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The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

de Stephen Grosz

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In his work as a practising psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz has spent the last twenty-five years uncovering the hidden feelings behind our most baffling behaviour. The Examined Life distils over 50,000 hours of conversation into pure psychological insight, without the jargon.
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Es mostren 1-5 de 26 (següent | mostra-les totes)
I think it says something that a few months after reading this I have absolutely no recollection of what I thought of its contents. I can't even remember a single story. *chagrined* ( )
  AliceaP | May 16, 2022 |
Very interesting book. How patterns between random events can dictate so much of a persons life is very thought-provoking. ( )
  sagar15 | Apr 9, 2022 |
Lovely vignettes with very astute and interesting insights in their interpretations. ( )
  porte01 | Jan 25, 2021 |
Incredible. Every chapter is a perfect little meditation, poetic and profound. Best book I've read in a year of incredible reads! ( )
  nandiniseshadri | Jul 12, 2020 |
Highly engaging, readable and relatively brief series of case studies from Stephen Grosz's practice over 25 years. He writes with care and sensitivity towards his patients and with some humility in respect of his own capabilities as a psychoanalyst.
Readers might recognise themselves in one of more of the case studies. More likely I suspect is that each of us will recognise some element of our or someone else's behaviour. This may help us, though this is not a 'self-help' book. Even if we don't believe we are in need of any kind of help, this provides a probing insight into some aspects of human behaviour. ( )
  peterjt | Feb 20, 2020 |
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For the past twenty-five years, I've worked as a psychoanalyst. - Preface
I want to tell you a story about a patient who shocked me.
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In the sessions that followed it slowly became clear that Peter enjoyed thinking about the distress he caused when he suddenly quit work or ended a friendship. He’d blown up the analysis twice – first when he quit and then, a second time, when he faked his suicide. In the first phase of his analysis, I hadn’t realised just how attached Peter was to violently upsetting others. But why?

Peter’s parents had divorced when he was two and his mother had remarried soon after. During this second phase of his analysis, Peter sought out his biological father and spoke frankly with his mother. He discovered that his mother had been having an affair with the man who became his stepfather, and that his father and mother both drank heavily. He also discovered that the first two years of his life were very different from the story he’d been told. His mother and father both admitted that they couldn’t cope and had been violent with him when he was a baby.

Peter told me that his dad didn’t remember much, just that it was a terrible, unhappy time, an unhappy marriage. ‘My mother cried, she kept saying that she was sorry,’ Peter said. ‘She was only twenty when I was born and no one was there to help her. She said that sometimes she felt she was just going crazy.’

Her confession gave Peter some relief. For as long as he could remember, he had felt afraid. He told me that it helped to know that he was frightened of something. For a small child, violence is an overwhelming, uncontrollable and terrifying experience – and its emotional effects can endure for a lifetime. The trauma becomes internalised, it’s what takes hold of us in the absence of another’s empathy. So why did Peter turn on those close to him?

Peter’s behaviour made it clear that he couldn’t allow himself to feel weak. Dependence for him was dangerous. Peter’s story might be summed up as, ‘I’m the attacker who traumatises, never the baby who is hurt.’ But Peter also felt bound to turn on himself. When Peter assaulted himself in the church, he enacted this same story. As he told me, ‘I thought – you pathetic little crybaby. I can do this to you and you can’t stop me.’

I believe that all of us try to make sense of our lives by telling our stories, but Peter was possessed by a story that he couldn’t tell. Not having the words, he expressed himself by other means. Over time I learned that Peter’s behaviour was the language he used to speak to me. Peter told his story by making me feel what it was like to be him, of the anger, confusion and shock that he must have felt as a child.

The author Karen Blixen said, ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.’ But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him?

Experience has taught me that our childhoods leave in us stories like this – stories we never found a way to voice, because no one helped us to find the words. 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.
Which brings me back to the original problem – if praise doesn’t build a child’s confidence, what does?

