Not Fixing

Not fixing

If I am suffering from some kind of neurotic distress then the way that this is seen, both by myself and others, is as a problem that needs fixing. For me, the neurotic disturbance is a cause of mental pain and anguish that I want very much to be free from; for a healthcare professional it is seen as a dysfunctional coping strategy that needs correcting. For everyone concerned, it is a glitch that needs to be ironed out so life can continue smoothly along again. In general, from a rational perspective, the neurosis is a puzzle that needs to be successfully solved…


The fact that we all (professionals and non-professionals alike) tend to see it this way highlights how little insight we have into the nature of neurotic glitches – this is not some logical error that can be corrected, or some kind of intellectual puzzle that can be figured out if we think about it enough. If we take this approach then we are missing the whole point. If we think that neurosis is ‘something to be fixed’ then we are failing – on a rather spectacular scale – to understand what neurosis is all about. It’s not that we need to get clever first of all about understanding neurosis and then secondly about ‘curing’ it – we simply need to stop being clever about it. We need to stop making theories about it, and trying to remedy the neurotic situation by applying either logic or technology, and this is the one thing we are most unwilling to do.


The crux of the matter is that the logical, problem-solving mind can never understand neurosis. The reason the problem-solving mind can never solve neurosis is because neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving are the inevitable by-product of rationality, not something that it can conveniently separate itself from and fix. David Bohm explains this by saying that our thinking contains inherent (i.e. systematic) self-contradictions that it is necessarily blind to. These systematic errors are the one thing the logical mind can never see, any more than we can see the back of our own heads without using a mirror. Errors that are ‘non-systematic’ the logical mind can see and fix; errors of the systematic variety are on the other hand by definition unfixable. We can’t see the errors for a start, and even if we could see them our attempt to correct them would only magnify them because we would be trying to fix the problem with the very thing (i.e. our thinking) that created it in the first place!


The nature of the neurotic glitch is this: when we try to fix the neurotic pattern of thinking then this ‘fixing’ is itself part of the neurotic pattern that we are trying to get rid of. The attempt to fix the neurosis is the neurosis, in other words, as perplexing as this may sound.


This is most obvious with the type of neurotic distress known as ‘anxiety’. If I am suffering from anxiety then it is natural that I will try to fix it so that it will no longer cause me so much suffering. Anxiety is all about ‘fixing’ anyway – when I am anxious what is keeping me busy is the constant attempt to fix problems before they happen. In effect, I want to intercept all problems before they arrive at my doorstep and start knocking on the door. In an ideal world (according to the anxious mind-state, anyway) all problems would be resolved before they materialize and as a result everything would then be fine. In an ideal world all problems would be fixable – I would not then need to get anxious about the possibility that some problem might arise that I couldn’t fix. In the real world of course this 100% secure situation never comes to pass, and so the anxious state of mind perpetuates itself indefinitely.


Whenever there is a problem that hasn’t yet been fixed (or whenever there is a problem that might happen in the future that I haven’t yet worked out how to fix) then this is fuel for anxiety. And because when I am suffering from anxiety I see potential or actual problems everywhere (they are coming out of the woodwork) there is no way that I going to be able to put together plans of how I am either going to be able to successfully fix or successfully avoid all of these problems (or even a modest proportion of them) and so I am always going to be anxious. Because 100% control is impossible in the real world, and because that is what – in effect – I am insisting on, there is no other outcome possible for me other than anxiety…


Now it stands to reason that I am going to try to fix my anxiety – that’s what I try to do with all problems, after all! But because anxiety is a problem that I can’t be certain of fixing, this uncertainty is necessarily going to cause me extra anxiety on top of the anxiety that I already have. Trying to correct my anxiety is going to feed into that anxiety, in other words. Or to put this another way: trying to fix the anxiety is itself the anxiety.


