I have enough friends who work in mental health (and I’m still enough of socialist) to possess a healthy scepticism of psychoanalysis. Yet I also grew up surrounded by people who were depressed, anxious or suicidal and have had counselling myself so I also know the benefits of talking to a sensitive, trained, professional. Maybe that’s why I’m so intrigued by the stories we tell ourselves to survive, to hide, to ignore and how we convince ourselves those stories are true.
It’s easy to see why Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves has been such a bestseller. Grosz has been a psychoanalyst for 25 years. In this book he writes a series of simple accounts of his encounters with various patients to illuminate aspects of psychoanalysis and human behaviour. I’ll stress 'simple’ because each account is only a few pages long and he writes elegantly and with great clarity: these aren’t Adam Phillips like meditations full of literature and philosophy even if we do get the odd reference to Joyce and Melville. Still if you equate simple with simplistic you’d be way off the mark. Some of his reflections are so accurate/uncomfortable/incisive they take on the quality of dreams – hard to remember or grasp on to – as you turn the page. Not that he’s trying to freak you out! On the contrary the book is full of warmth, humanity and the desire to understand.
Maybe on a second reading I’ll find more to complain about but for now it’s a book I’d unreservedly recommend to anyone eager to delve into the complexities of human motivation. You could read it all in an afternoon but one chapter at a time is plenty. Better still read a chapter out loud to a partner or friends . . . pause . . . and engage.