Neurotic pain, of whatever variety, has the unsuspected role of reminding us of something important that we have forgotten. The reason neurotic pain is as gruelling and unrelenting as it is is because it is reminding us of something unusually important. It is reminding us that we have forgotten who we are!
This reminder is as painful as it is because we are fighting against it – we are fighting against being reminded of who we are as hard as we can, but at the same time we are not being entirely successful in our struggle. Obviously we aren’t being entirely successful or else the struggle would be ended and we wouldn’t carry on experiencing the pain of the neurosis. If we could fight successfully against being reminded then we would of course go straight back to forgetting and so there would be no more need for the neurotic struggle, but this clearly isn’t the way that it works.
The problem is therefore that we don’t want to be reminded of who we are. For one thing, as Alan Watts says, there is a taboo in our society against knowing who we are (which makes self-knowledge in effect a ‘prohibited awareness’) and for another thing we are attached to all sorts of ‘other stuff’ – stuff that we will have to let go of if we remember who we are….
The reason we will have to let go of all this stuff that we have become so attached to is because it will all become supremely meaningless when we remember who we really are. It’s only meaningful to us because we think we are something else, someone else, someone different. It’s only meaningful because we think that we really are this identity who society says we are – this identity who we say we are. In fact the only real function of all the stuff that we are attached to is to support the counterfeit identity of ‘who we think we are’. That’s why we don’t want to let it go. That’s why we are so afraid to let it go. It may be rubbish (and we may possibly be heartily sick of it) but we need it!
The problem is therefore that we don’t see neurotic pain as something that is reminding us of who we really are (which is something that we have forgotten), but as something that is threatening who we are. We see the function of neurotic pain not as a ‘helpful reminder’ but as a wholly negative force which is undermining who we are, eroding who we are, falsifying who we are. We see neurosis as something that is threatening to destroy who we are, unless we can effectively fight back against it. This being the case, no wonder that we are ‘resisting the reminder’! If we see things like this, then what choice do we have?
The pain of the neurosis isn’t so much caused by the ‘reminder’ but by a combination of the fact that we don’t want to know about it and yet at the same time aren’t able to successfully ignore it or cover it over. Because our attempt to cover over the cracks that keep appearing (and thereby do a convincing ‘whitewash job’ on it) are failing, and because we can’t on this account manage to remain unaware of the stuff that we’re so keen to keep on being unaware of, this spurs us on to ‘extra-intense’ efforts in the direction of whitewashing and it is this massive escalation of the ‘covering up’ tactics that actually causes us the pain which we complain about! Because our usual strategies are not working so well we go into over-drive, we ‘take it to the next level’, and this runaway escalation backfires on us and goes on to create huge amounts of pain and frustration. It is our own attempts to ‘help ourselves’ (or ‘make things better’) that are hurting us in neurotic suffering however – not the ‘original pain’, which we are still not relating to. We’re dealing exclusively with the secondary pain, the displaced pain, not the primary source.
One example of how ‘trying to make things better makes them worse’ is obsessive thinking and behaviour. On the face of it obsession might seem to be purely pathological since there is clearly no useful function being served at all, but the hidden pay-off is not too hard to see – obsessive behaviour is essentially an attempt to ‘get it right’ on the theatrical level rather than on the level that really counts, because we no longer have any belief in our ability to sort things out where it really matters. In this ‘tried-and-trusted’ strategy all of our attention is deflected onto the external tasks (as if this is where the real problem lies) and so we don’t have to notice the unpleasant feelings of insecurity and risk that are going on ‘on the inside’. If we are able to ‘get things right’ on the theatrical level of the external tasks (i.e. prove ourselves to be effective in this arena) then this provides us with a highly rewarding feeling of security, and the reason it is so ‘rewarding’ is because we have successfully off-set the underlying feeling of insecurity that arises out of our lack of trust in our ability to be effective where it really matters. When this strategy stops working for us, however (i.e. when it ceases to be a way in which we can off-set the hidden insecurity) then we are left with no choice but to escalate all this goal-orientated behaviour, but no matter how much we escalate the behaviour we still aren’t able to counter-act the nasty feelings of ‘something bad happening that we aren’t in control of’. Because we can’t counter-act the feeling we just have to keep on reiterating and reiterating the goal oriented activity, since this is the only way we have of trying to make ourselves feel better.
