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Chapter 4: self: Calm

The True Cause of Dread and Anxiety

For many of us, the dominant emotions we experience day to day are those of dread and anxiety. They are what colour the background to many – far too many – of our thoughts. In our fragile moods, we are terrified of being sacked, of having done something wrong at work, of losing our relationship or of being accused and then humiliated by society.

The fears that stalk us may appear diverse, each one is a little crisis of its own which would require a separate discussion to unpick, but it can at points be useful to generalise our condition under an all-encompassing analysis: we are – above anything else – beset by a sense that something very bad is about to come our way.

 

Why do we feel like this? The real reason could sound surprising and initially almost random: self-hatred and, closely allied to this, pervasive shame. It isn’t that we are living in an exceptionally dangerous world, it is that we despise ourselves with rare and forensic intensity.

The logic, at its simplest, goes like this: if we feel, deep down, like a piece of excrement whose very existence is unwanted, it then follows and seems entirely plausible that enemies should right now be plotting to destroy us, that the government might scrutinise us and put us in jail, that our partner might leave us and that we should be imminently disgraced and mocked by strangers.

Such eventualities are naturally always somewhere in the realm of the possible, but when we hate ourselves a lot, they shift to being near certainties, in fact, inevitable – because, as the internal logic has it, very bad things must necessarily happen to very bad people. Those who don’t like themselves too much will automatically expect a lot of awful things to happen to them – and will worry intensely whenever, for some peculiar reason, they aren’t as yet entirely catastrophic, a mistake that is surely about to be corrected (few things are as panic-inducing to a self-hater as good news).

Paranoia is at heart a symptom of a disgust at one’s own being – and the accompanying sense of dread is the presenting problem of shame. The difficulty is that most of us who hate ourselves are not at all aware of doing so. The feeling that we are a horrific person is merely a given, long past being worthy of notice. It is the default setting of our personality rather than a visible distortion that we are in a position to observe as it goes about ruining our life. It sounds absurd to the self-hating person to claim that they might be worrying they will be sacked because they hate themselves. They are just sure they must have done something very wrong because there was a distinct coldness in the tone of the last email they received from their superior. Likewise, the self-hating lover doesn’t think that they are constantly worried about the intentions of their partner because they can’t picture themselves as a fitting target for love; they’re just very upset that this partner has been a little distracted in the four minutes since they got home.

It therefore follows that the first step towards breaking the cycle of alarm is to notice that we are behaving like self-hating people convinced that we deserve misery and that this self-assessment is in the process of heavily colouring all our assessments of the future.

Then, very gently, we should start to wonder how a self-loving person might behave and look at matters if they were in our shoes. When panic descends, we should try to reassure ourselves not with logical arguments about the grounds for hope but by wondering what a person who didn’t loathe themselves might be thinking now. If we could reduce the element of internal punishment and attack, how would the situation appear?

Most conditions of alarm contain ambiguities, gaps in knowledge, and a range of options which are immediately filled in in a negative direction by the self-hater; but what if we tried to size up our situation more neutrally, without the aggressiveness and pitilessness of people convinced they were owed a shameful ending?

A dialogue with another person can be of vital help. An outside eye, of a good friend or – ideally – a good therapist can break us out of the closed system of our own interpretations and help us to notice just how peculiar, and masochistic, our analyses are proving.

To correct self-hatred and shame is a life’s task. We are back to an all-too familiar theme; that most psychological problems arise because people have not been empathetically cherished and reliably loved when it really mattered, and that if one could be granted one wish to improve the internal well-being of humanity, then it would be, with a wave of a magic wand, to do away with shame. The collective gasp of relief would be heard on distant galaxies.

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