Alain de Botton on How to Get Well

Dispatches From The School of Life

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I met Alain de Botton, the prolific author (How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Course of Love, Religion for Atheists, among many others), speaker, and founder of The School of Life, in 2014 to interview him for the Believer Magazine (a piece that didn’t come out until 2017!) We hit it off instantly and discussed everything, from the wisdom of Seneca to the hardships of marriage.

We talked about therapy and how uncommon it was in the UK to talk about your feelings. He and I have both had entanglements with anxiety, but neither of us knew it then, so we kept that to ourselves.

Since that first meeting, I’ve watched him become more devoted to emotional investigation and therapy, leading others through the art of feeling.

The School of Life offers a variety of ways to gain self-knowledge and self-awareness, all with the goal of healing and growth. They offer workshops, retreats, a bookstore, and, yes, therapy.

I spend far too much time in their online bookshop, buying far too much of their inventory. The website is teeming with articles that are incredibly hard to bypass. SEE: Our Secret Wish Never to Find Love. One can (and should) get lost in the website’s many categories (Self-Knowledge, Work, Relationships, and Sociability, among others).

While I will write more about The School of Life and take you through some books that I love, like The Meaning of Life and On Mental Illness, today is about de Botton’s newest book, A Therapeutic Journey: Lessons from The School of Life. Here, he delves into the darker side of mental well-being, but fear not, because de Botton acts as our friend and guide, hand in ours, walking alongside us, slowly, as he identifies the nature of mental illness and mental health.

As our mental health sherpa, he is kind, wise, patient, gentle and understanding. He sits with us as we fall into crisis, offers wisdom to help us find love for ourselves again, and delivers us back to what we’ve lost—hope.

There is a dramatic difference between a healthy mind and an unhealthy mind. By offering the characteristics that identify wellness as distinct from illness, de Botton illuminates what falls away when we descend into illness, offering us ample light to follow back.

“At the heart of mental illness is a loss of control over our own better thoughts and feelings. An unwell mind can’t apply a filter to the information that reaches our awareness; it can no longer order or sequence its content. And from this, any number of painful scenarios ensue...” 

-Alain de Botton, The Therapeutic Journey

This book offers ways out of despair and back into hope. Yet, it’s more than hope we lose when we become depressed; it’s also wonder, and when both are gone, what slips into the opening is a dark belief that we’re hateful. Often, when we’re at our lowest, self-hatred envelopes us and eclipses our field of vision; all we see are our failings.

It’s true, de Botton admits that “We are all a little bit awful,” but with self-loathing, we lose to the false belief that we have failed at self-love.

Alain de Botton

Self-love, de Botton argues, is not the antidote, as the totality of such a whole-hearted embrace leaves little room for our imperfections. Instead, we should aim for self-acceptance. Self-acceptance allows us to see where we’ve fallen short and continue on, knowing that without mistakes, there is no growth.

One of the great impediments to understanding our lives properly is our automatic assumption that we already do so.

Alain de Botton, The Therapeutic Journey

When we are at our lowest, when we are in engagement with our deepest pain, we are, most often, also treading in the shallow end of our emotional life. This sounds contradictory, but when you consistently find yourself in despair, it is often because of the inescapable irritating truth that we have not yet connected and truly felt the root of our pain, and that root is often in childhood. 

To be liberated from the past, we need to mourn it, and for this to occur, we need to get in touch with what it actually felt like.

Alain de Botton, The Therapeutic Journey

We are formed, shaped, and conditioned in childhood, and we bring that conditioning into adulthood, where it either lights the way or darkens our path.

Those whom it hinders can challenge their learned beliefs and work to change or ignore their childhood pain because of the flawed assumption it’s unchangeable. But one cannot move on and grow from a pain they deny themselves from feeling. When we ignore the root cause of our suffering, we carry that suffering with us everywhere

We can apply this same truth to anxiety. When we ignore or avoid all that brings dread and apprehension, we hold those feelings in place, but when we sit with the discomfort when we live through the exquisite uncertainty of anxiety, we can free ourselves from our fears, one anxiety at a time. 

When we avoid hard things, we send a message to ourselves that we are incapable of handling hard things and that we’re powerless over our emotions. The assumption that our emotions are out of our grasp turns them from accessible to untouchable.

We must engage at the deepest level with our emotions. We must feel what they feel, wrestle with them, listen, hear, acknowledge, validate, grieve, mourn, cry, and release. We can only heal once we are aware of our inner demons and our emotions. If we go toward our suffering and learn the art of healing, one day we’ll be grateful for our despair.

When we look at our childhood, naturally, we must interrogate our parents and ask hard questions about their parenting, but to do that, we must know what a good parent looks like and how bad parents can create lifelong damage to their children. We carry our parents with us in our heads, even if we don’t realize it. The voice of shame that we hear as ours often isn’t. 

Every parental inadequacy tends to give rise to a corresponding neurosis.

Alain de Botton, The Therapeutic Journey

This book is a gift to sufferers who crave understanding and who want to heal. The journey that de Botton takes us through is comprehensive, precise, and wide-ranging, folding in art, work, imposter syndrome, exercise, routine, listening, community, loneliness, food, and a roadmap out of grief and into hope. 

Each page is born from anguish and love. Anyone and anything that offers an end to suffering is someone and something worth holding on to and sharing. 

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Are you familiar with Alain de Botton and the School of Life? Let me know in the comments!

Until next week, I will remain…


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