“Six months ago I lost my job and haven’t yet found anything substantial to replace it. About the same time my husband experienced stress-related heart problems.
He wasn’t enjoying his job due to internal politics. He decided it was time to leave and found two part-time jobs.
With one young son and a large mortgage, we worked out we could just about survive with only one of us earning regularly — though we knew it would be tight.
I was hoping to embark on some training and also look after our son full-time at home.
But then a few weeks ago my husband lost one of the new jobs because of unexpected cutbacks.
Now we have half a job between us and not nearly enough money to cover the mortgage, let alone living expenses. We already have a lodger.
My husband and I have always wanted to work together. Perhaps this is our chance.
We could sell our house, downsize and set up on our own running a counselling business or retreat. The problem is where. We have to think about our son’s schooling and two sets of parents (we are only children).
We could go near Birmingham where I went to university, Cornwall where my parents live or France (my husband is half-French), but we’d be saying goodbye to friendships and all that we love about living in a capital city. I loathe making such decisions. Knowing where my paralysis comes from doesn’t make it any easier.
When I was seven, I asked to be sent to boarding school. My parents agreed, but I hated it and wanted to go back home.
They told me I had to stay because it had been my idea. I took on board the message that bad decisions are irreversible — once made, you have to live with the consequences.
Now I’m terrified we’ll make a wrong decision again, only this time it won’t just be me, but also my husband and son who have to suffer.
My indecision drives my husband mad. I spend ages weighing up pros and cons, get passionate about one idea and sound definite.
He takes longer to think about things, but starts to warm to the idea. By then I’ve started to pick holes in that solution and moved to the next thought. So we go round in circles.
Time isn’t on our side. Our savings are dwindling. We’re excited about the opportunities our predicament might open up and relish the opportunity to step away from the treadmill and follow our dreams.
But if we have any chance of turning our dreams into reality and making the leap, I need to get over my indecision and seize the day.
I just don’t know how to do that. How can I find a way through the impasse?”
This problem first appeared in the Daily Mail.
There is a fascinating fragmentation to this letter. As you seem to half know, your mind is all over the place, the letter is all over the place. No jobs, two jobs, half a job. France, Cornwall, Birmingham, this business, that business, two sets of parents, our son’s school. This could be our chance. Or it could be a disaster.
On the one hand you seem to have a fantasy that you have all the choice in the world, could go anywhere. On the other hand you seem to have no choice whatsoever, you’re so bound to existing burdens – lodger, son, mortgage etc.
You are keen to let the reader know that you are not a slacker, that you are working hard and doing your best, making ends meet by every means possible. You seem to expect a rather strict and impatient voice (presumably that of the parents who made you stay at boarding school) saying; ‘Well, for goodness sake get a lodger.’ Or; ‘Take the leap, what are you waiting for?’ Or; ‘Are you mad? You have a son to care for.’ All versions of the voice are rather bullying and lack real thought or understanding.
You take full responsibility for your boarding school decision but, in fact, you were bullied at a very young age, probably not for the first time. You interpret this bullying as ‘tough love’, as a lesson you learnt the hard way. You were told that this kind of cruelty was, in fact, care and you have now confused the two.
This is the root of the problem, I think. You fear the cruel, harsh judgment of your own mind whichever decision you take. There is no care or understanding available for you, no space for real thought. This is why the way you think seems to get you nowhere. It is designed to stop you making a decision, for paralysis, with all its disadvantages is at least a place of relative safety – you cannot face the really powerful attack you’d face if you actually made the wrong decision.
Your cruel internal voice (harsh super ego) is saying; ‘Oh, pull yourself together and get on with it,’ but it could and will say worse if you make decisions and things go badly. So, this is as safe as it gets – bits of your mind thrown out all over the place, circular kind of hamster-in-a-wheel thinking, always getting you nowhere, but, at least, fending off attack, abandonment, isolation.
Your mind is a place of punishment and what you might call ‘rationale’, but that rationale is actually just an attempt to strip emotional things of emotions in order to keep safe. There is no gentleness or warmth for yourself in there, no forgiveness.
The whole thing reminds me of Klein’s good breast/bad breast. So, the infant adores the first, the feeding breast that comes and comforts and he or she hates the second, the abandoning, cruel breast that denies him/her sustenance. A major developmental leap is when the baby unites the two as one real and separate person. Many people never make that leap – if you get too much bad breast then you have to continue to imagine the good breast as separate to keep it safe from the cruelty of bad breast. They CAN’T be the same person. It’s what creates the ‘us and them’ mentality so beloved of people who can’t be ambivalent, often because of early neglect and the need to protect the good breast.
So, lecture finished, you seem to feel that if a decision isn’t 100% right then it must be wrong. You can’t be ambivalent about your choices, feel that it’s an okay decision, might all go wrong but is worth a bash – it has advantages (good breast) and disadvantages (bad breast). This is intolerable in your mind. Your one story about your parents (and I would not root all your problems in this, it’s more of a screen memory, a good example of how you were brought up) suggests that you experienced quite a lot of bad breast – were perhaps fed to a schedule, not when you yourself were hungry, were perhaps neglected in the name of good parenting. You were an only child so it’s not unlikely that you were left alone to ‘rest’ or sleep or whatever, when you needed company.
Now, therefore, the ‘right’ decision is a Platonic ideal, something so perfect that it cannot be criticised or have any bad breast about it at all. This is impossible in real life, so all decisions must be wrong. You are stuck and paralysed. But you’re safe – you still haven’t lost the Platonic good breast, the ideal of warmth and love that might, if you can get it, protect you from bad breast – loneliness, abandonment and failure.
Only by integrating the two, feeling ambivalent about your parents (I bet you either completely idealise them or absolutely hate them or, perhaps, idealise one and hate the other), understanding that all decisions are both good and bad, will you be able to take the risk of offending your all-powerful ego ideal and making an ordinary decision that will result in neither triumph nor disaster, but a bit of both.
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