On good and bad inhibitions, or, the socially inept pretzel of shame

You want to do a thing. Your inhibitions tell you that thing is BAD. You are a terrible person for wanting it. How could you even consider it? There must be something sick and rotten at your core. Look at that person who would be affected if you did it. Look at their sweet, innocent, unsuspecting face. If they even guessed what you were thinking – if they knew the awful truth about you – they would never speak to you again.

The shame is a set of sharp teeth inside you, tearing compulsively at your guts. Your whole self-concept seems threatened because clearly your idea of your own decency is a comforting lie. By now, if they’re close to you, the Person Potentially Affected can probably see that you’re acting weird. ‘What’s wrong?’, they ask innocently. Nothing, nothing, you say. You tense up and withdraw. Person Affected worries, of course, but can’t draw you out. Their worries become a background hum of something out of joint.

Meanwhile you try to forget you ever wanted the thing. Perhaps at some later stage you get leglessly drunk and it all bursts out in an emotional pus-bomb that splatters everywhere, and you do the thing, or even just talk about how much you want to do the thing, but either way feel like you’re betraying the Person Affected who wants you not to do it (you assume; you may not even have asked them). Next morning you wake up coated in a thick black layer of shame, like an oiled bird, and can’t stand yourself for weeks. And so it goes until the next time.

Or how about this?

You want to do a thing. But wait, say your inhibitions. Look at those people who would be affected. How would it affect them? This inner voice is not shouting. It does not have any sharp teeth. It just asks you. So because you are not seized up and turned in on yourself by the sort of shame-spasm that blinds you to what’s going on, you have a much better shot at imagining accurately how they might feel and what might happen if you did it.

You are calm as you imagine this. You care about the people and don’t want them to come to any harm. But you have a better idea of how much harm might actually be involved. (It might turn out to be quite small, or massive, but at least now you know.) You can also see the long-term harm that might come from unexamined, desperate self-denial. You factor in the needs of everyone involved. You are able to acknowledge that you too are a person who is involved. You weigh it all, talk to everybody relevant as openly as you can, and make your decision based on everything you’ve learned, a decision which will be sustainable for you and for them. Maybe you do the thing, maybe you don’t. If doing or not doing it will result in anyone being hurt, you try to mitigate this as best you can.

This is an idealised situation. In practice it’s hard to do. But it’s more or less impossible to do when you’re convulsed with shame and guilt. I’ve come to the conclusion that not only do shame-based inhibitions not make you a better person, they actually make it considerably harder to be decent and kind.

But what could we do instead? How do you exchange them for better, more functional ones? Can this even be done?

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You’re a process, not an outcome (or: small rebirths)

infinity symbol

One evening a couple of autumns ago, after a couple of weeks of paralysing despair which shrank the world to a cramped box with just me in it, I sprang back into shape, abruptly aware of everything going on around me. I was in the kitchen, pivoting between cooker and sink and equipment rack and full larder, making a chilli which was filling the air with the eye-watering smoke of aerosolising spices. It was making the cat sneeze. So I opened the glass door to the conservatory and the open air beyond it to let some of the smoke out. The air moving through the red-tiled kitchen connected me back into the rest of the house, where people were soldering and tinkering and sleeping, and on out into the big dark space of Bonfire Night in London and the rattle and boom of fireworks. The music I had on, new to me, was a big dark space too, like glimpses of tall echoing vaults through a porthole. There’s still all this music that I don’t know, I thought, and the whole thing felt in a small way like being reborn.

And then I was getting off the train a few weeks later with just-dyed dark purple-blue hair like a splatter of spilt ink, with an almost iridescent sheen in the sickly yellow light of the station concourse. Walking along on spring-loaded legs, I felt new, changed, then suddenly embarrassed: what, new and changed again?

