An enormous amount of trouble in the world – especially at work and in relationships – is caused by a peculiar phenomenon of our minds: a tendency to grow, as we put it, out of touch with our feelings.
When we first meet this idea, it sounds strange, and even a bit insulting. How could we not know what we are feeling? We look from the outside like unified beings: we carry one name and sit in a compact physical container. The distances between different parts of us aren’t so great. How then could we be so multiple as to have secrets from ourselves?
In part, it’s because there are (at least) two distinct parts to the mind: a feeling self and an observer self. Sometimes, the two are in close communication. Someone asks us what we feel like eating and the message comes back immediately. At other points, the dialogue is trickier. We’re sitting on the sofa at home after a long day at work, and are under the impression that we feel quite calm. But suddenly an apparently minor remark from our partner arouses us to deep irritation. We stand up and start shouting about the unfairness of a host of issues we hadn’t, until just then, been aware we even felt strongly about – and soon we’ve got a crisis on our hands.
Some of the reason why we have such difficulty staying in touch with our feelings is that a great many of these feelings are by their nature deeply humiliating, challenging, strange and unflattering. We have incentives not to know too much about them; they don’t seem to fit into any standard definition of what it means to be normal. We may, for example, feel a searing envy of someone who is meant to be our friend; or we are deeply upset by a slight which would sound utterly minor if we explained it to a third party; or we feel bitter that we haven’t been offered a job most people couldn’t have guessed we would remotely have felt qualified for; or we can’t stop lusting after someone even though we are married and expecting our first child.
At such moments, we don’t just forget to acknowledge our feelings. The dynamic is more active; there are concerted attempts by one part of the mind to shield the other from a highly uncomfortable truth. We go in for a range of behaviours that protect the conscious self from having to confront emotions that flout our notions of goodness, loyalty, integrity and dignity.
It may seem as if this might be a useful strategy, but the cost of our denial is in the long run very steep, for emotions that have not been properly avowed have a pernicious habit of wreaking havoc across our personalities. They may eventually lead to psychological impoverishment, brittleness, physical dysfunctions, a loss of a sense of humour, irritability and facial tics. However arduous it might be, it always seems a good idea try to be honest with oneself.
The journey towards greater candour starts with trying to lay bare some of the perversely ingenious methods that our minds continuously employ to attempt to keep things from us. By being more alert to our strategies of Denial, we can advance towards a wiser, more Honest relationship with ourselves:
KEY STRATEGIES OF DENIAL
It is deeply uncomfortable to want something that one can’t have, so a standard form of denial is to reinvent how much one ever really wanted the elusive element in the first place. We re-evaluate what a thing means to us when it becomes clear it can never be ours. It takes exceptional maturity to hold on to the idea that something might be at once precious and desirable – and yet forever and maddeningly out of reach.
This kind of denial may be familiar from secondary school. Perhaps you were fourteen and entering a new class when you noticed an extraordinary new pupil: taller than you, with grey-green eyes, thick auburn hair and an intelligent, wry smile. They were one of the most charming people you had ever encountered. And also, utterly beyond you. You were pimply and immature. You couldn’t do sports. You weren’t great at languages. Of course, you might have tried to become their friend. You might have shared jokes and chit-chat – but this kind of compromise would have hurt too much. So, to reduce the pain, you became nasty. You started to hate the person you loved. You sought to spoil because you could not have. You became mean where you would, at one level, have wanted to worship. You called them a stuck-up idiot and worse, you organised a group to torment them, one time, you stole their scarf. You escaped your tormented feelings through a denigration that hid not hatred, but at base, a passionate kind of devotion.
The pattern of denigration can extend beyond lovers, it can be manifest in relation to anything we want but lack: jobs, honours, holidays, houses. Imagine that at a barbecue, you meet an entrepreneur who is vastly more successful than you are. They opened a chain of stores across the nation five years ago and are now expanding into online retail over the whole continent. They’re also very friendly and witty. This is miserable. You have always longed to start a business. Your own hesitation is placed into sharp relief by their decisiveness and entrepreneurial courage. It is unbearable. Yet rather than face up to, and perhaps learn from, your envy and the difference between their stature and yours, you attempt to diminish their achievements and character. When you are back home, you imitate their accent (it is a little strangely nasal – but that’s not the point). You do a mocking version of their walk, their habit of talking at length about the Chinese bond market and the way they kept drinking Coke rather than wine or beer. It’s so much easier to pour scorn on what you love than to accept its devastating absence from your life.
Sometimes we mock and slander; at other points, we resort to dryly intellectual speeches against the things we want, arguments that deny any connection with the lower and more visceral emotions that are in fact motivating us beneath the surface. We intellectualise what is intolerably emotional.