The trouble with this strategy is therefore that when the feelings of insecurity aren’t effectively covered up then we have to go on doubling and redoubling ‘our efforts on the outside’, and this ‘doubling and redoubling’ of our efforts (doing something thirty times when normally only the one time would suffice) starts to become a real problem in itself. In the case of perfectionism, getting something ‘nearly right’ is no longer good enough and we have to exhaust myself getting it exactly right, even though getting something ‘exactly right’ doesn’t usually work out very well in the real world! In the case of what is called ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’ what happens is that the good feeling of ‘having got it right’ that we are looking for doesn’t come about when we carry out some very normal action or task, and instead we are left with a very unpleasant feeling of things ‘not being right’, even though in the external arena the action may appear (to everyone else, at least) to have been carried out perfectly adequately. We get the highly uncomfortable feeling that what we were trying to fix may not be fixed correctly after all, even though we may have gone over it a hundred times or more. We are therefore tortured by this possibility (which won’t be put to bed) and have to go on repeating our actions in the hope that we might rectify matters.
We might have made ourselves oblivious to the uncertainty on the inside therefore (which is an uncertainty that is intrinsic to the very nature of existence) but what has happened in OCD is that this intrinsic uncertainty has popped up on the outside. I am waging a veritable ‘war against uncertainty’ with all my compulsive, endlessly-reiterated purposeful behaviour, but no matter how much I fight against it on the outside (where the battle can usually be won, at least on the short-term) the uncertainty keeps haunting me and cannot be effectively exorcised. Even the safe ‘surrogate’ tasks of everyday life are now proving too slippery for me to get a grip on – ‘risk’ cannot be eradicated no matter how much energy and time I invest in the struggle.
Addictions too can be seen in terms of curing the threat of ‘intrinsic uncertainty’ by putting all our efforts into fixing an external problem. This sort of thing is sometimes called ‘pseudo-solution’ – we ignore the problem that can’t be fixed and deflect all our attention onto to some ‘safe’ problem that can be fixed! Whatever my addiction, whether it is a drug such as alcohol or heroin, or a behaviour such as gambling or shopping or eating or exercising, I have deflected all of my attention onto the never-ending task of servicing it, fulfilling it, ‘looking after’ it, such that when the addiction in question is successfully serviced or fulfilled or looked-after then – by definition – ‘everything is alright’! When addiction is my way of ‘ignoring the real issue by creating a false one’ then I do not experience the same type of continuous worry or frustration about life as I do in the case of OCD and perfectionism because life has now been simplified down to the super-banal (but very safe) task of ‘servicing the addiction’ – which is a job that I can do.
This does not however mean that I get to escape suffering – there is overt and inescapable suffering in this form of neurosis just as there is in every other form. For one thing, life has now (as we have said) been reduced to nothing more than ‘servicing the addiction’ and this is not only incredibly petty in its scope, but also mind-numbingly repetitive and sterile. It is repetitive because it is just the same thing over and over again, and it is sterile for exactly the same reason! For another thing I am only going to feel ‘complete’ (in a surrogate sort of a way, of course) when I have successfully obtained the fix that I am after; the rest of the time (when I am denied my fix) then I am of course going to be experiencing the uncompromising pain and misery that comes when I can’t service my addiction successfully. In this case (when I can’t fulfil the surrogate task) all the insecurities in the world are going to be free to come and gnaw upon my bones and there is not a thing I can do about it. So whilst addiction represents a very neat ‘pseudo-solution’ of life this doesn’t means that there isn’t any pain in it – it just means that (on the theatrical level at least) the pain is solvable in a very simple way…
Addictions are in way therefore ‘partially successful’ forms of neurosis since although they incur suffering by their very nature, they do allow us to carry on ‘ignoring the reminder’ for an indefinitely long time, or at least until some external factor (just as incapacitating sickness, or a lack of means to carry on servicing our needs) puts a stop to our game. And of course when this happens we find that we have put ourselves in line for an absolutely tremendous amount of suffering – not just because we can’t scratch the conditioned itch that we have painstakingly build-up for ourselves, but also because our means of over-simplifying life (and therefore escaping it) has now collapsed on us, leaving us with no way of evading the central ontological challenge of existence – despite our intense desire not to do so.
