The Problem with you, Charlie Brown,
is that you're you
Lucy, Peanuts, Charles M Schulz
This excerpt is based on the innovative work of Christopher Bollas, whose understanding of Character Mood offers a way to understand how certain moods become particular for us.
Moody people know we are cornered. The worst threats to our well-being come from within. We are stuck with ourselves, and bad feelings seem to cling to us. This is apparently inescapable. Wherever we go, there we are.
Those of us who struggle with mood usually have one or two central moods that seem to stalk us. These are the moods we dread, the ones that spook, despair and shadow us. They carry an undeniable intensity; their presence is relentless and feels assaulting. We have endured these states so often, we know them well, yet we barely think about them. And most of us have come to loathe them, knowing that when they appear, they carry in their wake other horrors: loneliness, desperation, self-loathing. Christopher Bollas speaks of such states as ‘a kind of a character mood’ - states that feel so deeply familiar it is as if they are ourselves. Such moods do not feel like an experience that will pass. They feel like life itself.
THE SOURCE OF MOOD:
‘Some…feel that their moods are the most important authentic memories of their childhood…' Christopher Bollas
In adult life low mood often seems to descend unbidden, provoked by events so miniscule we find ourselves ridiculous. Yet for many of us, this is how depressions come: triggered by a momentary loss, slight or disappointment, we find ourselves bathed in gloom.
For Bollas, this can be understood from a different angle: our moods can be seen as messengers or memories from an earlier time. Bollas argues that moods are often what he terms ‘conservative objects’, holding or containing something that we have lived through but failed to process. If our moods really do ‘conserve’ something, they are, at least in part, about the past. In their presence, we may find ourselves within an atmosphere or experience from long ago. Where this is so, the mood carries a part of our history that has lain dormant: It encapsulates something ancient that belongs to us. It speaks of where we have been.
In this understanding, instead of being random, cruel assaults, our core moods are almost an oeuvre, a distilled expression of self – of the damage, complaint and longing that lurk within us.
It took me many years to notice my most difficult states did not differ from each other much. Until then I took each low as an affront, a jarring interruption, an intruder that had nothing to do with me. But it did. I reluctantly came to see that whenever I felt bad, I felt bad in pretty much the same way - in my case bereft, bleak, hopeless, low and desperate. This sense of self, this horribly familiar state that feels so stagnant and familiar is Bollas’ character mood. Yours will have its’ own flavor. You will know it well.
the hopeful implications of all this…
Bollas map invites us to re-imagine mood experience in at least four ways:
1) It lessens the validity of self-attack: if mood has a genuine cause, we do not feel bad ‘for no reason…’
2) Mood need not reflect that there is something ‘wrong’ with us or our lives – we are simply feeling something difficult that remains unprocessed.
3) It demonstrates how our mood was not caused by us alone (though it is our responsibility to live through it well)
4) It invites us to relate with more receptivity and tenderness to ourselves when within mood: something in the past requires our attention.
Below I look a little at two parts of this: how character mood forms to become ‘life-defining’, and how we can begin to clarify our relationship to it…
HOW DIFFICULT EXPERIENCE BECOMES 'LIFE-DEFINING':
Bollas proposes a way that certain moods may come to feel like a core element of our character. He suggests that in childhood, when we are overwhelmed by experiences too distressing to make sense of, we absorb their impact, but are unable to do much with it. We cannot represent it in our minds. And so, unmediated by understanding, expression or relief, such experiences lodge in us unprocessed.
This is no small thing - the deep moods that form in this way effect us greatly. They matter because they come to carry existential authority within us: they claim to know how life is, and pitch their perspective at us when we are at our most fragile.
‘…when a child is, for one reason or another, left to work on a life problem that is beyond his capability, he often assumes the problem to be unresolvable and it therefore becomes an inevitable part of his sense of identity….a child may assume [an experience such as a loss] is a self-defining event…[his] traumas are not experienced as events in life but as life defining …' Bollas
In this view, intense ‘life-defining mood states’ form when we cannot move dynamically through our experience. This explains something many of us intuitively already sense: that our most troubling and repetitive early experiences lodge in us, in a lonely, somewhat unreachable place, silently forming an inner template that forever governs our sense of how life is and who we are within it.
How does this look? In a way, it captures something of our porousness as children. We are not yet skilled in thinking about experiences on their own terms, with some objectivity. We are too subject to them, too ‘trapped’ and dependent in whatever environment we find ourselves. And so, in early childhood, continued experiences such as promises not being kept, wishes not noticed or feelings not attended to will not be known by a child simply for what they are. His mind will not have the capacity to discern so clearly. It will simply seem to him that he is noticing how life is - and how it is to be him - rather than how his life is in this particular context.
And this will be hard for him: A child continually related to like this will find himself in emotional states that invisibly settle into him as familiar atmospheres. He may, over time, withdraw much of his faith in others, supported by the thoughts he forms to attempt to make sense of his experience.
In time his world becomes flavoured by hopelessness - a place in which it is pointless even to know his own wishes, much less entrust them to others. And of course, in such a place, depressive despair can easily establish itself… and almost always, all of this happens without malice: nobody will have intended any of this to be his fate.
the value of identifying
‘…for a mood to be generative a person must be able to emerge from a mood in such a way that he can reflect upon the mood as an object...’
While our moods merely assault us, we seem to drown in them. We need to make the distinction that Bollas does: between experiencing our moods malignantly, and living them well. When we develop the capacity to represent and reflect on them, something changes. When we are willing to turn toward how it is to be embedded in the worst of ourselves; whether this is our intractable bitterness, bleak sadness, mute rage, dread, or anxiety, new qualities begin to accompany us when mood comes: curiosity, insight, tenderness.
These worst places within us are not that original or unique; yet we must bear them alone. For some it is a hatred of our weakness or neediness; for others a sense of guilt or deep inadequacy; for others a sense of profound hopelessness, rage, or terror. The voices that accompany our worst moods are not sophisticated: I hate myself; I’ve always been useless; I know I’m a bad person; why do I always feel like this; I’m so stupid, selfish, unlovable; I always wreck everything good; nobody will ever love me; I don’t know what to do; I don’t know if I can ever be helped….
Such thoughts express our most depleted, life-negating selves. We must learn to listen to them, to take in the world they speak of, and to hear it with fresh ears and adult hearts.
the goodness of receiving mood well..
Mood life is not all bad. Caught entirely by mood, we are dominated so completely it is only grim - we feel ourselves the victims of an assaulting thing. Yet, despite appearances, our worst states also have the potential to generate something good.
But this requires us to be more confident and tender when they come, to bear with ourselves at our worst, and where we have in the past been most isolated. When we learn to be more available in this way, and receive our moods as messengers, we slowly extract ourselves from their density and find a capacity to see the pain and fear the carry. This allows us to respond to our own distress, rather than judging ourselves that is has returned.
and which rough beast, it’s hour come round at last,
slouches toward Bethlehem to be born
Our moods, like Yeats’ slouching beasts, are looking for air. Bollas considers it a ‘psychic accomplishment to have a mood’: something comes to light from deep within us and finds expression, creating the possibility that it can be included and integrated in our consciousness. (There are ways of life and living that offer moods no traction, and these are not always to be sought after, and come at a cost. To have little landing room for mood is often to be ‘less ourselves’, to be fragmented, alienated in some basic way from who we are.) Our moods, can be said to contain something – psychic life - and, if we learn to receive them well - they will produce good qualities in us: depth, integration, tenderness.