Perhaps at the office, you recently sent around a memo headed ‘Recruitment policies for Q4 Sales Team’. In it, you argued in sober prose, with numbered paragraphs, that the company shouldn’t in the future seek to recruit any more recent university graduates – on the grounds that they tended not to meet the expectations of clients. You added some graphs (showing revenue per unit and years of employee entry) to bolster the point. It sounded like sound reasoning, but it was in fact something subtly but very different; a rationalisation.
The need for this kind of high-flown self-deception began the day you first laid eyes on the new recruit, who seemed astonishingly young, enthusiastic, endearing and desirable. The emotions you felt were a piece of madness for a married person in their fifties. The target of your desire was twenty-one, with coltish energy and innocent friendliness. On the second week, they tried to ask you what you had done on the weekend and mentioned they had tried windsurfing for the first time. You responded by being rather stern. With colleagues, you judged their performance in a critical way that seemed (just about) fair; at a committee meeting, you damned them with faint praise. When the CFO asked why you were so down on them, you looked puzzled. You said you were not against them per se, you were just keen to introduce certain new measures into the recruitment process. At the earliest opportunity, you made sure their contract was not renewed.
You came up with a rationalisation which kept you sounding clever and grown up – while, just a few millimetres below consciousness, your real feelings distorted your entire intellectual apparatus.
If vulnerability has been an issue for us, it can be hard to admit to ourselves that we have grown invested in, and dependent upon, someone we do not control – and yet who has acquired – because of our love for them – a complete hold over us. They can hurt us with a small silence. One out of place remark can wound us. We may start to pretend we don’t care, not because we really don’t, but because we care so much – and caring sometimes feels excessively dangerous.
Perhaps after work, we return home and want them to need us. But they are doing something on their phone and don’t stop when we walk in. They barely look up. They say, ‘oh yeah’, in an off-hand way when we recount something about our day. We don’t of course explain how that made us feel. After all, we don’t fully know ourselves (the observer and the feeling selves aren’t in close touch). We just go cold, mentioning that we’ll be away the whole of next week; we head upstairs and remember we have to do something very urgent for our work. This isn’t any sort of well-worked out plot, total indifference is just what washes over us when someone we love lets us down a bit.
At other points, when we are angry, it emerges as bitterness; a roll-call of snide comments, sarcasm and cynicism. We shoot arrows over the parapet rather than explode. Bitterness is anger that forgot where it came from. Perhaps last night, when you moved to touch your partner, they left your hand unattended or just said they were ‘quite tired’. This might have happened a few times before. It seems they are increasingly not in the mood. It’s hardly an easy thing to avow; that your life partner might be starting to find you physically undesirable.
So the next day, you make a comment suggesting they are a little too old for a top like that, another about them being not ‘the sort’ to care about refugees and a third pointing out that there was certainly a lot more laughter than usual around the table at the party they hadn’t been able to make the previous week.
Indifference and bitterness can feel so much easier to produce than admissions of terror and vulnerability.
Denied anger may also mutate into pervasive irritability with a range of minor, diversionary issues.
Perhaps you were overlooked for a promotion at work. A fool three years your junior got it instead. But you prefer not to think about it. You wouldn’t have wanted the extra responsibility any way. You’re fine where you are. You especially like your office and the chance to get off early on Fridays.
However, when your child tips over a whole carton of juice this evening, you shout louder than you remember doing in a long time. And when the drawer with your watch in it fails to open, you start banging on it with a ferocity that scares even you. You don’t know what’s got into you. Then when the airline employee tells you the whole flight is full, not even any standby seats will be coming up, you tear your itinerary, throw it on the floor and storm off saying you’ll be writing to the head of the company. Below the horizon of consciousness, the larger, disavowed pain and humiliation is making itself felt against the small resistant surfaces of a mockingly indifferent world.
When feelings get very tricky indeed, it can be tempting simply to pass them on to someone else. We end up, as psychotherapists put it,projecting the stranger, more unacceptable emotions onto others in the vicinity. Rather than accepting them as our own, we convince ourselves they exist in others only – whom we attack and lambast mercilessly for having them.
Perhaps your partner has started speaking about a party you’ve both been invited to. It’s being thrown by a moderately famous person, who is in an up-and-coming pop group. You’re rather thrilled by this. You’ve always wanted to move in more elevated, prestigious circles than the one you came from. Childhood home was in the suburbs. Weekends were rainy, long and quiet. But at the same time, this is a very troubling idea: you’re committed to democratic egalitarianism, you have a serious job in medicine and the concept of improving your social life sounds old-fashioned, reactionary and politically suspect. It can’t really be you who wants this party; this isn’t who you are.
So sensibly, it seems it must be your partner. This has to be the correct explanation for the excitement in the house before going out. So you mockingly remark to them, as you prepare for the evening, that you really didn’t want to go out and that they have become, it has to be said, a ‘serious social climber’. You have, at last, found the perfect person on whom to land your unacceptable, fervent hopes for the night.
