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Just because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. Relax the rules you live by and set yourself free
by Aziz GazipuraPhoto by Aeon/Wikipedia
Aziz Gazipurais a clinical psychologist and the author of The Solution to Social Anxiety (2013), The Art of Extraordinary Confidence (2016), Not Nice (2017) and On My Own Side (2020). He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Edited by Lucy Foulkes
Need to know
Imagine just another ordinary day in your life. You wake up at the same time, do your morning routine, and eat breakfast. But then, you get that text. It’s your mother, and you suddenly remember you were supposed to call her yesterday for her birthday. Even without opening the text, you feel a sinking feeling in your chest and stomach.
You imagine your mom sitting all alone in her house, mournfully lamenting her son’s lack of contact on her special day. A shower of self-critical thoughts begins to cascade down upon you. It’s a slow drizzle at first, but by the time you get to work, it’s a downpour of judgmental and harsh attacks on your character. You’re too busy, too selfish, and a bad son or daughter. Yikes.
This is guilt. We all know the feeling, and it is a powerfully absorbing experience. It has a magnifying quality to it, making small errors and oversights seem like glaring assaults on the people we care about. Many people around the world live with a recurring sense of excessive guilt that triggers too easily, lasts too long, and leaves a wreckage of self-esteem and confidence in its wake. The good news is that excessive guilt doesn’t have to rule your life, and freeing yourself from its grasp is entirely possible.
Let’s start with a basic definition – what is guilt? Through countless hours of clinical observation, I’ve found that the emotion of guilt originates from a perception that you’ve done something wrong, which leads to a mixture of anxiety and pressure. The anxiety is based on the prediction that something ‘bad’ will happen. For example, others might be upset, or you might be judged or disliked, or you might feel ashamed of yourself – which leads to a loss of love, connection, opportunity or your status as a ‘good person’. Then there’s the pressure. The pressure to apologise, fix the situation and otherwise ‘make it right’ to experience the relief of absolution.
At the right level, the anxiety and pressure created by guilt can be useful, and can have a positive impact on our relationships. When my son steals his younger brother’s Lego bricks and then sees him sobbing, he might feel some compunction to return the toys and make amends. When you snap at your spouse, sibling, parent or child, you might feel a similar unease until you’ve righted the ship and either apologised or acted with greater patience and kindness.
This is what I call healthy guilt. Healthy guilt creates an invisible forcefield, helping us operate within a band of behaviour that’s aligned with our values. It ensures we’re responsive to the needs of those close to us, and allows us to have warm, positive relationships.
But what happens when guilt goes wrong? Sometimes, our trigger for guilt is too sensitive and fires off inappropriately, or to an extreme degree for minor offences. This is known as excessive guilt – or unhealthy guilt – and is exactly what this Guide can help you with.
To understand whether the guilt you’re experiencing is unhealthy, it’s helpful to think about rules. All guilt essentially occurs when you’ve broken one of your rules. Some rules are valuable and generally support you and others, such as ‘Don’t steal money’ or ‘Don’t verbally attack those you love’, and these rules tend to drive healthy guilt. Other rules, such as ‘You must always say yes’ or ‘Don’t disappoint others’ or ‘Never get angry’ can be toxic cages that keep you trapped in perpetual suffering – and lead to unhealthy guilt.
Identifying when the guilt you’re experiencing is unhealthy or excessive will help you begin to detach from it. In the five-step process below, you’ll learn exactly how to do that. For now, here are a few simple guidelines to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy guilt:
To summarise these distinctions in another way, let’s think back to the example of missing your mother’s birthday. Here’s what the internal voice of healthy guilt might sound like:
I forgot mom’s birthday! Oh man, that’s pretty bad. I feel awful. Ouch. OK, what can I do now to make it right? First things first, I can call her straight away and leave her a voicemail if she doesn’t pick up. When I get home today, I’ll record and send a video of the kids singing her Happy Birthday, that will light her up. And I’m going to put a reminder in my calendar right now for next year so I don’t make this mistake again.
Notice how this voice acknowledges the error, without trying to deny or downplay it. It also focuses primarily on what can be done now to make things right, all without tearing yourself to shreds or verbally abusing yourself. Contrast that voice of healthy guilt with that of unhealthy guilt:
I forgot mom’s birthday! Oh man, that’s terrible. Poor woman. How could I do this to her? She must feel awful. Wow, that’s so bad of me. What the heck was I doing yesterday anyway? Why didn’t I remember? She must be so sad and upset, and it’s my fault. Her health isn’t so good right now anyways, and here I am abandoning her on her birthday, which is only going to make her worse. I always do this kind of thing, I’m so self-absorbed. I’m an awful son/daughter.
Can you feel the difference between these two internal monologues? Can you feel how the second one is heavy like molasses, a burden that makes it hard to take effective, corrective action? In my clinical practice, I’ve seen how this voice of unhealthy guilt can go on for hours or days, leading to prolonged periods of procrastination, avoidance or low mood.
