On contradicting yourself (regularly)

For years, my partner and I have joked about how inconsistent and contradictory I can be. I love something one day and hate it the next. I switch from being mesmerized by someone to then thinking they’re quite annoying, only to love them again, and the cycle repeats. (My own subjectivity is – of course – trapped in the greatest yo-yo cycle of them all.) For those around me, these contradictions can be, at best, annoying (who respects a flake?) and, at worst, absolutely infuriating (how can I know if you actually like me if you’re forever changing your mind?). For me, the whole process is caught up in a larger – and even more contradictory – knot of anxiety (there’s no bond quite like never being able to trust what you think, so panic attacks). And yet, despite all of this, I’ve never felt any need to change, leading me to yet another contradiction because, if nothing else, this state of being can be a bit painful. So, with that in mind, could there be any use to contradicting ourselves regularly?

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, contradictions are considered part and parcel of being human. In fact, our very existence is understood as built on one, i.e., we both know and do not know ourselves. For instance, I know that I am ‘me,’ and I know a few consistent ‘signifiers’ about that person who is ‘me’ (e.g., I know I like psychoanalysis and Diet Coke). However, I do not know all the reasons why I like psychoanalysis or Diet Coke, and there’s a lot about each of these things I can’t stand. I – like everyone else – find myself making decisions I wish I hadn’t (i.e., mistakes), stumbling on my words even though I know what I want to say, and just generally not knowing what I’m doing or how and why my life is unfolding the way it is. More than that, I do not know why I find myself panicking, berating myself, and developing all sorts of unusual symptoms. It is these contradictions which brought me – like so many others – to a therapist’s office.

Specifically, from a psychoanalytic perspective, ‘symptoms’ like panic attacks, excessive substance abuse, relationship patterns deemed toxic, constant procrastination, an inability to act on our goals, depressive symptoms, etc., all speak to a contradiction within ourselves. In other words, we find ourselves saying: I am doing something I do not like, I do not want, and I do not know why I do it. However, analytically, these ‘symptoms’ have a function, i.e., they are a solution to a contradiction between who we know ourselves to be and those parts of ourselves that we haven’t got much of a clue about. Going a little further into the theory, that symptom-solution is understood to be a solution to a contradiction within the dialectical relationship between what you enjoy and how you can go about articulating that enjoyment in the world (e.g., you’ll never meet a more dedicated hypochondriac than a heavy smoker with no wish to stop). Psychoanalysis works to bring those contradictions within ourselves to bear so that a hole can open up in the place where the symptom first lodged. From within that hole, we will typically find a very painful process of change; but it is a change that occurs from a position of knowledge. Or, in other words, if we know why we do it, we are (relatively) free to choose what we would like to do instead.

All of this is to say – firstly, being a flake isn’t all bad. Secondly, I fear that when we focus too heavily on mental health disorders as signs of ‘faulty wiring’, that need to be adjusted through our diet, exercise, using psilocybin, or whatever else it is, we turn these contradictions at the root of our subjectivity into something that is ‘wrong’ with us. In other words, if we treat our brains as though they are ‘things’ that can be reprogrammed and re-wired – which so much of our mainstream mental health discourse does – we exclude the part of ourselves that is constantly experiencing, interpreting and positioning itself in relation to that ‘brain’. Or more specifically, we exclude the tension between the part of ourselves experiencing ourselves (the known part) and the part of ourselves being ‘experienced’ (the unknown part).

For instance, maybe hidden behind those panic attacks at the supermarket you find a whole wealth of knowledge about your relationship with your mother (as someone who maybe brought you there a lot as a child). From there, maybe you find a host of confusing and conflicting feelings towards her which are now articulating themselves in that sense of dread and terror you find in a supermarket. The idea here is that these feelings of terror directly contradict how much you know you love your mother. This terror is not ‘truer’ than your love, but the relief found in its articulation has to be veiled as it is too contradictory – and thus hidden – from the part of ourselves we know. In other words, our ‘brain’ does ‘something’ which we cannot seem to interpret or figure out.

From there, perhaps it leads you to reckon with ambivalent feelings you feel towards so many others in your life. From there, you might start to think about why you do the things you do, and whether or not you want to keep doing them the way you are. When we see a symptom as part of a contradictory system, it offers us the opportunity to interpret ‘something’ of those unknown parts of ourselves. In my eyes, it must be more useful to know why I have a symptom before I outright remove it, even if it means sacrificing a sense of consistency in the process. But, then again, as mentioned above – I didn’t have much to begin with.

Written by Molly Fitz