Possibly the most familiar form of neurotic pain is the pain of anxiety, which is the type of neurosis in which our ability to resist hearing the reminder is most compromised. We’re trying to do something in anxiety that we can’t let ourselves know about (which is true for all neurosis) but the difference here is that no matter what we do we can’t help getting the nasty feeling that we just aren’t going to be able to pull it off! So whilst anxiety (to start off with, at least) relates us exclusively to the surrogate task with which we are involving ourselves so as to neatly sidestep awareness of the true issue, because it represents ‘the beginning of the end’ in terms of us believing in our ability to carry out tasks effectively, this means that the anxiety starts to show itself in relation to our ability to fool ourselves that the surrogate task is the real task.
What is happening here is that we are experiencing anxiety on two levels: on one level it has to do with our ability to successfully carry out the surrogate task, whilst on the other (deeper) level we’re anxious about our ability to self-distract effectively. So we’re anxious about not being able to achieve the goal that (on the face of things) we are trying so hard to achieve, but we are also anxious with regard to our ability to fool ourselves that this nominal goal is what we are really anxious about, and this of course represents a failure of the neurotic strategy.
In anxiety all our energy goes into ‘safety behaviours’ but the (different) thing about the safety behaviours in anxiety is that we know they are going to fail even before we start engaging in them. What this means therefore is that we have no reassuring perception whatsoever that we are ‘successfully increasing our sense of ontological security’, despite all our frantic efforts in this direction. Quite the reverse is true – we experience ourselves as sinking deeper and deeper in uncertainty the whole time, we experience ourselves as ‘going down’, just as a sinking ship goes down. It may be the case that we feel we can just about stay afloat for the time being, but we are under no illusions as to where our ultimate trajectory is taking us. We know that the ship is sinking, despite our best efforts to bail it out or patch up the holes, and so the emphasis of our activity has to be shifted. Now, what we are trying to do with all our frantic activity is to distract ourselves as much as possible from seeing that our attempts to distract ourselves from hearing the reminder are failing.
Here, we stand on the very edge (the crumbling edge) of an infinite regress – I already know that my attempts to resist hearing the reminder are doomed to failure and so rather than flogging this dead horse any more I put all my effort into distracting myself from this knowledge by throwing myself into the doomed attempts at resistance (which equals ‘me trying to bail out the sinking ship’) with renewed energy. I’m not really trying to bail out the sinking ship however because I know at this stage that I can’t – what I’m trying to do is distract myself from seeing that the ship is sinking by allowing myself to believe (on a superficial level at least) that I can do something to remedy the situation. So all the purposeful activity of bailing out the sinking ship is very useful to me in the sense that I can absorb myself in it (like ink gets absorbed by a thick wad of blotting paper) and I don’t have to think so much about the fact that it is sinking. My motivation therefore is not what I say it is – my real motivation is simply to put off the moment when I have to admit to myself what I already know to be true. I am playing a delaying game.
But at this stage of the game the ‘rot’ has well and truly set in, so that no matter how much I throw myself into any form of pseudo-solution I can’t help sensing the truth that lies behind the latest and most promising level of self-deception. I begin to see through the latest game that I have started playing, even as I start playing it. So in other words the need arises to distract myself from seeing that my attempts to distract myself are failing. And then, following this, the next need that arises is the need to distract myself from seeing that my attempts to distract myself from seeing that I am distracting myself are failing, and so on and so forth. When denial fails, I need to ‘up the ante’ and start denying that the denial is failing! And when this new level of denial – which is the denial that the original level of denial is failing – starts to fail, as it will, then I have to deny this too, because denial is the path that I have taken and I must see it through to the bitter end.