Before we move on, it’s worth clarifying that this Guide isn’t intended for people grappling with serious offences or transgressions. In these cases, necessary and appropriate guilt can sometimes linger for years, and cause a great deal of difficulty and distress. If you’re experiencing this kind of serious, pervasive guilt, it might be helpful to see a therapist to understand and come to terms with what happened.
But if your excessive guilt stems more from minor transgressions and unreasonable rules, such as in the second birthday monologue described above, let’s talk about exactly what to do to free yourself from what’s going on.NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS
What to do
Most commonly, people manage unhealthy, excessive guilt by doing their best to please everyone around them and avoiding upsetting others at all costs. If that sounds like a bad strategy to you, you’re absolutely right. We can do much better.
In fact, it’s possible to use each instance of guilt to clarify your values, determine the rules that you actually want to live by, and free yourself from the perceptions and demands of others. To do this, I will share a five-step process that I’ve used with hundreds of clients to help them liberate themselves from excessive guilt:
1. Acknowledge and allow the guilt
The first step in liberating ourselves from anything is to actually acknowledge and allow it. Initially, you might not even notice you feel guilty. Because the feelings of guilt can be painful, your impulse might be to stay in motion, distract yourself or compulsively apologise. But, instead of reacting to guilt, you should examine it.
Slow down, withdraw from screens and other people, and take a few minutes to be with your own emotions and bodily feelings. What do you notice? Are you uncomfortable? Do you have racing, anxious thoughts? Are you restless or agitated in your body? Do you feel tightness in your chest or throat? Do you have a sinking feeling in your stomach? These are all possible signs of guilt.
Now observe your thoughts – I call this the ‘voice of guilt’, and it’s very important to notice how it’s speaking to you. Recall the example above and the chart differentiating healthy vs unhealthy guilt. Does the voice sound calm and loving, while still recognising you’ve made a mistake? If so, this is probably healthy guilt. Or is it angry and critical, like a raging parent who’s lost it – a chastising voice telling you what you should or shouldn’t have done? If your thoughts are telling you that your actions make you fundamentally selfish, mean or inconsiderate, then it’s most likely unhealthy guilt.
Whatever guilt you’re experiencing, when you notice it arising, you can actually identify it out loud. This is powerful, even if you’re alone. Simply say: ‘Ahh, this is guilt.’ Acknowledgement provides a powerful fuel for change. Allow yourself to sit with the feelings and thoughts, and experience them for a moment. During this step, it’s also important to keep in mind the fallacy of emotional reasoning: just because you feel guilty, doesn’t automatically mean you’ve done something terribly wrong. This leads us to our next step.
2. Identify the rule(s) you’ve broken
This is the next step in neutralising unhealthy guilt because it will give you valuable information about what’s happening and how to deal with it. Figuring out what rule you’ve broken will help you determine if this is healthy or unhealthy guilt – if this is something pointing you towards being your best self, or just another sneaky pattern of perfectionism and self-hatred.
To determine what rule you broke, simply listen to the voice of guilt in your head. It’s going to tell you clearly what you should or shouldn’t have done. Those shoulds and shouldn’ts are your rules. You’ll notice that some rules involve other people – for example, if a friend asks to meet up and you say no because you’re tired, you might feel guilty because your rules include ‘I should always say yes when a friend asks to hang out’ or ‘I shouldn’t do anything to disappoint others.’ Other rules will just involve you and your individual behaviours. For example, if you eat a big hamburger, fries and milkshake, and feel guilty afterwards, you might find that your rules include ‘I shouldn’t eat fast food’ or ‘I should have more self-control.’
Are you getting a sense of how this works? Try it out with a recent scenario when you felt guilty, or with something that used to make you feel guilty in the past. Try and remember what the voice of guilt was saying to you, and identify the underlying rules. Then start trying it when guilt comes up in your day-to-day life. Once you’re able to do this, you’re well on your way to neutralising excessive guilt and feeling happier, freer and more loving with yourself and others.
3. Determine if the guilt is healthy or unhealthy
Remember, healthy guilt is a feeling that arises when you’ve broken a realistic rule that you actually do value and aspire to live by. This guilt is guiding you to get on track and be the kind of person you want to be in the world. It reminds you of what matters most, and inspires you to live in alignment with your values. It’s a positive force for change and is rooted in love – for yourself and for others.
Unhealthy guilt is a form of punishment and self-attack. It can arise when you’ve broken a rule that’s rigid, extreme or not in alignment with what you really value. It can also arise when you’ve broken a rule you do value but, instead of motivating positive change, the guilt becomes excessive and toxic. When we feel unhealthy guilt, we often overestimate how much others are annoyed or hurt by our actions, thereby artificially magnifying our transgressions. We then use this distorted data to conclude that we’ve done something wrong and must be punished for our sins. We think that if we punish ourselves enough, and suffer sufficiently for our badness, then we’ll atone for our transgression. But this approach to improving our relationships or personal actions doesn’t positively influence behaviour, and is rooted in fear.
