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The Examined Life, By Stephen Grosz. Chatto & Windus, £14.99

 

If the deepest longing of the human soul is to be seen, who better to provide the lens of perception than a practising psychoanalyst, keeper of human secrets? Stephen Grosz has condensed thousands of hours of consultations into this gem, which investigates our most fundamental needs and problems via anonymised case histories.

The book is divided into aspects of life, such as loving. Within these topics, cases illustrate problems – such as parents envying their children, or those who prefer love-sickness to real love.

Here are human psyches so knotted that it takes professional insight to untangle the mess. A man is so afraid of emotional dependence that he ruins friendships. A woman's mother is cold to her, and indifferent to her daughter. A man controls others by being boring. A man finds safety in imagining his dream home. A woman refuses to acknowledge her husband's infidelities in order to recreate the safety of her own parents' situation.

There are many sage lessons here, backed up by research when necessary. We learn why excessive praise ("You're so clever") leads children to do less well than encouragement for effort: it increases anxiety and reduces motivation and performance.

Grosz's postulations are fascinating, such as that paranoia in otherwise mentally healthy individuals protects from the feeling of being treated with indifference: "It is less painful... to feel betrayed than to feel forgotten." While this would explain acrimony between ex-partners, his assertion that this is why some elderly patients in hospital become paranoid doesn't take into account the disorienting effect of new environments, not to mention organic disease.

Grosz writes lucidly and with sensitivity, treating his patients with respect. The cases are sprinkled with wise reflections, such as this on deadening one's emotions as a self-defence: "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." This is highly recommended.

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