Shortly after qualifying as a psychoanalyst, I discussed all this with an eighty-year-old woman named Charlotte Stiglitz. Charlotte – the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz – taught remedial reading in northwestern Indiana for many years. ‘I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do,’ she told me. ‘I praise them when they do something really difficult – like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you”. When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading.’ No great rewards, no terrible punishments – Charlotte’s focus was on what a child did and how that child did it.

I once watched Charlotte with a four-year-old boy, who was drawing. When he stopped and looked up at her – perhaps expecting praise – she smiled and said, ‘There is a lot of blue in your picture.’ He replied, ‘It’s the pond near my grandmother’s house – there is a bridge.’ He picked up a brown crayon, and said, ‘I’ll show you: Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present. Being present builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about. Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end in itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we’ve not been attentive to her?

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness – the feeling that someone is trying to think about us – something we want more than praise?
And what did Matt feel? He too seemed indifferent to his own situation. When I asked him what he felt about his arrest by the police he replied, ‘I’m cool. Why?’ I tried again. ‘You don't seem to be very anxious for yourself,’ I said. ‘You could have been shot.’ He shrugged.

I began to realise that Matt did not register his own emotions. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he seemed either to pick up and employ my descriptions of his feelings or to infer his emotions from the behaviour of others. For example, he said he didn’t know why he had pointed the gun at the police officer. I suggested he might have been angry. ‘Yeah, I was angry,’ Matt replied. ‘What did you feel when you were angry?’ I asked. ‘You know, the police, they were very angry with me. My parents were very angry with me. Everyone was very angry with me,’ he replied. ‘But what did you feel?’ I asked. ‘They were all really shouting at me,’ he told me.

Typically, what brings a potential patient to a consultation is the pressure of his immediate suffering. In this case it was Matt's father, not Matt, who had telephoned for an appointment. Matt had learned at an early age to deaden his feelings and to distrust those who offered him help. Our encounter was no different. Matt did not feel enough emotional pain to overcome his suspicions and accept my offer to meet again.

In 1946, while working in a leprosy sanatorium, the physician Paul Brand discovered that the deformities of leprosy were not an intrinsic part of the disease, but rather a consequence of the progressive devastation of infection and injury, which occurred because the patient was unable to feel pain. In 1972, he wrote: ‘If I had one gift which I could give to people with leprosy, it would be the gift of pain.’ Matt suffered from a kind of psychological leprosy; unable to feel his emotional pain, he was forever in danger of permanently, maybe fatally, damaging himself.

After Matt left my office and before writing up my notes, I did what I sometimes do after a knotty, affecting consultation. I walked round the corner to buy a takeaway coffee and then returned to my consulting room to zone out by reading who knows what on the Internet. The truth of the matter is this: there is a bit of Matt in each of us. At one time or another, we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us, and why.
‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘But it could be that your architecture helps you to preserve your sense of reality. You’re not thinking about your house in France all of the time. It seems to be something you do when you’re cut off, frightened or angry.’

‘That’s a very charitable reading of what I’m trying to describe, but I’m not sure. It doesn’t explain my incessant redecorating, or my bizarre haggling – the “I’ll give up everything if only I can have” . . . whatever.’

No, I say, it doesn’t explain his bartering. ‘That seems more like the sort of thing a frightened child might do.’

I hear him move again, perhaps stand up.

He tells me that there’s a story by Joyce, he thinks it’s in Dubliners. He read it during his first year at university, but he hasn’t looked at it since then – the ending was upsetting, too disturbing. At the end of the story, the father – who has been drinking – returns home and discovers that his wife is at church and his son has let the fire go out. The father’s going to have to wait for his dinner and the little boy tries to calm him down. He tells his father he’ll make him his dinner, but the father won’t be appeased. He gets a walking stick, rolls up his sleeves, and then starts to beat the little boy. There is no escape. The drunk father keeps hitting the little boy over and over again. There is blood. The little boy is begging and then the begging turns to bargaining – ‘Don’t beat me Pa, don’t beat me and I’ll say a Hail Mary for you. I’ll say a Hail Mary for you Pa, if you don't beat me.’