To determine whether you’re experiencing healthy or unhealthy guilt, it helps to look at the underlying rules that you broke. Look at your list of broken rules and ask yourself: do I want to live by these rules? Do they reflect my values? Are they realistic? Do they take into account variations in the environment and the fact that I’m a human?
If you answer yes to these questions, then there’s a useful message in your guilt that’s trying to serve you. This is healthy guilt. However, if you answered no to any of these questions, you might be in the territory of unhealthy guilt. There’s still a lesson to be learnt, but it’s a slightly different one. This is extremely important to understand – if you don’t receive the message in the right way, you’ll get stuck in unhealthy guilt.
4. Understand the message
This step allows you to turn the unpleasant feelings of guilt into a positive experience that benefits both you and others. Let me illustrate with an example.
A few nights ago, it was bedtime in our household, and everyone was tired. When adults get tired, they want to lie down, relax and welcome restful slumber. When little kids get tired, they draw upon the chaotic energy of the Universe, lose all impulse control and go crazy. On this particular night, my older son was pushing over his younger brother, refusing to let me brush his teeth, and generally unleashing the beast. I wasn’t handling it well. My patience tank was empty and I went into control mode. My tone became exasperated. My energy became harsh.
We finally got everyone into bed and I started to read my older son a story. But he was distracted, and wanted a different book that wasn’t in his bedroom. Then he wanted almond milk. He didn’t want to be quiet, and wanted to keep his brother up. My voice became sharper as I responded to each of these demands. I didn’t yell at him, but I couldn’t contain my resentment in that moment. Even though I didn’t say out loud: ‘You’re being bad for staying awake and not doing what I said,’ my body language and tone of voice was sending this message loud and clear.
Eventually, he fell asleep. Thank God. Sweet relief. I passed out next to him on his little bed, listening to the soothing sound of his breathing. But I awoke the next morning with a pang in my heart. Good morning, guilt. My mind began reflecting on moments from the previous night’s bedtime, seeing all the ways I was being critical and unloving with my son. I felt upset with myself, sad about being disconnected from him, and pained in my heart.
Is this healthy or unhealthy guilt? It all depends on what the message of the guilt is. First, I checked the rules (Step 2). The rules I broke were pretty clear: I should be patient with my sons; I should be non-reactive to their wild behaviours; and come from a place of connection and love when attempting to influence them. I shouldn’t convey the message that they’re bad for being awake or doing something else over which they have little control.
Yep, these are all values I aspire to – so you might assume that this is healthy guilt. However, how we treat ourselves also determines if the guilt is healthy or not. When I tuned in to the voice of guilt more closely, I heard this message: ‘This is totally unacceptable. How could you do this to your kids? You’re a bad father.’ Woah. That’s intense. So even though I broke a rule I agree with, this voice of guilt was overly harsh and wasn’t constructive in creating a new pattern with my kids – which suggests I had moved into the realm of unhealthy guilt.
5. Take new action
The truth is, you can’t beat yourself into being a better person. Attacking, judging, punishing and criticising yourself won’t lead to improvement. This is an antiquated and unexamined pattern that many of us fall into, despite it clearly not working. Instead, focus on what you can do now. If your mind keeps pulling you back to your supposed transgressions, how bad they were, and what a bad person you are, simply label that as unhealthy guilt and remind yourself that it’s not serving you. To help yourself snap out of the hypnotic trance of excessive guilt, you can stand up, take a few breaths and move your body around the room. Say out loud: ‘This kind of self-attack is not helpful. I can do so much better.’
The morning after I lost my patience with my son, instead of buying into that self-attack message and descending into a low-energy state of shame, I shifted my attention away from my thoughts and into the present moment. I felt my breath go in and out of my chest. I observed the physical sensations of the emotions I was experiencing. I felt the pain and ache of being angry at, and disconnected from, my son. I felt his pain. I felt my pain. I felt the burning in my heart. And I sent it love. I sent myself love and forgiveness. I sent my son love and forgiveness. What a sweet boy, doing the best he can. What a sweet dad, doing the best he can.
This is how you can manage unhealthy guilt, and let it transform you in positive ways. Get out of your head and into your heart. Feel whatever is there and keep meeting it with love and forgiveness, even if your mind tells you that it’s unforgivable. It’s not. Forgiveness is infinite and always accessible.
You might also think about the kind of rules you want to live by long-term. If the guilt you’re experiencing is due to an extreme, unrealistic or long-standing rule that you don’t want to live by, then proclaim that. Decide right here and now that you’re going to choose something different. You can do this with a proclamation, starting with this powerful phrase: ‘In my reality…’ For example:
In my reality, it’s OK to say no when I want to or need to.
In my reality, it’s OK for others to temporarily feel disappointed.
In my reality, it’s OK to speak up for myself and state my perspective.
This is an essential method to confirm the new rules that you want to live by, ones that stand in sharp contrast to the old, unrealistic rules of excessive guilt.
