How to Remain Emotionally Mature in a Crisis – Free Ebook

Some of us belong to a social group politely
known as ‘worriers.’ That is, we are close

to panic on a range of issues pretty much
all the time. We worry that the scratch on

our knee will turn cancerous, that we’ll
catch a deadly disease from touching the hotel

door, that all our savings might disappear
in a random economic disaster and that our

enemies could spread rumours that will forever
disgrace and demean us.

So overwhelming and debilitating can these
fears become, we may be advised by well-meaning

friends that we should probably go and visit
a psychotherapist in haste in order to calm

ourselves.

Here we’re likely to learn a lot of very
reassuring things, in particular, that none

of our powerful fears is really any kind of
reflection on what is likely to happen in

the real world. The scratch on the knee is
just a scratch, there isn’t about to be

some global catastrophe, there isn’t some
disease that is going to wipe us all out,

the hotel door is blameless, we’re not going
to be financially ruined, no one is properly

interested in humiliating us. And so on and
so forth.

We learn to make a distinction between our
inner world and the outer world, the first

filled with terror and apprehension, the second
emerging as a far more benign, indifferent

and easy going place. We also learn, if we
read a little psychotherapeutic theory, why

there should in some of us be such a dislocation
between the inner and outer worlds. It comes

down to a theory about childhood; some of
us had childhoods that were so disturbed and

cruel, so filled with shame and loneliness,
that they have coloured our view of the whole

of life; we assume that things will always
be as bad as they once were.

The task of psychotherapy is then to start
to show us how powerfully and negatively biased

our perceptions are and that the adult realm
actually contains far fewer demons than we

thought, and far more opportunity, solace
and forgiveness. We learn that the catastrophe

we feared would happen has in fact safely
already happened. We get a lot better.

But then, if we’re unlucky, at key moments
in our lives, we may run into a range of harrowing

events that threaten to upend everything we’ve
carefully learnt to believe in and that make

a mockery of the soothing voices we’ve come
to trust. Suddenly, in spite of our best efforts

to be resilient and sane, we learn that we
are in fact facing a mortal illness. Or, after

slowly overcoming a compulsive handwashing
fetish, we’re told that a germ truly might

kill us after all. Or, despite our attempts
to explore our sexuality with courage, we

learn that some enemies really do want to
humiliate us for the pleasures we’ve pursued.

In confusion and bitterness, we may turn against
therapy and its naive view of reality and

cry bitterly: ‘See! It really is as bad
as I always thought it was… I suspected

that life was hell and it really is.’ Or,
as one comic is reputed to have had inscribed

on their gravestone, ‘I told you it wasn’t
just a cough.’

This may sound like the moment when all attempts
at psychotherapeutic calm or at emotional

maturity and wisdom more broadly fairly come
to an end. But once we have endured the initial

panic, we can insist that this need be nothing
of the sort. We can strive for wisdom despite,

or even in the midst of, a range of the most
awful external eventualities.

We should be clear on what is at stake: psychotherapy
does not promise us that nothing will ever

go wrong in our lives again. It can’t remove
intractable evils. What it can do, however,

is to teach us a variety of mental manoeuvres
that will render those evils – death among

them – a great deal less painful and persecutory
than they would otherwise have been. There

are better and worse ways to endure the afflictions
we cannot avoid. There are ways of interpreting

disasters that add a whole new layer of pain
and fear to them – and others that, while

they do not magic away the chaos, at least
remove its secondary, aggravating characteristics.

Let’s consider two of the things that those
of us with a choppy inner life (and a difficult

past) may – quite unfairly – tell ourselves
when we run into the vicissitudes of life

and compare it with what wiser voices might
propose:

‘This is going to be the end of everything…’
It doesn’t take very much – when you’ve

already felt a disaster or two rock your world
at an early age – to know in your bones what’s

coming next when a problem hits. Death is
clearly nigh. There isn’t going to be any

safe way out of this debacle. It’s all over…
But, however counterintuitive this might sound,

even in a pandemic, one may be exaggerating.
Even with a cancer diagnosis, one may be losing

perspective. The outer world can be bad, very
bad, and still the inner world can be making

it worse, may be adding yet more fear, yet
more dread and more of a sense of doom than

would be strictly necessary. Not every calamity
is the end; not every end need be a deluge.