We are all so imperfect and so in need of lessons and learning, we might expect to hear any feedback we are offered with curiosity and gratitude. But to hear details of where we have fallen short of excellence, to get feedback from others we don’t control can be beyond painful. It must, in fact, therefore be that there is nothing very wrong with us to begin with. The fault has to lie with everyone who is cruel enough to find fault with us.
Maybe it’s time for a review at work with your boss; they point out a few things that didn’t go so well: a presentation you gave wasn’t up to the expected standard; your choice of colours for the packaging was unfortunate; a client wasn’t very impressed by the way you handled their account; there’s tension with a particular colleague; and it’s the second quarter in a row when you haven’t met your sales targets (despite you saying last time it was just a blip).
But you have organised your personality in a tightly defensive circle, like a medieval hilltop fortress. This information will not get through your battlements. You arrange for a quick counter-attack. At your annual review, you insist that the presentation was actually fine, the choice of colours was extremely fashionable and in line with what the magazines are showing at the moment, the client is just mean, the colleague is a bully, the missed sales targets are to be expected, given where the economy is as a whole… You leave the review meeting feeling that you should probably quit this job ‘since they don’t appreciate me here’.
Cheeriness is to be distinguished from cheerfulness. Cheerfulness is the fruit of native buoyancy and receptivity to the world’s upsides. Cheeriness is an insistent ‘happiness’ that can tolerate no other mood, that must push away any evidence of sadness and ambivalence.
Your spouse has walked out on the family three days before Christmas. It is devastating. You tried to work at it for three years. It seemed lately that it might just have a chance – but now this… And yet, you insist on keeping going anyway, as if nothing had happened. It will be better for the children, after all. So you bake the cakes, prepare the turkey and arrange the presents. You get quite cross when you catch your little one in tears in the bathroom. Sobbing isn’t allowed now, it’s the season of goodwill and there’ll be a film on later.
When cheery people make art, it ends up being that very unfortunate kind, ‘sentimental’ art, the sort of art that doesn’t allow the darker realities into the picture. Luke Fildes was among the most respected English artists of the late Victorian period, illustrating books by Charles Dickens, painting the coronation of Edward VII and depicting moments in the lives of children and young lovers. He was – in addition – a profoundly sentimental and therefore rather poor artist in modern eyes. The determining mark of sentimentality is a resistance to complexity and, in particular, to any possibility of negative or dark feelings. In sentimental art, youth has to be represented as a time of innocence and good cheer; little girls are always sweet and delightful; true love is necessarily always serene and conflict-free; and rural life must be content and simple.
Luke Fildes The Village Wedding, 1883Through a sentimental lens, no one is eaten up with envy or harbours complicated sexual longings. No one will regret key decisions or might wish a friend ill. In The Village Wedding, the entire community – from the old man leaning on his stick to the rosy-cheeked child waving from her mother’s arms – recognises marriage for what it really is: a state of constant, friction-free bliss. That is the horror of sentimentality, a mode that refuses to engage with what our shadow sides – our tendencies to aggression, negativity, spite, envy, sexual ambivalence and disappointment – and unintentionally, increases our quiet burdens of disappointment and shame.
The depressed person is in touch with sadness, but not necessarily with the ingredient that made them sad. Everything in the world has become sorrowful, because certain specific areas of grief have not been accepted or understood. There are some particular dramas that took place – maybe between the ages of five and seven, in a house in the old country, late at night – that haven’t been explored, that are too painful ever to look at and as a result, the grief and an accompanying lethargy and sorrow has spread everywhere, leaving nothing untouched, draped under its heavy melancholic gauze.
We keep things from ourselves ultimately because we cannot accept who we are – and we cannot accept ourselves because we are constantly, quietly oppressed by a ruinous yet false background picture of ‘normality’.
Across childhood, we have instilled in us, so subtly we don’t even notice, notions about what are and are not permissible things to feel. Traditionally, this might have meant that boys were not allowed to acknowledge that they felt like crying or that girls weren’t allowed to entertain certain kinds of ambitions for fear of being un-lady-like. We might not have such obviously naive prohibitions today but other equally powerful ones have taken their place. We may have picked up covert but forceful indications that no decent person (no one loved by their parents at least) could be enthusiastic about meeting richer people or could be unable to cope at work, could be tempted by an affair or still upset over a harsh word five days ago. Furthermore, the lion’s share of our sexual impulses remains impossible to avow. There is still an infinite amount we are not meant to feel in order to fit that most desirable of categories: a ‘good boy’ or ‘girl’. Our picture of normality is so starkly and sentimentally edited and narrow that it definitely frightens us away from the challenges of self-exploration and self-acceptance.