That’s how it felt when his mother slapped and punched him – ‘Don't hit me Mummy, I’'ll be good, I’ll be a good boy Mummy,’ And when that didn’t work, he tells me, ‘I begged God – “Stop her beating me God, stop her beating me. I’ll be good. I’ll give you anything, everything, if you just make me safe. Please God, please.”’

I hear him breathing. I have the sense he is trying not to cry. He says, ‘Mr Grosz?’


‘My house has a magic door.’

‘A magic door?’

A year earlier, he'd been on a long-haul flight that had a stopover in Hong Kong. An hour after leaving Hong Kong there was a bang, then the sound of wind rushing through the cabin. The oxygen masks released. The plane dropped rapidly from 30,000 feet. He believed he was about to die. ‘I thought that if I could just get up and open the cockpit door, I’d step into my house. I could be home, safe. I was about to take off the oxygen mask and undo my seat belt when the plane levelled out.’

A stalled Underground train, a traffic jam – he can get up and walk through the door, into his house. A lot of his thinking is about the magic door – what does he have to give up to have it? ‘It’s crazy,’ he says, ‘isn’t it?’

I tell him that I don’t think it’s crazy. A little boy who is being punched would give anything for a magic door.

‘I don’t think much about my childhood. When I do, I don’t remember a great deal. It all seems so long ago, dead. I think to myself that was my childhood – not, that is my childhood. It’s not alive in me.’

Neither of us speaks. After a minute or so I suddenly worry that we might have been cut off.

‘I’m still here,’ he says. He is silent for a moment. According to my watch our time’s almost up. I don’t want to say any more now. Tomorrow I have a drinks party that I have to attend, so I’ll have to stop fifteen minutes early, I’m very sorry.’
I was relieved to be paid but uncertain about what had happened between us. Philip had told increasingly blatant lies and I’d become increasingly withdrawn – more guarded when I spoke. He was, I now realised, expert in tying his listener up in the social convention that we meet lies with polite silence. But why – what possible psychological purpose could his behaviour serve?

We wrestled with this question for the next year of his treatment. We explored the idea that his lying was a way of controlling others, or compensating for a sense of inferiority. We talked about his parents – his father was a surgeon and his mother had been a schoolteacher until her death, just before Philip’s twelfth birthday.

And then, one day, Philip described a memory from childhood which had seemed too trivial to mention until then. From the age of three, he used to share a bedroom with his brothers, who slept in cots nearby. He sometimes woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of people shouting as they left the pub across the road. He was often aware of a need to pee, and knew that he should get up and walk down the hall, but he would stay in bed, motionless.

‘I used to wet my bed as a child,’ Philip told me. He described crumpling up his damp pyjamas and pushing them deep into the covers, only to find them at bedtime under his pillow, washed and neatly folded. He never discussed it with his mother and, to the best of his knowledge, she never told anyone, including his father, about his bedwetting. ‘He’d have been furious with me,’ Philip said. ‘I guess she thought I’d outgrow it. And I did, when she died.’

Philip could not remember being alone with his mother. For most of his childhood she had been busy taking care of the twins. He had no memory of ever talking with her on his own; one of his brothers or his father – someone – was always there. His bedwetting and her silence gradually developed into a private conversation – something only they shared. When his mother died, this conversation abruptly came to an end. And so Philip began to improvise another version of their exchange. He told lies that would make a mess and then hoped that his listener would say nothing, becoming, like his mother, a partner in a secret world.

Philip’s lying was not an attack upon intimacy – though it sometimes had that effect. It was his way of keeping the closeness he had known, his way of holding on to his mother.
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In his work as a practising psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz has spent the last twenty-five years uncovering the hidden feelings behind our most baffling behaviour. The Examined Life distils over 50,000 hours of conversation into pure psychological insight, without the jargon.

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