The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz recounts some of the author’s insights from years of working as a psychologist. One theme the book explores is people’s tendency to coast, unthinking, through life. The consequences include damaged relationships, professional failure and various acts of self-sabotage.
Here I’ll highlight three of the book’s topics. Each of them is connected to the theme of living without much awareness or personal regard.
Evaluating the way we relate to others
We see ourselves and other people through mental filters of different kinds. To everyone, we bring our own interpretations and biases. Some qualities we notice or introduce through our own imagination. Other things we miss, no matter how obvious they may seem in hindsight.
If we’re not careful, we may end up using other people in ways that help us avoid considering or working on our own problems. Other people become stand-ins, symbols or scapegoats. Even without consciously intending to, we stop seeing them as distinct individuals; we reduce them to something that we can use to soothe ourselves or deflect our thoughts from painful directions.
Here’s one example. Early in the book, Grosz discusses how some parents raise their children with “empty praise.” Praise and compliments pour out of them in a babbling stream. Grosz points out how their behavior is similar in some key respects to parents who subject their children to a torrent of “thoughtless criticism.”
In both cases, the praise or criticism has little to do with the child; it’s all about how the parent feels like acting, usually because of some deeper-seated beliefs or problems. There’s nothing wrong with complimenting a child; there’s also nothing wrong with judicious criticism. These behaviors become thoughtless or empty when they reflect a disregard for who the child is and what the child needs. A shower of mindless praise and a storm of mindless criticism render a child invisible. The child’s actions and goals stop mattering. The only thing that seems to matter is the parent’s own issues, acted out in the unthinking praise or aggressive criticism.
Grosz returns to this problem throughout the book. At one point he describes psychological “splitting” –
“… an unconscious strategy that aims to keep us ignorant of feelings in ourselves that we’re unable to tolerate. Typically, we want to see ourselves as good, and put those aspects of ourselves that we find shameful into another person or group. Splitting is one way we have of getting rid of self-knowledge… In the short term, this gives us some relief – ‘I’m not bad, you are.’ But in denying and projecting a part of ourselves into another, we come to regard these negative aspects as outside of our control.”
Maturing and gaining a greater measure of control over our lives requires regularly evaluating how we relate to people. To what extent do we see them, and do they see us? Are we using them, restricting them to limited, stifling roles, to avoid certain kinds of painful self-knowledge?
Coping with change
“We resist change. Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation. We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story.”
Many of the anecdotes Grosz shares in his book touch on the issue of change and people’s resistance to it. Even happier changes are potentially stressful. For example, a promotion at work leads to greater responsibilities and more pressure; it changes the dynamics of your relationship with other people. When gaining something, you experience a loss and need to redefine your life. As Grosz points out, when people are unprepared to deal with this reality, they can wind up hurting themselves, engaging in acts of self-sabotage.
Fear of change also accompanies people resistance to self-knowledge. If they discover something new about themselves and the way they relate to the world, so much could change: their mental landscape, their values, their relationships and the way they live. Granted, these changes may make them more content and mature in the long run, but the initial pain can feel overwhelming. Ignoring the knowledge also extracts a cost, some pretty steep costs in fact, but at least things can stay as they are for as long as possible.
Choosing what stories we tell about ourselves
When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.
What are the stories we tell about ourselves, and how do they affect our lives? For instance, in response to a trauma or setback, part of our narrative may involve thoughts about our emotions: “I should have gotten over this by now,” “I shouldn’t have let this get to me,” “I should be feeling more sad or angry or guilty.” The stories we tell about our emotions can compound on the stress we feel from the event itself. Or they can help us towards a better understanding of how to heal and handle various situations.
One reason good writing is so powerful is that it can give expression to what we didn’t know how to describe. It can help us rethink or revise our narratives. The stories we tell shape how we make sense of things and perceive ourselves in relation to the world and other people. Problems arise when we cling to a story that hurts us or others. But we have a tendency to hang on to certain stories, and the ideas and perceptions within them, because change is so difficult.
The Examined Life is well worth reading. It pushes people to look more closely at sources of pain, pleasure, confusion and wonder in their lives. The examination isn’t easy, and the author doesn’t make dishonest promises of instantaneous wisdom or a life free from pain. It’s a book that stimulates reflection.