Have you ever been enormously and very painfully embarrassed, and wished that the entire cosmos, rather than just the earth would swallow you up? If not, you should read the powerful and very uncomfortable A Nasty Story (1862) by Dostoievsky, about a complacent civil servant staggering home one night drunk, who, peering inside a house, happens to spot one of his subordinates having his wedding party. Instead of walking discreetly on, Ivan Ilyich Pralinsky as he is called, decides to go in and generously patronise his underling’s celebration…and in doing so completely ruins it. Both the clerk and all the guests are mortified with shyness in front of the great man, so that the party becomes a truly humiliating ordeal. Worse still Pralinsky collapses dead drunk, and has to be put to bed in the only available place, the nuptial couch! All this because, according to Dostoievsky the satirist, he was a dozy Russian idealist who believed in being kind to to his inferiors. At which point, I would like to turn the provocative interrogator myself, and ask you the reader, is it not truly astonishing how little serious UK fiction of any period, explores this universal and painful matter of severe embarrassment, in the sense that it gives a forensic account of just what it is like to be made speechless with humiliation and personal shame?

The reason I ask is that a great many writers on psychology and psychotherapy, would argue that much of ‘civilised’ and adapted human behaviour, as opposed to whatever they do in lost tribes in the remotest Amazon jungle, is all about ordering one’s life to avoid severe embarrassment in whatever social circumstances. For example people who are chronically shy and find social mixing torture, will continually avoid doing so, because the far end of their fantasies is being speechless, blushing, tongue-tied and even fainting with the ordeal. One writer, the South Africa anti-psychiatrist David Cooper(1931-1986), put it uncompromisingly when he argued that neurosis was simply ‘the fear of looking foolish’, as the neurotic simply cannot imagine anything more horrific than being personally mortified. Objectively of course there are very many things worse than being paralysingly socially embarrassed, such as being about to be stoned to death in Iran, for engaging in homosexual sex, or facing execution by lethal injection in Dade County Jail, Florida.And in any case, it is not just neurotics who avoid things. Examine your own  behaviour, and candidly ask yourself how much of your life is about not doing very often many very small things, in a minutely orchestrated way, which only you could understand, and delineate, if someone asked you to confess all. For example you always look the other way at someone you fell out with 2 years ago, or that you think might just know that you are having a clandestine affair with X. For you to face them and say a brief hello, and otherwise try to get over the eye contact hiatus, would take more courage than you feel you have.  Alternatively you never use lifts/elevators, but always go panting up the mile-long staircase, and if you are in a public lavatory, you never lock the door, but keep it shut with your foot, and do your necessary business as fast as you can, you feel so foolish. You are emphatically not a certifiable case, but you have your limiting dead ends so to speak, and there are worrying roads and by-ways you will not walk under any circumstances.

I once talked at length on a train journey to a very nice, if rather stiff and uneasy woman in her 50s, as we both left a course of mine in Cambridge. The whole of the journey her eyes were roaming vigilantly in every direction, and at length she explained that in effect and crazy as it sounded, the whole of her existence was spent in trying to avoid butterflies. She was literally terrified of the approach of a butterfly, and the whole of her waking hours were devoted to avoiding such a calamity. That was why in my class, and it being a hot week in August, and the back door being open, she had sat immediately next to it. If a terrifying butterfly entered, she could shoot out the open door away from it, whereas if she sat in the middle of  the large teaching hall, she was a sitting duck so to speak, as it came ever nearer and nearer in her direction. This phobia had a profound and far reaching effect on her life, as you can imagine. She never went for a walk in a field or in any woods, and whenever she entered any room or closed space of any kind, supermarkets and bus stations included, she always gauged where an exit might be, in the event of the monster entering and flapping its wings at her. Likewise however boiling hot it might be, she would never open the car window if she was driving, and her children when small had had to be instructed never to wind one down too. If they had, and a butterfly had entered on the motorway especially, she might well have crashed the car in her terror, and killed herself and all her family.  That said, this woman was not without insight, and readily admitted the thing was all about a psychological metaphor for being in control. She knew right enough a butterfly could not harm her, and it was much more likely she could accidentally harm it. Doing all this obsessive avoidance, was a way of exerting absolute tyrannical control over her own life, and incidentally on her long-suffering husband and now grown up kids. She had had cognitive therapy for the condition, which of course was not about analytic understanding, but of playing with the symptoms, however ingeniously. It had helped her, but it hadn’t stopped her gauging the horizon for lepidoptera 24/7, as she did for the 2 hours she was sat next to me on the crowded and emphatically butterfly-free train to Birmingham.