On the other hand, if you realised during the previous steps that this is healthy guilt, and that you’ve broken a rule that reflects a core value, there might be some practical action you can take. Do you need to apologise to someone? Do you need to change your behaviour, habits or ways of relating to certain people? Do you need to create a regular ritual or practice that will help you be more patient, kind, caring, present or relaxed? Take a moment to decide on the corrective behaviour and commit to doing it now. Let the discomfort, anxiety and pressure of the healthy guilt be a positive force to guide your behaviour from here on out. Do you notice how liberating that feels?NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS
Guilt is a feeling of anxiety and pressure that arises when we think we’ve broken an important rule. Guilt can serve a healthy function when it guides us to adhere to realistic rules that create positive relationships and behaviours.
Guilt can turn unhealthy or excessive when it’s triggered in response to rules that are unrealistic or that we don’t really believe in. Unhealthy guilt leads to harsh self-criticism that’s not constructive.
When you’re feeling guilty, acknowledge it out loud, discover what rule(s) you’ve broken, and determine if you actually believe in those rules. Determine if they’re overly rigid, simplistic or otherwise unreasonable.
Interrupt harsh self-judgment and think about ways you might be exaggerating your transgression. Bring more compassion to yourself and the other people involved, and determine what corrective action you can take now to repair the situation (if needed). Then take that action swiftly.
NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS
Some people find that they experience unhealthy guilt very frequently. If that sounds like you, it might be helpful to examine in more detail the kind of rules you hold yourself to, and learn how to let them go. Specifically, many people who struggle with excessive guilt often have many unrealistic expectations of themselves related to perfectionistic rules and inner demands. These rules are not based on personal core values but are instead based on completely unrealistic standards for human behaviour, emotions and relationships. They are rigid, all-or-nothing, demanding and generally impossible to adhere to. These include rules such as:
I should never feel angry. I should never feel anxious. I should never make a mistake. I should always know what to say. I should never hurt anyone’s feelings. I should never upset anybody. I should always have total self-control. I should be able to predict all outcomes. I should foresee all problems and avoid them. I should obtain _____ now. (Insert any result you are striving towards.)
These kinds of rules push you to constantly try to perform better, get more done, meet everyone’s needs, always get back to people, please everybody and never make a mistake. And underneath all of them is one central theme: There’s something wrong with you. The more you listen to these rules and follow them unquestioningly, the worse you feel about yourself. The more insufficient, inadequate, unlovable and unworthy you think you are, regardless of external achievement or how much others love you, the guiltier you feel.
The rules above are insane. When you identify one of them, the message isn’t that you should strive harder or become even more self-sacrificing. The response in these situations is to slow down and let go of the demand on yourself to be superhuman. Let go of these insane rules that are driving you so hard and creating so much suffering. This set of rules is not your friend. It might seem like it’s your inner coach, pushing you to ‘be your best’ or ‘be a good person’ but actually it’s the voice of self-hatred. It’s trying to push and coerce you into being what you imagine you should be, most likely in order to please others and finally feel worthy of recognition or love.
Something entirely new is possible. A way of relating to yourself with kindness, compassion, curiosity and warmth. A way of treating yourself as you would someone you love and want the best for. A way of life where you’re truly on your side, no matter what.NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS
Links & books
There are many ways to go further with this topic. Upgrading how you treat yourself and becoming more assertive, expressive and confident is completely possible, no matter how long you’ve experienced a tendency towards excessive guilt.
The best place to start would be my book, Not Nice: Stop People Pleasing, Staying Silent, and Feeling Guilty… and Start Speaking Up, Saying No, Asking Boldly, and Unapologetically Being Yourself (2017), which provides a complete guide to freeing yourself from excessive guilt and all other aspects of people-pleasing.
I’ve also written 5 Steps to Unleash Your Inner Confidence (2013), a highly practical step-by-step ebook that can help you to quickly increase confidence across all areas of life. It’s available for free download at my website.
For hundreds of videos teaching the skill of confidence, assertiveness, being less nice and more authentically you, visit my YouTube channel Get More Confidence.
This Guide is provided as general information only. It is not a substitute for independent, professional medical or health advice tailored to your specific circumstances. If you are struggling with psychological difficulties, we encourage you to seek help from a professional source.
The women’s ward at St Luke’s Hospital in London. Print by J C Stadler after A C Pugin and T Rowlandson, 1809. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection
David Bather Woodsis a senior teaching fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK.
Edited by Nigel Warburton
31 MARCH 2021 (psyche.co)
‘True mental health consists in a perfect recollection of the past.’ This is the opening line of Arthur Schopenhauer’s chapter ‘On Madness’ in the second volume of his masterpiece The World as Will and Representation (2nd ed, 1844). Considered in isolation, it’s a surprising and questionable claim. A good recollection of the past is desirable, obviously, but a perfect recollection might be unhealthy in its own way. Many things are worth forgetting, after all. And anyway, desirable or not, there has to be more to mental health than total recall.
So how did Schopenhauer arrive at this conclusion? And what does he really mean?