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On slow-ripening artists

In the foreword of The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver writes, ‘I spent thirty years waiting for the emotional maturity to write this book.’ You can see why she needed it. It’s a compassionate, multifaceted book that clearly required deep and wide understanding of humans (though Rachel is a bit of a one-dimensional Terrible Person. God, she’s terrible. But anyway). I felt hugely grateful to her for saying that. It seems I’m only now getting the hang of writing, despite having announced I was going to be a writer when I was 8. But it wasn’t just that I could relate to it, it was the way she said it: like the book had happened when it was supposed to, in the fullness of time; like it was a well-known fact that emotional maturity helped you write books. Not apologising that it had taken time to bloom, just saying it matter-of-factly as though reading off the back of a packet of seeds with her picture on the front.

Stories like this are rare and precious (see also Write Like A Motherfucker, which I keep going back to in hard times) in a world full of narratives about creativity which assume that Talent Will Out, and will out early – already fully formed, hand in hand with the tough-mindedness you need to put yourself forward. In fact it’s perfectly possible to be sure from an early age about what you were born to do, but not be able to do it yet because important parts of you – abilities or confidence or both – are still being born.

I was not very mature as a teenager. And I don’t mean that in the disingenuous humblebrag way that some people say it, like, ‘oh god I was so immature and embarrassing, I was reading Camus and smoking clove cigarettes and I thought existentialism was a credible philosophical position.’ I was not reading French intellectuals or smoking anything. I was actually young for my age, still drawing actual rainbows on my homework diary in actual crayon. I had eaten all my schoolbooks whole, for all the good that did me, but looking back it seems like important parts of my brain were missing – bits that dealt with nuance, subtlety and subtext, for a start; some kinds of abstract thought; handling social cues at anything approaching the speed of conversation – and I didn’t grow them until much later. Like, my late twenties. I definitely didn’t have them when the usual time came round to be an Edgy Young Writer. Looking back, I was still barely out of the womb.

So when I did manage to write, it usually sucked because I didn’t know how other humans worked.  But much more often, I didn’t manage to write because I didn’t know how I worked. I had no understanding of how writing happened, or what was happening when I edited something to make it better (and therefore, how to do the same to other things), or how to split it down into smaller, simpler tasks, or how to keep track of all the parts of a massive document – but most crucially, how to make the writing happen when it didn’t want to. It was like a car with a non-removable cover around the engine, which was frustrating because most of the time it wouldn’t go. Now, somewhere along the journey of writing and redrafting my PhD, it seems I managed to pry the cover open and all of a sudden, at long last, I have some idea of what I’m doing. Once when I was angsting about creativity and failure my partner said, ‘You’re not ripe yet.’ I suspect there are many like me. (And, relatedly, if you haven’t arrived yet it doesn’t mean you won’t.)

The problem is that what with the way we do work, careers and households as a culture, if you ripen late you might not be able to do anything about it. My thesis funding, and the fact that when it came I was in a position to take advantage of it, was thanks to a combination of several astonishing strokes of good fortune – even less likely for others like me now, as funding dries up more and more. But most of the opportunities to pause and figure out what you want to say, then learn how to do the day-to-day work of saying it, are for the very young – gap years, some kinds of university experience, grants for talented youth (if such things even still exist). Time out to find your voice is not very compatible with permanent jobs. More insidiously, it’s not compatible with most temporary/precarious jobs either; we tell ourselves they give us freedom to stop and do our thing when the time comes, but in practice they never earn us enough to make the break viable. And if you have children, in this culture where creativity pays so catastrophically badly and there’s hardly any safety net, taking such a chance must seem like rank irresponsibility unless you are very fortunate indeed. There must be so much amazing stuff we don’t get to see and enjoy, stuff that stays locked up in its creators’ heads for good, because the way to do it only became clear to them after their lives had filled up with commitments.

I imagine a society where there’s enough slack in the system, and enough value placed on this kind of voice-finding, that it can happen at any point in a life, repeatedly if necessary. But thinking about what else would have to be different to make that possible opens out on to a bunch of grand-scale questions about work, and what it’s for, and its future; families, how we do them, how else we could do them; and how societies should look after their artists. Each of these is a very deep rabbit-hole which seems worth delving into. But there’s also a lot of backlog to get through. Let’s go.