Category Archives: Confusion

What’s Wrong with Me?

This question, and the accompanying statement, “there must be something wrong with me,” are those that I hear most frequently in the course of a working day.

In some ways, perhaps this isn’t surprising. People generally don’t come to therapy when they are thriving and full of joy.   And yet… are unhappiness, depression, feeling alone, etc. best conceptualized as something “wrong” with you?

I would say not, and that this way of thinking about things, and oneself, is pernicious and destructive, and more importantly, a kind of violence to the truth.

Let me try to explain.

Let’s say you hate being in groups of over three people. You feel anxious, bored, foolish, or very alone. Thinking of this in terms like “what’s wrong with me?” may come easily to you – it seems to come awfully easily to most of us.

[Do take a moment now to substitute your own version of this – the kind of situation where you think: “something is wrong with me.”]

It may seem to you that thinking “something is wrong with me” adds something new to the original observation. But what exactly? What do you know now that you didn’t know when you noticed you were bored or anxious?

Nothing, I would say. You don’t know any more, but you have the illusion you do. You “know” that this bored/anxious person is defective – morally/ genetically/spiritually/psychologically, take your pick.

Why does this feel like knowledge? Why do we go to this place so easily?

I tend to locate the answers to these questions in our earliest thinking/feeling. I think the idea “there is something wrong with me” is a transform of one of the earliest proto-thoughts/feelings we have – “I’m not loved.”   In any normal, let alone abnormal, childhood there are literally thousands of moments where we might come to think this: when we’re terrified and crying during the night but no one comes, when we’re starving and there’s no mum/breast/bottle in sight, when we are overwhelmed by any feeling – love/hate/anger/aloneness/fear and there is no one there to hold us and help us digest the feeling. And of course these are just the earliest such moments where we might come to think “No one loves me.”  Later, there’s the arrival of a new sibling, the priority given to another over us at family gatherings and school, the lack of recognition of what we can offer to the world, etc.

I believe that thinking/feeling “I’m not loved” is just too painful, especially to our earliest consciousness. So we replace it with another, slightly less painful thought – “there is something wrong with me.” Initially, I imagine, this is also a hopeful thought – in that if there is something wrong with me I can discover and correct it. And then I Will Be Loved!

But as time goes on, the thought becomes more solid, and the hope fades. The link with its painful origin is forgotten. And, in the fullness of time, it becomes a part of our identity. There Is Something Wrong With Me.

At this point, the thought comes very easily, and gives a kind of comfort – that of “knowing” ourselves.   I believe that for my patients, and indeed all of us, thinking, “there is something wrong with me” stops the pain of feeling anxious/bored/alone and substitutes Bitter But True Self Knowledge. We have come to conceive of ourselves as a malfunctioning machine, rather than a human being in pain.

But of course, there is no self-knowledge here, no truth.   As I’ve shown above, there is nothing added by this strangely reassuring thought to the original perception that we are anxious/bored/alone in a crowd.

Quite the contrary: it helps us avoid the truth. It stops us in our tracks and prevents us from enquiring into what is going on that makes us anxious/bored/alone. It prevents us from seeking our reasons for feeling what we do. In other words, it takes away our power to look at ourselves as rational creatures responding to something in an environment in a way that makes a particular sense to us.

It has become so obvious to me that thinking “there is something wrong with me” is a defence that I’ve become increasingly puzzled about why my clients are so attached to it, to this negative proclamation/conclusion about themselves.

It can take months, years even, to get past this repeated assertion, to get clients to focus on the phenomenology (a fancy word for “what is happening”) of a particular situation that makes them anxious, or bored, whatever.  It’s as if they cling on to this idea “there is something wrong with me” for dear life.

Of course, any identification, even a negative one, is hard to give up. Giving it up means facing the pain that was avoided by it. When people stop telling themselves there is something wrong with themselves they have to face something – a loneliness or self-effacement, for example, that echoes painfully through their lives into their pasts. We are pain-avoiding creatures.