The story begins in 1811, the year that Schopenhauer turned 23 and enrolled at the University of Berlin. He arrived with high hopes of learning directly from some of Germany’s greatest living philosophers, but he was soon disappointed. The lectures of the esteemed Johann Gottlieb Fichte, self-styled heir to Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer described as ‘manure’.
One of Fichte’s remarks especially vexed him. Fichte, according to Schopenhauer, taught that, while genius is divine, ‘madness’ is animal in nature. Schopenhauer suspected that the matter was more complex, and even that the contrary could be true: rather than being opposed, genius and ‘madness’ might be connected.
To satisfy his curiosity, Schopenhauer did something extraordinary for a philosopher but quite in keeping with his own character: he went and had a look for himself. In the winter of 1812, Schopenhauer visited residents in the psychiatric wing – or the ‘melancholy ward’ – of Berlin Charité hospital. And not just once; he made a regular habit of it.
The residents whom he met were indeed afflicted, impaired and vulnerable but, pace Fichte, not sub-human. Some, in fact, were quite capable of engaging Schopenhauer in conversations that would make a lasting impression on his thinking about mental health and illness.
This is not to say that Schopenhauer managed to transcend all the assumptions of his day. While the opening line of ‘On Madness’ shows that Schopenhauer had a concept of mental health (Gesundheit des Geistes), it is, after all, a chapter on the topic of ‘madness’ (Wahnsinn) and ‘insanity’ (Verrücktheit). Apart from being crude, catch-all terms that included psychosis, depression, phobia, learning disabilities, dementia and more, this is language loaded with derogatory connotations that has no place in today’s psychology. The words ‘mad’ and ‘insane’ are used in this essay only because Schopenhauer used them. Still, as a result of seeking out first-hand acquaintance with people who lived with these conditions, Schopenhauer moved away from the overtly dehumanising comparison that he claims Fichte made.
Schopenhauer takes the boy’s ability to speak, and therefore understand concepts, as evidence that the child was nonetheless rational
Not every interaction disproved Fichte’s thesis, however. There was, for example, ‘a weak-minded’ 11-year-old boy to whom Schopenhauer paid multiple visits in an asylum. His account of these visits first appears in a sheet of manuscript notes written in 1814, but it was published in the first volume of The World as Will and Representation (1818) as follows:
He was rational (since he could both speak and understand) but had a less developed understanding than many animals. Every time I visited he would stare at a monocle I wore around my neck: it reflected the windows of the room and the tops of the trees so that they appeared to be behind my neck. This he regarded with great surprise and joy every time I was there, and looked at the glass with unwavering astonishment: he could not understand the absolutely immediate causality of reflection.
In his notes Schopenhauer adds that the boy, unable to understand that the image was caused by a reflection, never turned to look out of the window and see the trees themselves.
Schopenhauer deemed this boy not insane but merely ‘stupid’. Stupidity, according to Schopenhauer, is a failure to understand causation – or, in other words, why things are the case. Since some animals show an understanding of causation (a few of them might even understand the causality of reflection), Schopenhauer makes the same dehumanising comparison for which he criticised Fichte. Notice, however, that Schopenhauer takes the boy’s ability to speak, and therefore understand concepts, as evidence that the child was nonetheless rational.
In contrast to the boy’s ‘stupidity’, which he conceived as an underdeveloped faculty of understanding, Schopenhauer conceived of madness in terms of the faculty of reason. Once again, however, he found no reason to think that insane people lack this faculty altogether. On the contrary, in conversation they appeared ‘astonishingly rational’ in their ability to speak, comprehend, judge and conclude. Instead, he wonders in his notes, ‘Might not madness consist in the will having lost causality concerning cognition? Consequently, might not madness be a mere derangement of memory?’
In other words, insane people, in Schopenhauer’s experience, appear to have lost, not reason itself, but rather wilful control over reason. They were perfectly capable of having and communicating abstract thoughts, especially in response to their present surroundings, but they struggled to call up or cast out these thoughts at will.
It might strike us as odd that Schopenhauer identifies this general control over our thoughts with memory specifically. What he meant, however, is that this lack of control compromised the ability of insane people to bring their past experience to bear on their present thinking.
He settles on the view that madness is ‘the torn thread of memory’
But the story doesn’t end here. Schopenhauer changed his mind, once again in response to his own observations. In notes from 1816 – still two years before the first volume of The World as Will and Representation would be published – he writes: ‘I thought for a long time that madness was really only a disease of the memory; this, however, is not so, for many insane people have good memories.’ He simply couldn’t deny that some insane people can control the coming and going of their thoughts at will.
The considered view at which Schopenhauer finally arrives, the view that is found in the early and late volumes of his published works as well as his notes, is a modification of his theory based on memory, rather than an abandonment or reversal. He settles on the view that madness is ‘the torn thread of memory’.
On this view, insane people are able bring thoughts of past experience to bear on their present thinking, but the contents of these thoughts, according to Schopenhauer, often misrepresent their past experience. The thoughts of insane people, he found, contained gaps, muddles or even fictions about their own personal history. ‘It is so difficult to ask a mad person about his earlier life,’ Schopenhauer reports. ‘The true and the false become increasingly blended in his memory.’
