’s exactly the power of the unconscious. Standing on the outside, you can see perfectly well what the symbolism means, but to the person concerned, it’s opaque. Always makes me wonder what I am revealing without intending to!

    Ella – ah it’s yourself you need to tap into and love, and the HIC, who thinks it’s doing a useful service needs to be thanked and then told to go elsewhere. The HIC wins because it always plays to the real seed of doubt (isn’t the work of other people better?) but there’s a big difference between being right and being helpful. As you so rightly say, getting anything down on paper is the start, drafts and revisions exist for an excellent reason. And besides, I KNOW you are an excellent artist, so your HIC can put that in its pipe and smoke it.

    Grad – there are some things feminism has never managed to change – excessive humility, putting ourselves down, self-hatred, all variations on a bad theme that we have never permitted ourselves to let go of. It’s still considered bad form for a woman to be sure of herself, of her attributes and qualities in a straightforward way. We look much more lovable, so we think, when we diminish ourselves. I am quite sure you were, and still are, beautiful.

    Bookboxed – absoluted! Although I feel for teenage boys who, at times, don’t even know what pitch their voice is going to come out at when they open their mouths! I am no stranger to the swirling doubt myself, and cannot profess to have fixed it. Living with it productively is perhaps the best we can do. Thank you for the lovely comment!

    Naomi – there’s nothing like pushing to wake up the inner critic. Any kind of strain or effort reminds us that we are not sailing through in a natural state of being, and invites reprimands or judgments. And it is SO tough being a student these days, so many pressures from all sides. Do tell the critic to take a hike, though, and disengage from that judgment. Learning is hard enough as it is, without those voices making it worse! And thank you for the lovely comment – I am always so pleased if someone has got something out of one of my posts.

    Oh – we make mistakes because they are incredibly useful, and really the only way we properly learn. That being said, I hate making them myself and give myself an extremely hard time when I do! So I know lots of stuff theoretically, and it’s the application that’s the trouble. I think getting all the household management stuff done sounds extremely pragmatic and valuable and well worth a big pat on the back afterwards. I hope you gave yourself a reward with more than just good reading… 🙂

    Caroline – I just looked that book up and it sounds really good. I may well order it or see if I can get it at the library. I love writing about self-development and have always been fascinated by the literature on it. No matter how people look from the outside, we’re all a bundle of uncertainties inside, and the more we can encourage ourselves to be compassionate and sympathetic, the better.

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