We need, in order to acquire courage to look more frankly into ourselves, to acquire a better sense of what is normal. To begin listing the ingredients of a redrawn definition of normality, it is very normal to be envious, crude, sexual, weak, in need, child-like, grandiose, terrified and furious. It is normal to be excited by people who are younger and older than us and to desire random adventures even within loving committed unions. It is normal to be hurt by ‘small’ signs of rejection – and to be made quickly very insecure by any evidence of neglect by a partner. Sometimes we want to jump on the railway tracks or lick the toilet seat. It is normal to harbour hopes for ourselves professionally far beyond what we have currently been able to achieve. It is normal to envy other people, many times a day, to be very upset by any kind of criticism of our work or performance, and to be sad so often that suicide can seem like a relief.
Our culture has tried to project an idea of an organised, poised, upbeat and polished self, as the standard way most people are. Unwittingly, this has encouraged us to get woefully impatient and disgusted with ourselves – and to lie even within our own minds about what we are feeling and want. Rather than expecting ourselves to be respectable and getting self-deceitful when we’re not, it is a great deal wiser to recognise the omnipresence, the sheer normality of madness, waywardness, perversion and alarm in every soul.
We are collective creatures, acutely receptive to group dynamics and sensitive to where we fit in – or the ways in which we don’t. So no matter how much we praise individualism and see ourselves as unique we are, in fact, deeply influenced by our picture of what is customary. This is where art comes in. The task of culture is to hold up more accurate portraits of human life, which can teach us a readier acceptance of who we are, and guide us to less panicked, deceitful responses to the data from our minds. A great novelist or film-maker can walk us through a range of elusive tricky sensations in his or her fictional characters, thereby making it easier to acknowledge these in ourselves. The artist is, ideally, someone uncommonly patient about the curious, less discussed, apparently weirder things that float around in the human head. An important work of art is like a new entry in mankind’s dictionary of feelings, which we can use to decode and interpret ourselves.
Feelings we deny wreak havoc. They force themselves forward in troubling, furious and depressed ways. They buckle and strain the system. We develop impotence, an incapacity to work, alcoholism, a porn compulsion. Most so called addictions are at heart symptoms of insistent difficult feelings that we haven’t found a way to accept and discuss with ourselves.
Of course, recognising a feeling doesn’t mean you should always act on it. It’s not a good idea to make every feeling known or active in the world. The choice we face isn’t between denial and inaction or avowal followed by a move on the people around us. We can accept our desires without needing to think them a sensible plan of action. We can accept who we are, what we want and then sit with our hands firmly tied, reflecting sadly on the deep strangeness and unsatisfactoriness of the human condition.
We can learn from some of our most awkward feelings of envy. Squaring up to feelings of inadequacy is an indispensable requirement of growth. Envy is a call to action that should be heeded; it contains garbled messages sent by confused but important parts of our personalities about what we should be doing with the rest of our lives. Without regular envious attacks, we couldn’t possibly know what we really could one day be. Instead of trying to repress our envy, we should make every effort to study it. Each person we envy possesses a piece of the jigsaw puzzle depicting our possible future. There is a portrait of a ‘true self’ waiting to be assembled out of the envious hints we receive when we flick through a magazine, turn the pages of a newspaper or hear updates on the radio about the career moves of old schoolmates. We should calmly ask one essential and redemptive question of all those we envy: ‘What could I learn about here?’
Understanding how denial works can help us with others too. We start to see others as beset by the very same problem that we’ve begun to recognise we have to deal with. Quite often they’ll be saying things which are not in fact in line with their true feelings – mean things when they are feeling vulnerable perhaps, or arrogant things when they are feeling small – and we’ll identify that it is charitable to forgive them for not always managing to be reliable correspondents of their inner lives. It’s not really sinister to think this way of others, it’s a kindly move that gives us the energy to lend a second, more compassionate look at behaviour that might initially have appeared simply horribly off-putting.
From our new radical candour emerges new possibilities for humour. Laughter is born from a contrast between how we want to be, and what we actually are like; comedy dances on the tightrope between aspiration and reality. The person in denial cannot laugh for one end of the comic tightrope has nothing to be fixed to. They cannot create the jokes and the dry humour that comes from knowing that we truly are strung between the angels and the baboons, the stars and the gutter. But there are constant opportunities for an endearing bracing humour from the person who can admit with confidence some of what we all feel but rarely know how to mention: someone who can make their audience feel less alone and persecuted by recounting their inadequacies and vulnerabilities with winning charm. What seduces us about people is not so much their strengths as evidence of calmly accepted, well-contained madness – in which we see our own follies reflected.
Feelings are frequently far from wonderful and often should not be followed. But we should accept that if we ignore, deny or overlook them entirely, the price will always be higher and worse: they will exercise a powerful malign subterranean influence across the whole of our lives. One of the too-often overlooked, but key arts of living is to learn to devote ourselves to correctly labelling and repatriating our own and others’ orphaned feelings.
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