It's Not My Fault But It Is My Problem
Part 1: Introducing the five curses of being human.
Posted Mar 02, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
"Curses" are experiences that trigger and sustain the activity of our threat brain.
Many of us find it difficult to maintain a state of calm receptivity and a low-stress life. Too often we are thrown off centre into the reactive feelings, thoughts, and behaviours that define our threat brain response. For example, we can frequently feel irritated, anxious, overly critical, apathetic, or disengaged. However, this is not our fault. It is a consequence of evolution and the mixed blessings that come with being human.
Being human is not and never will be easy, for there are many forces at work within and around us that trigger and sustain our threat response and cause suffering and pain. So much so that in my work I refer to them as curses. There are five, in particular, and if we do not learn how to deal with them, they will (and do) cause us real problems.
The curse of consciousness
The first is the curse of consciousness. Whilst being able to think about ourselves as having a past, present, and future is a significant evolutionary advantage, thinking can also cause us many difficulties. Consciousness causes us problems because it gives us too many things to think about, and if we pay attention to the quality of our busy thoughts, we will often notice how riddled they are with worries, judgments, criticisms, and anticipated and remembered fears. As conscious creatures, we are also aware of our mortality, and this fact alone can create a permanent sense of unease or anxiety in us.
The biologist Robert Sapolsky reminds us that zebras, for example, don’t get ulcers (or become neurotic) because when the threat of being chased and eaten by predators passes, they are able to resume peaceful grazing. Without complex consciousness, their threat brain switches off appropriately. However, with evolved consciousness, we humans are able to create and re-create danger in our minds. We can ruminate on the "what ifs?" and "if onlys," and in doing so, prolong our anxiety and fear.
The curse of memory
The second curse is that we have a memory that remembers vividly and often inaccurately. Furthermore, research shows that negative memories are more easily "activated" than positive ones. For example, we are far more likely to remember and recount the one thing that went wrong for us in our day than the five things that went right. And that’s because we have evolved to detect and prioritise problems and threats — or what we call survival information.
Memory is a curse when we allow its problem-focused tendency to interfere with present experience. A common example is the instant dislike we take to a person because — and only because — they bear a resemblance to someone we disliked in the past. Most of us possess a huge array of prejudices, opinions, and reactions that are rooted in and fertilized by ancient memories. Becoming aware of how memories work is the first step in being able to integrate and manage them, and how we learn to see new — and not so threatening — information in the present moment.
The curses of culture, family, and our own character
The other three curses arise from the influence that our culture and our families have on our developing character. In short, what we are told and learn we should be by culture, and which is reinforced through our parents and early schooling, can seriously interfere with who we are.
All of us have yearnings, propensities, and potential that can be thwarted or misshapen by the demands and dictates of others. Culture, for example, instructs us on how to be a man or woman (our gender) and what to value (or not value) in life, and these cultural messages inform the way our parents and later, our teachers, author our lives.
We become cursed by our own character when we absorb and are controlled by other people’s versions of who we must be, which most of us are because these versions once helped us to learn about and survive the environment into which we are born. Thus they are stored in our survival memory which, as I have said, is easily activated. However, maturity and wisdom involve regulating our reactive tendencies in order to discover what else exists beyond what we are told.
Diminishing the curses
The five curses of consciousness, memory, our own character, our family, and culture afflict us all, but the intensity and duration of the affliction varies and is determined by our particular experiences and the opportunities we have throughout life to learn, understand our inner conflicts and desires, and form satisfying relationships with others.
Many of us, however, do not seek to understand our curses and instead attempt to deal with them through psychological and behavioural defenses including denial, avoidance, repression, distraction, and addiction. These strategies can work for a while but our troublesome feelings and thoughts have energy and discover ways to leak into our lives when we least want or expect them. It is often in mid-life that the cracks in our armory start to appear.
Whilst we cannot wholly get rid of our curses, we can diminish their effect. And we start by coming to terms with the fact that what other people tell us and do to us, and our biological givens are not the full content and end of our story. From being a constructed self we learn to become a creating self.
In self-creating, our purpose is to integrate the knowledge that we intuitively feel is relevant and important to us with the knowledge that other people have told us is "true." We ask: If I am not what or who my consciousness, memory, character, family, or culture tell me I am, then who am I?
This question leads to a deeply personal inquiry that reveals our plural nature. The constructed ego-self, we learn, is one of our many "selves" who seek attention and expression. Whilst we may never synthesise all these parts into a harmonious whole, we can learn to listen and respond to more of them more often. And as we do so, we start to notice we feel less conflicted. Less cursed.
In part two, we will learn more about the curse of consciousness and what to do about it.
Wickremasinghe, N (2021). Being With Others: Curses, spells and scintillations. Triarchy Press
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebra's Don't Have Ulcers. St Martins Press