David Cooper, who believed neurosis was rooted in the fear of looking foolish, also argued that it was mistakenly seeing yourself as a collection of symptoms i.e. in lieu of permitting yourself an identity, you just saw yourself as an assemblage of medical problems. Anyone who has read the brilliantly funny Just William books of Richmal Crompton, will recall certain squawky elderly and irritable old ladies who claimed to be suffering from neurasthenia, meaning they were literally ill and disabled with their nerves, and often spent much of their lives in bed as a result. Being moneyed folk as a rule, sometimes their real life counterparts would be recommended by their doctor, to seek a change of air, possibly by taking an expensive cruise around the world. As often as not, this treatment worked, or at any rate temporarily, for once the hypochondriac aka valetudinarian or atrabilious individual, returned to their familiar milieu, they also returned to their familiar symptoms.

One instructive way of gauging your own, as it were, behavioural cul-de-sacs, meaning those myriad, minuscule and byzantine areas, familiar and intelligible to only you, and you alone, i.e. those roads  you will obsessively never go, in your routine and daily behaviour, is to set yourself the following  delightful if possibly daunting task. Permit yourself just one day in your life, where you will deliberately do those things that you never do, for the specific reason that you always feel inhibited and indeed phobic  about doing them. So this is not about playing canasta or whist instead of bridge by way of card game variety…but about exploring those parts of yourself, however small and supposedly trivial, that  you dare not reach. The easiest way of doing it, is to write down a checklist of how you normally spend a day, with a few little side notes of things you don’t do at certain points, and which you feel on reflection seriously limit your options. So for example if you are a single guy, who every morning at around 11, spots a very nice woman you judge to be single also, and would love to do nothing more than smile at her in a non-leering and non-nauseous manner, but dare not…permit yourself on Freedom Day to do just that. Though ‘permit’ is probably  a joke verb here. If this is one of your cowardly cul-de-sac dead points, then you will need to take an imaginary gun behind your head, and force yourself non-Gorgonwise to smile at her. Then,  behold the worst she can do is sniff and ignore it, and unless she is a lunatic, she is unlikely to ring the police. Far more likely, providing you haven’t leered or grimaced at her like Marty Feldman or  Harpo Marx, is that she will smile back. Then go the double whammy and say, Hi. Then the triple whammy and say, Hi, how are you? And who knows where things  might lead, once you bravely decide to explore the wholly illusory nature of your experiential cul-de-sacs?

Done in a sensitive step-by-step gradedly expanding manner, clearly what you end up doing is subtly widening the range and versatility of your personality, by ingeniously removing a few chains and blindfolds and gags. It is of a piece with the therapeutic technique of the ‘Paradoxical Injunction’, whereby someone in a stuck and painful situation, is told by the therapist to do the opposite of what they expect, so they end up doing what they really want to do. An eminent US psychiatrist for example, was once treating an unfortunate young student woman who had got to the miserably unhappy stage of barely leaving her room. Incredibly, this was because one day, in the vast lecture hall, while walking to her seat, she had accidentally farted, or as the psychiatrist had decorously put it, had ‘voided afflatus’.  Almost certainly no one but her had noticed the fart, but she was convinced the entire lecture hall had taken note, and that she was a disgusting and disgraceful pariah as a result. No amount of logic, including reflecting on the wondrous anatomical and physiological perfection of the anal sphincter mechanism, would talk her out of her crisis, so the therapist prescribed the following paradox. She was tonight to consume an inordinate amount of raw root vegetables, and sundry other things guaranteed to create a gut full of explosive wind, and then was to deck herself out in some attractive ballet tights, underneath which she would have some sturdy and absorbent diaper-style underwear.  Having booked the gym for her exclusive use at 9pm tonight, when no one else wanted it, she was with bloated guts and with a CD of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake playing, to explosively and assertively fart her way in fearless and ecstatic pirouettes around the gym. And of course turning the insuperable problem on its head with an incongruous command, like a Zen koan, it did the healing trick, and this 19 year-old girl was back at her lectures grinning, the next day. Plus as a matter of plain commonsense, and theoreticians and learned specialists aside, any half-sensitive parent would effortlessly understand this notion of Paradoxical Injunction. Applying the logic that if you tell a wilful 15 year-old kid not to stay out after 11pm, they definitely will roll in at 2am, the paradoxical injunction would be to say,  ‘I insist that you stay out well after 11!’ and as sure as shot they will be back home by 8.30, just to spite you.

One final note from the antipsychiatrist, David Cooper. In line with his radical Marxist commitment and his loathing of all acquiescence to destructive capitalist forms,  he once said that so-called full-blown schizoid ‘paranoia’ was not a psychotic condition, but an appropriate and ‘sane’ reaction to an insanely repressive society such as ours. That being the case, he added that the condition of neurosis was ‘at least going in the right direction’.

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