Some of us will have enjoyed the blessing
of that essential figure of early childhood:

the soothing adult. Our toy broke and it seemed
it was a misery beyond compare; we wailed,

we screamed, we called death upon ourselves.
Nothing so bad had ever been seen. But then

a kindly adult came, took us in their arms,
and said ‘I know, I know’ and held us

so tightly until our tears abated. And then,
in a calm and loving voice, they plotted with

us how we might repair things: perhaps there’d
be a similar toy in another shop; maybe we

could get some glue and have a go at fixing
the head back on; maybe there’d be a way

of playing with it even if it had only one
leg… And so gradually we recovered a taste

for life and kept on going – and many decades
later, when disaster strikes once more, we’re

able to call on the voice of the kindly parental
figure, and give ourselves more options: certainly

it is bad, but think of how much remains.
Perhaps we can pick up the pieces and begin

anew. Maybe the horror will end. There might
just be a small solution. And even if there

isn’t, the kindly voice gives us a sense
that everything can be OK anyway, even dying

can be coped with – for maybe the original
owner of that calm voice approached their

end a few years back with a serenity and good
humour we can now emulate in turn. Not even

death has to be a disaster.

‘You deserve all the bad things that happen
to you…’

For some of us, it isn’t just that bad things
happen to us, bad things happen to us because

we are bad people. We suffer because we deserve
to suffer; and we deserve to suffer because

we are – to put it relatively mildly – pieces
of shit. It feels natural to turn whatever

is negative and might have been entirely accidental
into a verdict on us and on our right to be.

We have such reservoirs of shame and self-loathing
that when we suffer a reversal, we don’t

only end up – for example – sick or broke
or abandoned in love, we hear a voice in our

heads that at once adds immeasurably to the
misery; a voice that tells us that we are,

aside from on our own and in a cold rented
room, also a mistake that should never have

been born. No one doubts that sometimes people
go broke, no one doubts that love lives can

go wrong, but not everyone who goes broke
or has a bad marriage ends up feeling that

they are the worst person in the world and
that the leading option must be to kill themselves.

For some of us, we aren’t just our worst
moments, we can exist outside of our foolishness.

No error we make ever puts us entirely beyond
the pale. We may be in prison, most of our

friends may have left us, but we still know
we’ve got lovable sides. Someone could in

theory still see past our sins and love us.
We retain an echo of the love we once drew

strength from all those years back; we are
still the little boy or girl that someone

loved, despite everything that came after.
We may have done a very bad thing, we are

not totally bad people.

We tend to believe that the difference between
a good and a bad life must lie strictly in

the quality of the events that befall people.
But to a surprising extent, the difference

actually lies in the way each of us is able
to interpret events. There are newly convicted

prisoners, newly condemned patients and freshly
diagnosed plague victims who know how not

to add shame, persecution, self-hatred and
unbounded panic to their already considerable

burdens. There are those of us who know how
to incorporate a soothing commentary to a

battlefield: who can tell ourselves in the
middle of an inferno that we do not deserve

this, that a lot can be fixed, that we are
still loveable, that it can probably be survived

and that if it can’t, we will simply have
to cross a threshold over which a hundred

billion or so of our species has already passed

  • in a process which will, in its own ghastly

way, be fine for us too.

Therapy well done isn’t a discipline that
tells us all will be brilliant; it offers

us another go at hearing the voice of the
soothing parent we missed out on first time

around who knew that we could cope even when
it isn’t.

There is an old misanthropic joke that goes:
just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t

mean someone’s not following you. The true
retort to this grim wisecrack would be: and

even if someone is following you, that doesn’t
mean you deserve it or that it has to be the

end of you. And, in a related move, just because
there is a plague, doesn’t mean you are going

to die. And just because you’re going to
die, doesn’t mean you can’t ever grow

to accept your non-existence with a measure
of dark humour and serenity.

Even at the end of the world, there will be
some of us taking it worse than others, some

of us who will feel that they deserve it,
that this means they are disgusting and wretched

and that none of the beautiful stuff ever
meant anything – and others who will be greeting

catastrophe without catastrophizing. The good
news is that, long before the planet expires,

with a little help from therapy and philosophy,
we have the capacity to move ourselves into

the wiser camp, the camp of those who can
endure difficult things without adding a further

critical persecutory commentary, and are able,
in the face of the most awful events, to soothe

themselves with the kindness and empathy of
the gentlest parent calming down the sobs

of the distressed and frightened child we
all once were and at some level remain.

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