Schopenhauer speculated on what causes the thread of memory to tear in this way. His explanation revolves around our unwillingness to commit painful and hostile experiences to memory. This unwillingness is perfectly normal; the process of assimilating negative experiences is not easy and pain-free for anyone. But for some, the process is just too painful to carry out at all, so instead they resist and refuse those memories, leaving significant holes in their recollection, or else filling it with fantasies.
He doesn’t give many details about what kinds of painful experience might precipitate madness, but the few examples Schopenhauer does provide suggest it could be almost any kind. One example shows just how slight the pain might be: ‘I remember a person in a madhouse who had been a soldier and went mad because his officer addressed him in the third person’ (ie, ‘er’, a form of address used for inferiors). At the other end of the spectrum, Schopenhauer gives the fictional example of a doomed love affair that can end only in a double suicide (think Romeo and Juliet) ‘unless nature saves the life by allowing madness to enter, which then wraps its veil around the consciousness of that hopeless state’. In cases like this, the descent into madness arrests us before our painful passions drive us to self-destruction.
For the sake of self-preservation, then, the thread of memory isn’t torn so much as cut. Here Schopenhauer sounds ahead of his time, writing decades before Sigmund Freud’s theory of repression. And indeed, Schopenhauer presages Freud’s theory when he says: ‘if … certain events or circumstances are fully repressed from the intellect because the will cannot bear the sight of them, and if the gap that then arises is patched up with some invention due to the need for coherence – then there is madness.’
He often remarks that madness and genius have in common an absorption in the present moment
Farsighted as it might be, Schopenhauer’s theory is not without its own blind spots. As it develops, it acquires a narrow focus on disordered thinking, which in a couple of places he formulates as a simple statement: ‘madness distorts thoughts’. He brushes aside experiences or behaviours with which he otherwise might have characterised madness. Perceptual distortions, such as visions and hallucinations, are the manifestations of physical ailments, he claims, and not psychopathologies strictly speaking. They can be found in insane people, but they are incidental to their insanity. He does acknowledge rage, frenzy, fury and mania as kinds of madness, but to account for this he has to go outside of his theory based on memory, and instead argue that in these cases the will has usurped cognition altogether, becoming ‘a powerful natural force unleashed’.
It’s not hard to see why Schopenhauer came to consider what he calls madness as what we might call a cognitive disorder, given his method of enquiry. His theory was shaped by meeting people who lived with the condition, and ideally speaking with them. The cognitive faculties of the people he met must have been sufficiently intact to make this possible, and yet dysfunctional enough (for the times) to warrant them living where he found them – in hospitals and asylums. As the conversations went on, and their disordered thinking was revealed, it would be only natural to conclude that this is where their problems originate.
How might all this work as a rebuke to Fichte’s thesis that madness is bestial and genius god-like? Schopenhauer claims to have observed the opposite: ‘in frequent visits to madhouses I have found individual subjects with unmistakably great talents, whose genius was clearly visible through their madness.’ He often remarks that madness and genius have in common an absorption in the present moment, although in the case of madness this is caused by the torn thread of memory, whereas in genius it’s the preternatural ability to perceive the timeless essence of things rather than their temporary manifestations.
And yet, Schopenhauer provides no specific details about the signs of genius he observed. Instead, he resorts to fictional examples of insane insightfulness, such as King Lear or Ophelia, ‘because the creations of authentic genius … are just as true as real people’.
To find the humanity that survives madness, we have to look elsewhere in Schopenhauer’s enquiry. At no stage was he caused to doubt a finding he made as early as 1814: ‘Often when observing the insane I do not find that their faculty of reason or that their understanding is afflicted, least of all that with them the best in man suffers.’ The people who met with Schopenhauer had not lost the faculties that made them human. Instead, he concluded, they had ceased to use those faculties to memorise their past experiences. They had lost themselves, and through losing themselves they had loosened their grip on reality past, present and future.
Reliable memory of one’s past, by contrast, is the ‘perfect recollection’ in which mental health consists – not remembering everything, of course, but remembering who you are.
Dictionaries and grammar “rules” don’t have the final word on language — and believing they do can harm more than help, especially for the trans community. Sociolinguist Archie Crowley deconstructs three common myths around language, demonstrating how it’s a fluid system that naturally evolves in the direction of inclusion.
This talk was presented to a local audience at TEDxUofSC, an independent event. TED’s editors chose to feature it for you.
YORKVILLE, IL—Decrying the depiction as “sacrilege,” local conservative Christian Elizabeth Dillon told reporters Tuesday she was deeply offended by a music video from rap artist Lil Nas X that implied Satan was a homosexual. “Nowhere in the Bible does Satan receive a lap dance, least of all from another man,” said Dillon, who was just one of thousands of worshippers across the country outraged by the depiction of the fallen angel as anything other than a devout Christian. “Satan embraces sin, but not that sin. He has a wife, you know, and three young demonic children. And sure, he tempted Christ, but never in a sexual way. Satan simply couldn’t be any straighter.” At press time, a horrified Dillon had realized that Satan was bisexual.
