One way to start assessing how badly we have been knocked by our early years – and where we might therefore need to direct most of our repair work and attention – is to identify a range of markers of emotional health and imagine how we fare in relation to them. At least four central ones suggest themselves.
Self-love is the quality that determines how much we can be friends with ourselves and, day to day, remain on our own side.
When we meet a stranger who has things we don’t, how quickly do we feel ourselves pitiful – and how long can we remain assured by the decency of what we have and are? When another person frustrates or humiliates us, can we let the insult go, able to perceive the senseless malice beneath the attack – or are we left brooding and devastated, implicitly identifying with the verdict of our enemies? How much can the disapproval or neglect of public opinion be offset by the memory of the steady attention of few significant people in the past?
In relationships, do we have enough self-love to leave an abusive union? Or are we so down on ourselves that we carry an implicit belief that harm is all we deserve? In a different vein, how good are we at apologising to a lover for things that may be our fault? How rigidly self-righteous do we need to be? Can we dare to admit mistakes or does an admission of guilt or error bring us too close to our background sense of nullity?
In the bedroom, how clean and natural or alternatively disgusting and sinful do our desires feel? Might they be a little odd, but not for that matter bad or dark, since they emanate from within us and we are not wretches?
At work, do we have a reasonable, well-grounded sense of our worth – and so feel able to ask for (and properly expect to get) the rewards we are due? Can we resist the need to please others indiscriminately? Are we sufficiently aware of our genuine contribution to say no?
Candour determines the extent to which difficult ideas and troubling facts can be consciously admitted into the mind, soberly explored and accepted without denial. How much can we admit to ourselves about who we are – even if, or especially when, the matter is not especially pleasant? How much do we need to insist on our own normality and wholehearted sanity? Can we explore our own minds – and look into their darker and more troubled corners without flinching overly? Can we admit to folly, envy, sadness and confusion?
Around others, how ready are we to learn? Do we need always take a criticism of one part of us as an attack on everything about us? How ready are we to listen when valuable lessons come in painful guises?
Can we patiently and reasonably put our disappointments into words that, more or less, enable others to see our point? Or do we internalise pain, act it out symbolically or discharge it with counterproductive rage?
When other people upset us, do we feel we have the right to communicate or must we slam doors and retreat into sulks? When the desired response isn’t forthcoming, do we ask others to guess what we have been too angrily panicked to spell out? Or can we have a plausible second go and take seriously the thought that others are not merely being nasty in misunderstanding us? Do we have the inner resources to teach rather than insist?
How risky is the world? How readily might we survive a challenge in the form of a speech, a romantic rejection, a bout of financial trouble, a journey to another country or a common cold?
How close are we, at any time, to catastrophe? What material are we made of?
Will new acquaintances like or wound us? If we are a touch assertive, will they take it or collapse? Will unfamiliar situations end in a debacle? Around love, how tightly do we need to cling? If they are distant for a while, will they return? How controlling do we need to be? Can we approach an interesting-looking stranger? Or move on from an unsatisfying one?
Do we, overall, feel the world to be wide, safe, and reasonable enough for us to have a legitimate shot at a measure of contentment – or must we settle, resentfully, for inauthenticity and misunderstanding?
It isn’t our fault or, in a sense, anyone else’s that many of these questions are so hard to answer in the affirmative. But, by entertaining them, we are at least starting to know what kind of shape our wounds have and so what kind of bandages might be most necessary.
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