This isn’t just true for anxiety, it is true as we have said for all neurotic disturbances – all neurotic disturbances are about fixing one way or another. Another very clear example would be what is called obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD is all about fixing, obviously! When I am suffering from OCD what is causing me to suffering so much is the fact that I am trying very hard and very persistently to solve some problem that I just don’t seem able to solve. As in anxiety, the obsessive state of mind is insisting on 100% control and this just isn’t possible in the real world. And because it isn’t possible I am running repeatedly into a brick wall. I want something very badly and this just isn’t happening for me, and the ‘resultant’ of these two things (my insistence and the impossibility of me getting what I am insisting on) is interminable mental pain and distress…


There is an absolutely tremendous amount of blind mechanical force involved in this obsessive ‘wanting to fix the problem’ business. It’s like stepping unwarily into a raging river that is going to sweep you away with it just as soon as it gets a hold of you. So as soon as I allow myself to get involved at all with thoughts of fixing I’m swept away like so much chaff by the force of the current. The same is of course true for anxiety – once I get caught up in it at all then I’m propelled along helplessly by the blind mechanical energy of it. I am taken over by it, I am possessed by it. I don’t really know what I’m doing or why, despite the fact that I assume that I do. The truth – which I can’t see when I’m caught up in the struggle – is that some sort of ‘surrogate battle’ is being fought. This is a totally unconscious situation in which I am trying to avoid some inner challenge, and all the resistance (or fear) that I have with regard to this inner challenge is being displaced onto some external (or ‘surrogate’) problem.


It doesn’t of course matter in the least what this external problem is – any sort of an itch, any sort of an irritant, will do. In the case of anxiety it is some kind of threat to my (imagined) security, whilst with OCD the ‘problem’ could be any sort of everyday task – or it could even be something that isn’t a task at all, it could just be a random thing that I make into a task. It could be a ritual that is particular to myself and which serves no practical purpose at all, other than to displace my resistance to the inner challenge onto. The point is not what the external itch ‘is’, the point is that there should be some kind of problem there (or at least something that I can make into a problem) so that I can then proceed to use this is a decoy, so that I can go ahead and ‘fight the surrogate battle’.


The surrogate battle itself can never be solved – it can never be solved because it isn’t the real problem!  And what is more, we could say that ‘solving it’ isn’t really what the battle is about anyway – the only thing that really matters here is that I am able to remain safely unaware of the internal challenge by remaining 100% absorbed in the arbitrary ‘external struggle’. This is what neurosis is all about – getting involved in innumerable false issues so as to avoid the real challenge


We might at this point want to know what exactly this ‘real challenge’ is that we are so determined to turn our backs on. This seems like a reasonable question. What is it we are avoiding, and willing moreover to pay such a very high price in order to carry on avoiding it? The answer – ultimately – is nothing specific – what we are fleeing so determinedly from might be said to be life itself. Life is the challenge we are so terrified of. Life itself is what we are trying to ‘solve’ (in surrogate fashion) via the hoped-for resolution of the external struggle. The reason life is such a challenge – we might say – is simply because it can’t ever be fixed, because it can’t ever be solved. Life is such that it can never be ‘countered’ by any sort of rational answer or prescription (i.e. it can never be put in a box) and this, although we might not see straightaway why this should be so, is a very challenging thing. We don’t know – in its essence – what it is, or what we are supposed to do about it, or think about it, and this huge question mark constitutes what we might call an ‘irresolvable existential challenge’.


When it comes down to it, when we try to solve (or rationalize) life what we’re really trying to do is get rid of it!  The true nature of the neurotic struggle is therefore the attempt to escape from life and so the successful resolution of the surrogate battle represents for us the ‘successful flight from life’ – although we naturally won’t see it as this. But since it isn’t possible to escape from life (or ‘escape from ourselves’) the neurotic struggle is a non-terminating one. We can’t terminate it – we experience an absolutely overwhelming need to terminate the struggle but we can’t do so, and so this is what creates all the endless suffering that we are going through in neurosis.