Who we are and who we become is in large part the combinatorial product of the people and ideas we surround ourselves with — what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal micro-culture” and Brian Eno called “scenius.” The more different those people are from us, the more they expand the echo chamber of our own mind, the more layered and beautiful the symphony of the spirit becomes. Nowhere is this self-expansion via relationship more evident than in the friendships between great artists and great scientists, one of the most heartening examples of which is the friendship between legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and the poet Thom Gunn.
Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, around the time Dr. Sacks met him (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
To be sure, Sacks’s love affair with writing predates his meeting Gunn and even his foray into science. Nicknamed Inky as a boy for his voracious appetite for pen and paper, which covered everything in ink, he began journaling at an early age — a formative practice of learning to think on paper and converse with himself. Joining the extensive roster of celebrated writers who championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary and speaking to the potency of journaling as an antidote to Tom Waits’s complaint about the inopportune timing of the muse, Sacks writes:
I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…
But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.
My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.
Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam’s busy train station (Photograph: Lowell Handler)
The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand. And I often transcribe quotations I like, writing or typing them on pieces of brightly colored paper and pinning them to a bulletin board.
What Sacks is describing is akin to a commonplace book — that Medieval Tumblr in which thinkers recorded quotations and ideas from whatever they were reading, assembling a personal archive of the ideas that shaped their own minds. (Brain Pickings is essentially one giant commonplace book, and this very piece a sort of bulletin board pinned to which is my discourse with Sacks’s extraordinary text.)
Another thought recorded atop a car roof on the side of the road (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
By the time he was in graduate school, Sacks began externalizing these inner conversations, doing for others what he had been doing for himself on the pages of his journals — clarifying the complexities of mental life at the intersection of science and storytelling, honing the singular gift for which he is so beloved today.
He was so electrified by working with patients at a migraine clinic in the mid-1960s that he felt compelled to transmute these insights into a book. But when he finally finished the manuscript and showed it to his boss at the clinic — a prominent but petty and egomaniacal neurologist by the name of Arnold P. Friedman — he was curtly told that the manuscript was garbage, that he had to destroy it, and that he dare not think about turning it into a book ever again; or else, Friedman threatened, Sacks would be promptly fired and barred from getting another job anywhere in America. Friedman confiscated the manuscript and locked it away.
Still, Sacks trusted that he had written something substantive and important — something that might forever change our understanding of how the mind works. He suppressed his feelings for months but, finally, the resentment exploded into action: One night, with the help of the clinic’s janitor, he sneaked in and, between midnight and 3 A.M., arduously copied his own notes by hand. The next day, he told Friedman he was taking a long leave to London and when his boss demanded a reason, Sacks responded that he had no choice but to write the forbidden book.
He was fired via telegram a week later. And yet a strange sense of liberation set in, which he poured into the writing.
But if this wasn’t courageous enough an act, he soon performed what is perhaps the greatest act of creative courage — the same one John Steinbeck had performed three decades earlier in destroying a manuscript he didn’t feel was good enough and rewriting it from scratch into what would become his Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize. Sacks recounts:
I was dissatisfied with my 1967 manuscript and decided to rewrite the book. It was the first of September, and I said to myself, “If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.” And under this threat, I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over. I was no longer using drugs, but it was a time of extraordinary elation and energy. It seemed to me almost as though the book were being dictated, everything organizing itself swiftly and automatically. I would sleep for just a couple of hours a night. And a day ahead of schedule, on September 9, I took the book to Faber & Faber. Their offices were in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum, and after dropping off the manuscript, I walked over to the museum. Looking at artifacts there — pottery, sculptures, tools, and especially books and manuscripts, which had long outlived their creators — I had the feeling that I, too, had produced something. Something modest, perhaps, but with a reality and existence of its own, something that might live on after I was gone.
I have never had such a strong feeling, a feeling of having made something real and of some value, as I did with that first book, which was written in the face of such threats from Friedman and, for that matter, from myself. Returning to New York, I felt a sense of joyousness and almost blessedness. I wanted to shout, “Hallelujah!” but I was too shy. Instead, I went to concerts every night — Mozart operas and Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert — feeling exuberant and alive.
Sacks’s jubilant intuition wasn’t misplaced — that manuscript became his 1970 debut Migraine, which was welcomed with wholehearted critical acclaim and catapulted him into the status of masterful science storyteller. When the book came out, he found out that Friedman had adapted the original manuscript and attempted to publish it under his own name — a tragicomic testament to the fact that it is Sacks’s singular gift as a writer and storyteller, not his scientific genius alone, that make him the cultural icon he is today.
