The question I have reached a point in my life where I am having to make the major commitments expected, like marriage, homeownership and children. Decisions that shape your life. I recently chose to end a relationship and step away from buying a house, though, because I felt unable to commit wholeheartedly. In some ways, it only felt I reached those significant events because it was forced upon me rather than getting excited and choosing for myself. It’s not that I don’t take a plunge – sometimes I have to, after all I have to live somewhere. But it always seems to be someone else doing the deciding. I just don’t have any eagerness or desire for anything.
The more I think about it, the more I feel that I have this across my whole life and for all my life. I have a very short-term outlook where I can look forward to small things, like a holiday or starting a new job. But I can’t look forward to anything that has future implications. I never stay with an employer for a long time, or even commit to a savings plan.
Am I expecting too much, or is this just what life is? What is wrong with me?
Philippa’s answer You asked, “What’s wrong with me?” I never like that question, I prefer “What happened to me and how did I survive?” Somehow something or someone stole the steering wheel of your life and your job is to get it back. You talk about ending a major relationship and stepping away from buying a house, but you don’t tell me how you felt about that. Was it a relief? Or was it nothing? Do you miss the other person? Are you sad? Happy?
I’m also wondering whether you got a strong set of rules from your early life, maybe from your parents or from your culture, that life should be lived a certain way. Perhaps you have never learned to know your own feelings, only these “shoulds”. I get a hint of your “shoulds” by the assumption that there is a time in life to settle down. Who says? Not you by the sound of it.
I’m wondering whether your feelings were taken seriously when you were an infant. Whether you could want anything and, if you could, whether you were allowed to go for it, or ask for it. In sum, I’m wondering whether the habit of being told by others what you want and what you need and what you should do, left your feelings redundant early on, so you unconsciously closed them down. If we cannot feel, it is impossible to know what we want and if we don’t know what we desire, how can we aim for it? The pros of repressing all emotion, of turning into stone, is that you cannot be hurt; the price is that it’s not really living. You ask: “Is this just what life is?” which made me wonder whether you are disconnected from your feelings, from your own self.
Sometimes people believe there are two types of feelings – closed down or out of control – and when they fear the latter they choose the former. But you don’t have to choose between head and heart, you can have both. Your head can listen to your heart and take it into consideration when making, or not making, decisions. To discover what it is you do desire, I believe you will have to close down head a tiny bit, and open up heart a tiny bit.
Sometimes we freeze as we fear making the wrong choice – is this you? It feels like we might avoid mistakes if we don’t make decisions. But not making a decision is still a choice and it may, like other choices, be the wrong one. I believe it is impossible to really know whether a choice is the right one without hindsight – and none of us has that. Mistakes and failures are learning opportunities. In psychotherapy we sometimes call them “another bloody fucking learning opportunity”.
I’m wondering whether the idea of another person impacting you, influencing you, is abhorrent. Do you fear being taken over? This might not apply to you, but I have noticed that when someone is very rigid and cannot let anyone in, or at least not for long, they still continue to let in the very old beliefs or even the people who instilled them in the first place, which makes it difficult, although not impossible, to change tack. In short, I’m wondering whether you are still somehow trapped in your childhood. What would happen if you lessened the impact of your earliest experiences and allowed yourself to be more present in the here and now?
I’ve read and re-read your email and it affects me in a certain way. I wonder if you in real life affect the people around you in the same way. Because you say you feel no eagerness for any decision or commitment, my urge is to say, try this or have you tried that? Which is a problem because then you get saddled with plans that aren’t your idea so you can’t commit to them. So I won’t say try psychotherapy to find out who you are and what you want, I won’t say try Buddhism because they believe desire is the root of suffering, instead I’ll stick with give yourself time to feel, then find your own way.
Philippa Perry In Conversation With You, live at the Barbican, London, on 7 September. For tickets go to barbican.org.uk
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