I have just finished reading a fascinating book: “The Examined Life – How We Lose and Find Ourselves” by psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. It’s a collection of stories gathered in more than 25 years of practice, patient stories which Grosz turns, with great skill, into life stories that can illuminate any of us.
What can you learn from someone’s phobia, depression, panick attacks, self-hatred, obsessions? What can you learn from a wife whose husband has died? Or from an autistic child? How about from a depressed, anorexic young woman?
What did Grosz, as a human being, learn from the experiences of patients he was treating as a psychoanalyst?
These are the questions this book attempts to answer. Grosz finds enlightening insights in the most gruesome of human dramas. Far from being saddening, the book is engaging and inspiring, both through the pace of the stories – each is no more than a few pages long – and through Grosz’s amazing capacity to extract the universal lesson from a very particular situation.
There was a common theme that I discovered reading all these storieone more fascinating than the other. That is the theme of “running away from ourselves“.
There seems to be an inherent impulse in all of us to “look out the window” when the going is rough and “in the mirror” when things go well.
Somehow, by some inner mechanism originally meant to protect our self-esteem, we become endlessly creative in the ways in which we self-sabotage, refuse to confront and overcome our inner demons and stubbornly look for the causes of all our misfortunes on the outside. We literally run away from ourselves, rather than facing our deepest truths, especially when these truths hurt.
One story in particular resonated with me. Grosz met this woman on a plane, who had a longstanding problem with her parents, her father in particular, who, for the past 16 years, refused to speak with her or have any contact whatsoever, even if this meant not even getting to know his own grandchildren. Why had her father made this radical decision?
The reason was, apparently, nothing as dramatic as might be expected. The daughter, a Jew, had decided to marry a Catholic boy, whom she loved deeply. After terrible fights and violent racist comments made against her fiance, the father had sworn never to have any contact with her if she went ahead marrying the blond, Catholic boy. And he was true to his word. She never understood his decision and suffered terribly. Not even her happy marriage compensated for feeling excluded by her own family and she had spent many years coming to terms with this hurtful reality – her parents had completely rejected her.
Now, 16 year later, she was flying back home with her teenage boys, who were to see their grandmother for the first time. She had gotten a call from her mother, letting her know that the parents were getting a divorce because her father had had, for the past 25 years, an affair with his secretary. And, guess what? The secretary was Catholic. And blonde.
Psychologists call this phenomenon “splitting“. In Grosz’s words, it is “an unconscious strategy that aims to keep us ignorant of feelings in ourselves we are unable to tolerate. Typically, we want to see ourselves as good, and put those aspects of ourselves that we find shameful into another person of group. Splitting is a way to get rid of self-knowledge. When Abby’s father cut her off, he was trying to cut himself off from those hateful aspects of himself that he could not bear. In the short term, this gives us some relief: – “I’m not bad, you are”. But in denying and projecting a part of ourselves into another, we come to regard these negative aspects as outside our control. At its extreme, splitting renders the world an unsettling, even dangerous place – rather than recognise his devils as his own, Abby’s father meets them, as if for the first time, in his daughter.“
How often, I wonder, we run away from ourselves like this, projecting the parts of us we don’t want to see, onto others? And not even being aware of that?
I for one know I have done this many times. Reading this reminded me of all the times I find myself judging people, getting annoyed, thinking I know best. How many times do I really know best and how often my judgements of others are really but judgements of myself?
As Carl Jung used to say: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves“.
I am learning this truth every single day, whenever I notice that I am running away from myself and blaming it onto others. I invite you too to ask yourself this question: Where do you run when you run away from yourselves? What role does “splitting” play in your own lives?
I’m sure you won’t regret spending a few hours of your life reading Grosz’s book, which is full of other inspiring stories about life, love and getting lost, only to rediscover ourselves. It might help you on your way.
Love from one who ran away, came back, is getting lost and finding herself again and again,