The whole point about ‘taking the path of denial’ is that we immediately lose sight of whatever it is that we are denying. This is after all why we deny stuff in the first place – in order to lose sight of it. Once we have set off down this road then the door is shut behind us and we no longer have any way of knowing what it is that we have shut the door on – all we know is that when something starts to come up again then this eventuality (although mysterious to us) is extremely unwelcome. We get an unmistakable sense that something very bad is threatening to emerge and so we really don’t want to hang around to find out what it is. Even if we might naturally be curious about other stuff, when this ‘unwanted emergence’ happens we find that we are suddenly not curious at all. We just want to run away. We don’t know why we want to run away, we just know that we do. This is the ‘unspoken logic of denial – which we have already put in place, even if we can’t remember having done so. It is as if some dark enchantment were upon us which takes away all our courage in an instant, leaving us no choice but to flee to the very best of our ability. The moment we get a whiff of something coming out of the hatch of the unconscious (something which we were pretending very thoroughly not to know about) then we find that we have been turned into what Kurt Vonnegut might call ‘running away machines’.
The irony of all this however is that what we are fleeing from so determinedly in neurosis isn’t actually ‘bad news’ at all, even though we are automatically treating it as if it were. The awareness that we are running away from (the awareness that we have turned our backs on and tried to ‘do without’) is nothing sinister; it isn’t anything dark or terrible, no matter how we might be feeling about it. What this awareness is after all (as we have been saying) is that we have forgotten something very important to us. It is not however something that is important in a ‘bad’ way, which is how we are treating it. To discover that we have forgotten who we really are is actually very good news, no matter how frightening or painful or sad or confusing the process of remembering might be. ‘Who we are’ is all we really have, and so to lose this – as we have done – is to lose everything. We have lost everything because everything we are, everything we have, everything we do, is only meaningful if we actually ARE who we think we are, and we aren’t!
To lose sight of who we are and not to know it (not to have even the slightest intimation that anything has been lost) is to lose everything, even though we don’t know it. We’re stuck – potentially for a very very long time indeed – in this situation of ‘having lost everything and yet not knowing it’, and then ‘the painful reminder’ comes along and we classify this reminder as ‘neurotic mental illness’, and apply the very best of our ingenuity to working how to get rid of it, how to banish it, how to eliminate it entirely. That way we can get back to our preferred situation, which is – as we have been saying – the situation of having lost everything and having not the slightest clue that we have lost anything.
This situation is convivial to us even if it isn’t really as good as we generally imagine it to be. This is something like the phenomenon of sentimentality – when we are sentimental we think fondly of how wonderful things used to be, and forget with the benefit of our rose-tinted glasses that it wasn’t perhaps as great as all that after all. With the ‘unconscious situation’ which is everyday life we often experience similar sentimentality – we think that there is something wonderful, something great there, even if honest scrutiny would reveal that there is nothing of the sort. It can’t be great, it can’t be wonderful, unless we can remember who we are! Otherwise it’s all distorted. If we could allow ourselves to see that there is nothing so wonderful, nothing so great about the distorted (or false) reflection of reality then we would cease to involve ourselves so feverishly in it, but we are stubbornly resistant to this awareness…
To discover that what we have forgotten in our rush to ‘get ahead’ is as crucial, as central as who we really are has got to be a matter of supreme importance (to put it mildly), especially considering all the misery, frustration, confusion, strife and pointless drudgery that has been caused by thinking that we are what we’re not! To forget who we really are is to live in a state of ‘servitude to the unreal’ and no matter how faithfully or how devoutly we serve the unreal the one thing that is guaranteed is that we are never going to get anything for it!
So the tremendous irony in neurosis is that all of the suffering we go through as a result of it comes about because of our own infinitely stubborn refusal to hear the truth (or heed the awareness) that was only ever going to help us.
The irony – which we are of course incapable of appreciating at the time – is that we go though all this unending pain because of our astonishing dedication to running away from the only thing that could ever help us…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.