Curiously, even though we can’t successfully escape from life (or successfully escape from ourselves) to the extent that we manage to live life on a purely rational level (i.e. to the extent that we manage to put life in a box) we have – apparently – ‘pulled it off’. This is curious because it appears that in everyday life we have ‘done the impossible’ therefore – we have found a formula, we have found a way of wrapping life up in our ideas of it so that it is no longer an irresolvable existential challenge. And astonishingly, most of us manage to do this most of the time! What this means is that everyday life, for most of us, seems to represent a successful resolution of the neurotic struggle. We have rationalized life – which is a neurotic thing to do because it is an avoidance – but we seem to have gotten away with it! The only way that our everyday existence wouldn’t be a neurotic evasion would be if life were as fresh and new to us as if we were experiencing it for the very first time and this is – needless to say – not the case.


The thing about normal life therefore is that it is neurotic but we don’t know it. The neuroticism is concealed, covered up, camouflaged. This is all very well but what can happen then is that sooner or later, in one way or another, the ‘solution’, the ‘fix’ that we have found (which is usually the socially-prescribed one) starts to come undone. The concealed neuroticism stops being concealed, and becomes glaringly overt.  In this case it is more likely than not that we will be said to be suffering from some kind of neurotic mental illness and we’ll be referred on the appropriate healthcare agency to have our problem ‘fixed’, either by drugs or perhaps by some ‘fixing-type’ therapy. This is of course highly ironic, if only we could see it – the ‘fix’ is starting to fail so off we go to get our fix fixed. Our rational formula for life is starting to come apart at the seams and so the time has come for us to get it rebooted, in some way or another, if this proves to be possible (which is not always the case). If we do get fixed then we go back to our old way of life, and if we don’t then we adopt the role of a sick or unwell person. There is also of course another possibility here and that is the possibility that if we do find the courage to unflinchingly confront the failure of our comfort zone and learn to live without any ‘rational strategies’ then will actually use the neurotic suffering as a springboard to wholeness…


The odd thing that we ought to mention here is that for some of us – the majority of us, in fact – this ‘failure of our rational strategies’ never does seem to happen (at least not in any dramatic fashion) and so we never do get to know that we are existing in a state of legitimized neurotic withdrawal from life the whole time. This raises the point as to who the ‘unfortunate’ ones are – those of us who are allowed to carry on with their neurosis, or those of us who reach a point where we can’t carry on, and have to undergo the painful process of learning to face life ‘head-on’ for the first time, without any tricks and gimmicks.


‘Fixing’ – as we can clearly see if we have enough perspective on the matter – is not a legitimate response in the case of neurotic distress, much as we might like to think that it is. What does help is not shoring things up, not applying whatever sort of band-aid we might find in the first aid box, but being provided with support and understanding as we face our deep-down fear of life. This sort of support is hard to find however because the majority of us won’t admit to ourselves that we have a deep-down fear of life! It is this universal ‘non-acknowledgement’ of our existential insecurity that makes our treatment of neurosis as blind and crudely insensitive as it almost always is. If I had more support from the culture that I live in for the endeavour that I am engaged in then I would be far more likely to discover the helpful way to work with neurotic suffering and not get caught up in the constant counterproductive struggle to ‘make things be right again’. But what usually happens is that I have to learn this on my own, at the same time as I learn that the advice and instructions from my fellows is for the most part the very opposite of helpful…


The overwhelmingly intense ‘urge to fix the problem’ is as we have said at the heart of all neurotic disturbances. Anxiety and OCD we have already discussed. Perfectionism is another obvious example of the urge to fix and so is what is sometimes known as ‘being a control freak’. Addictions too embody this same dynamic of being possessed (or taken over) by the urge to fix, only in this case ‘fixing’ means ‘successfully servicing the addiction’. Obtaining the ‘fix’ that I am so desperately craving seems to be ‘the answer to everything’ at the time I am chasing it and for this reason addiction, of whatever sort, may be said to constitute a classic example of pseudo-solution, a classic example of ‘getting 100% absorbed in a surrogate battle’.