But we are also fed in a powerful way by recognizing the truth. And getting past the empty identification “there is something wrong with me” can put us solidly, if temporarily painfully, on the earth, in our bodies and in our lives. It can give us the future this empty self-knowledge has deprived us of.

A price worth paying?

Confused? You Won’t Be!

Most of us locate confusion in our heads.  But that’s not what language, and our experience, when we look at them closely, tell us.

The word “confuse” comes from the Latin confound.  “Confusus,” a past participle, meant “to pour together, mix, mingle, to join together.” So confused literally means to be fused or joined together with someone else.

The dictionary meaning that comes closest to this is “to fail to distinguish between”” as in “he always confuses the twins.”

Confusion is therefore not something that exists “in your head” but is a result of you being uncertainly located between your head and another’s.

Don’t take my word for it.  Notice the next time you’re confused.  I bet you’ll discover that you’re trying to please/avoid annoying someone else, in a situation in which, if you know your own mind, there will be conflict.  So rather than know your own mind, you become con-fused.  Which, while unpleasant, does have the benefit of letting you avoid speaking and thus incurring the other’s displeasure.

Of course, the habit (or should we call it a strategy?) of being confused starts early.  The first person with whom we’re “fused” in our mother.  For a period, we cannot tell where we begin and they end.  Then gradually (if things go well) and abruptly (if they don’t), we begin to realize we are not self-sufficient, but rather scarily dependent on this person (who we later learn to call “mum”) to keep us alive.

And this is the origin of our later problems with confusion.  Because this kind of dependence, in which we need the other to keep us alive, becomes an unconscious template.  Which is evoked in later confusions.  Thirty/forty/fifty years later, it may be called into being when we’re with someone we “need” in some way — a partner, friend, colleague, boss, etc.

For example, you may become “confused” when your boss tells you that you don’t need a raise, because you’re already well paid.  In the moment of confusion, you’re conflating your boss with your mother, in that you feel you need his/her approval and incurring his displeasure is life-threateningly dangerous.  It doesn’t matter that your mother is dead or thousands of miles away — you’re still responding to an important “other” as if you’re a child and they are the adult crucial to your survival.

Rather than recognize an understandable conflict of interest — your boss may want one thing and you another — you get confused and think he/she knows best. You’re mixing and mingling yourself with him/her so that you don’t know where he/she ends and you begin.  Because if you do recognize that you and he/she are standing in different shoes, there is going to be conflict.  And you imagine, using your unconscious model, that this trouble will be life-threatening, that conflict/trouble will mean we will lose them forever/die/face an unknown but cataclysmic disaster.

Psychically separating from one’s mother is one of the most important elements in becoming your own person.  And naturally,  it’s one of the most complex and difficult to achieve.

Because amongst other things, it means coming to terms with all those feelings/thoughts that were unexpressed (and maybe even unthought) in relation to one’s mother as one grew up — wishing she was dead, hating/loving her with a scary passion, seeing her as the devil/god incarnate alternatively,  envying and being jealous of her, despising her, wanting to gobble her up and keep her forever in your tummy etc. etc.  We unconsciously fear that these thoughts make us bad and unworthy of anyone’s love, that if we allow ourselves to be separate, and voice our thoughts, this terrible truth will come out. And we will forfeit her life-giving love.

Patients often fear even speaking such thoughts in the consulting room — as if their mothers will know, or be stricken down, at a distance.

But avoiding the truth of us being separate beings doesn’t make life easier.  It produces a plague of other ills — anxiety, indecisiveness, confusion, hopelessness, despair.

When we are truly separate, we recognize there are inevitably differences between people, and that these will have consequences.  But we are not tempted to fuse with the other to avoid them.

This makes life simpler.  There’s what you want, your ability to say it, and the consequences you face for speaking your truth.  You don’t get caught up in the anxiety that agreement, or persuading the other that you’re right, is a life or death issue. Which means there is space which can result in understanding, compromise, or simply agreeing to disagree.

(For those of you who vaguely recognize the reference in my title, it’s from Soap, the American tv sitcom in the late 70’s.)