Dr. Sacks recovering in the hospital with nothing but a typewriter by his side. He had broken his leg in Norway, falling down a slippery canyon while being chased by a bull. (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
Sacks had befriended Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t until after the publication of Migraine that he was able to engage with the poet in conversations about writing more confidently — a confidence further nurtured by Gunn’s encouraging feedback which, alongside the staunch support of Sacks’s beloved aunt Lennie, was instrumental in emboldening the budding writer to embark upon this far from easy path.
He talked with Gunn about “the process of writing, the rushes and stoppages, the illuminations and darknesses, which seemed to be part and parcel of the creative process.” Long before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of writing, Gunn captured the mysterious psychological messiness of the process in one of his letters to Sacks:
I am a bit slothful at the moment. My pattern seems to be: a long cessation of any coherent writing after I have completed a MS, then a tentative start followed by, during the next few years, various separate bursts of activity, ending with a sense of the new book as a whole, in which I make discoveries about my subject(s) that I have never anticipated. It’s strange, the psychology of being a writer. But I suppose it’s better not to be merely facile — the blocks, the feelings of paralysis, the time when language itself seems dead, these all help me in the end, I think, because when the “quickenings” do come they are all the more energetic by contrast.
Sacks reflects on the sincerity of his friend’s values:
It was crucial for Thom that his time be his own; his poetry could not be hurried but had to emerge in its own way… “My income,” [he] wrote, “averages about half that of a local bus-driver or street sweeper, but it is of my own choosing, since I prefer leisure to working at a full-time job.” But I do not think Thom felt too constrained by his slender means; he had no extravagances (though he was generous with others) and seemed naturally frugal. (Things eased up in 1992, when he received a MacArthur Award, and after this he was able to travel more and enjoy some financial ease, to indulge himself a bit.)
I was particularly taken, and felt a deep kinship, with Sacks’s parenthetical note about Gunn’s ethos regarding writing about the writing of others:
Thom rarely reviewed what he did not like, and in general his reviews were written in the mode of appreciation.
Despite knowing his friend’s disposition toward criticism, Sacks recounts:
I sometimes felt terrified of his directness — terrified, in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse.
Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
But the feedback that most touched him was about his 1973 book Awakenings — a cultural classic that was eventually made into a film starring Robin Williams as Sacks. Gunn wrote:
Awakenings is, anyway, extraordinary. I remember when, some time in the late Sixties, you described the kind of book you wanted to write, simultaneously a good scientific book and worth reading as a well-written book, and you have certainly done it here… I have also been thinking of the Great Diary you used to show me. I found you so talented, but so deficient in one quality — just the most important quality — call it humanity, or sympathy, or something like that. And, frankly, I despaired of your ever becoming a good writer, because I didn’t see how one could be taught such a quality… Your deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observation… What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied… I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or the opening-up helped by acid, or really falling in love with someone (as opposed to being infatuated). Or all three…
I was thrilled by this letter, a bit obsessed, too. I did not know how to answer Thom’s question. I had fallen in love — and out of love — and, in a sense, was in love with my patients (the sort of love, or sympathy, which makes one clear-eyed).
I loved the sense of history, of predecessors, in many of Thom’s poems. Sometimes this was explicit, as in his “Poem After Chaucer” (which he sent me as a New Year’s card in 1971); more often it was implicit. It made me feel at times that Thom was a Chaucer, a Donne, a Lord Herbert, who now found himself in the America, the San Francisco, of the late twentieth century. This sense of ancestors, of predecessors, was an essential part of his work, and he often alluded to, or borrowed from, other poets and other sources. There was no tiresome insistence on “originality,” and yet, of course, everything he used was transmuted in the process.
I must count my writing as an essential part of the way in which I deal with life. I am however a rather derivative poet. I learn what I can from whom I can. I borrow heavily from my reading, because I take my reading seriously. It is part of my total experience and I base most of my poetry on my experience. I do not apologize for being derivative… It has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.
Dr. Sacks at home on City Island, the Bronx (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
And yet art requires undisturbed personal space for the “quickenings” of the creative process to unfold slowly — something Sacks protected with great discipline as he blossomed into a prolific writer himself. In his house on City Island, he tacked a sign to the wall above his desk that simply read “NO!” — “reminding myself to say no to invitations so I could preserve writing time,” he explains. It is no accident that Sacks dedicates the final sentences in his autobiography to this great love of writing and, in a sentiment that calls to mind the psychology of flow, fuses it with his great gift for science:
I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.
I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.
The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.
Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.
Oliver Sacks writing in his seventies (Photograph: Bill Hayes)
Every page of the altogether magnificent On the Move emanates this contagious delight in writing and furnishes an equivalent delight in reading — a sense of being invited, in the most generous way possible, into a lifetime of Sacks’s conversations with his own luminous, incessantly quickening mind. Take another step inside.
UPDATE 2021: In the years since I wrote the essay above, filmmaker Ric Burns has been laboring on the documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life. I had the joy of seeing a screening with my editor, the miraculous Dan Frank — who was also Oliver’s editor — just before the world came unworlded by the pandemic. The film is absolutely wonderful and is now out, as we are all about to be.
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