One type of neurosis that may not – on the face of it – appear to be about fixing are the simple phobias, where what is usually called ‘an irrational fear’ exists in a strictly compartmentalized form. If we reflect on the matter for a moment or two however we can see that an intense fear is just another example of a ‘problem’ – the solution being of course to successfully avoid or escape from the fear! The overt fear is not the true source of our terror – if I have a fear of birds then it isn’t really birds that I am afraid of, and similarly, if I have a phobia about fish, then it is (probably) not because I imagine that these scaly, aquatic creatures are going to do me any harm. The thing that I am phobic towards is a symbol for something that I am not allowing myself to know about, and because I have placed a hefty manhole cover over the original terror it simply pops us elsewhere in an ‘opaque’ form, i.e. in a surrogate form that I cannot see through.


Leaving aside all these classic ‘text-book examples’ of neurosis, we could also mention in passing a few socially respectable or socially-approved forms of neurosis, one of which would be the pursuit of money or status as if either of these were actually worth chasing for their own sake. Another might be an all-consuming interest in sport or games, where the thrill of ‘winning’ is – from a psychological point of view – a clear example of the pseudo-solution of life since in winning at the game we are able to (momentarily) obtain the highly addictive feeling that we have, in some way, ‘solved’ life.


This idea can of course – as we have already implied – be generalized to include the whole of society since society is itself no more than a big game (or a big game that contains lots of little games). The social game consists – we might say – of a set of arbitrary boxes that we are required to tick in order to acquire ‘credibility’ (or ‘respectability’). This is a pseudo-solution of life because we get the feeling that if we do X, Y and Z then we are living life correctly, which is in no way even remotely the case since it is utterly ludicrous to think that there is a way to ‘live life correctly’. We can go further than this and say that if we obtain for ourselves the feeling that we are ‘doing it right’ (by ticking all the boxes that we have been given to tick) then as we have said all that we have been ‘successful’ at is in the neurotic avoidance of life…


Conforming to ‘how other people think we should be’ is therefore just another way of ‘fixing’ since if we conform successfully we get approval and so this seems to prove to us that we have lived life in the right way. We have ‘solved the problem’. But really of course we haven’t solved anything – we have just found a cheat for ourselves (a dodge or a scam or a strategy) that seems to work pretty well!


But this cheat doesn’t work anywhere near as well as we might think it does. If it did we’d be a lot happier in ourselves, and we wouldn’t be stressed out trying to fix things the whole time, trying to ‘make the grade the whole time’, trying to find approval the whole time. No one ever got happy as a result of investing themselves in the pseudo-solution of life! So if it really is being happy that matters – as we keep on saying it is – the only thing that can help us in this regard is not ‘fixing, fixing and yet more fixing’ but getting better at not-fixing


  1. Ted · November 7, 2014

    Arriving at the naked truth of being afraid to live, given all its definite uncertainty is a frightening realization. It requires an honesty that at once liberates, and equally requires an ok-ness with oneself, a trust, that this is the only way life, life lived, could possibly be. However, given this realization, it also becomes painfully clear that even with such knowledge we constantly desire a return to “fixing” things including discomfort, pain, anxiety, as if seeing the disillusion of this knowledge was itself a negate-able distraction. The whole point of not-fixing, it would appear, is accepting the reality of our situation in the face of life being as it is, and being able to be ok with this facet of existence in all it wholeness. In some sense, could it be regarded that fixing, controlling, disillusioning ourselves with such distraction, not only separates and removes us form the wholeness of our actual situation, but constantly blinds us from ever seeing the picture in all its fullness.

    • nick251260 · November 7, 2014

      There is a good quote from Bodhidharma, “If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both”. We experience tremendous temptation to resort to fixing (which is to say, using the mind) and yet, as you say, as soon as we do so we are separated and removed from the reality of our situation, and the world that we then become aware of (and believe wholeheartedly in) is a fragmented distortion, an entirely false picture (or version) of reality. So we get entirely lost as a result of being trapped in this fragmented distortion, and the pain that being lost and alienated causes us to feel provokes us to resort to using the mind even more forcefully, even more violently…