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Alain de Botton breaks down how to make sense of your past

Dec 29, 2022

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

The philosopher, author and School Of Life founder explained how our past traumas can hold us back from accessing our true selves in the latest episode of our podcast, Stylist Live Sessions

Alain de Botton hardly needs introducing. The author, philosopher and School Of Life founder rose to prominence soon after the publication of his first book, Essays In Love, in 1993 – a step-by-step analysis of a love affair from beginning to end, which went on to sell over two million copies.

Since then, he’s published over 14 thought-provoking books on topics ranging from happiness to anxiety and everything in between – and helped thousands to reconsider the way they think, feel and navigate the world. So, when de Botton took to the stage at Stylist Live, we knew we were in for a truly transformative talk. 

Speaking on the main stage, de Botton began by presenting the large crowd with a definition of trauma as “pain that has not been understood or contextualised” – and went on to talk about how the trauma we experience during childhood has the power to stop us from being our authentic self.

But if you missed the talk, there’s no need to stress. You can now listen to the conversation in the latest episode of our Stylist Live Sessions podcast. 

“Many of us are wandering around with symptoms of wounds and traumas dating back to the past,” he said on the podcast. “How do we know these symptoms exist? Well, one of the top symptoms is that we don’t like to be on our own with our own minds – and fortunately for these sorts of people, the modern world is more or less committed to distracting us from ourselves.” 

This distraction then contributes to a whole host of symptoms, de Botton explained, including things like insomnia and addiction to work.

“At the School Of Life, we say that insomnia is essentially the revenge of all the thoughts that you ‘forgot’ to have during the day coming back and knocking at the door demanding to be heard,” he told Stylist.

“So if you want to sleep a bit better, don’t bother with teas or long baths – what you need to bother with is an encounter with those split-off bits of your mind that are unendurable (and often they really are quite unendurable).” 

Of course, knowing how to confront your true self and actually doing it are two very different things – but de Botton provided us with some ideas to help you get started.

One such technique was the use of question prompts – open-ended sentences that help you to reflect on how you think and feel.

“A question prompt is an unfinished sentence that ends in an ellipsis,” he explained. “It simply asks you to finish an unfinished sentence.”

After asking the crowd to complete a prompt – “What I’m really anxious about now is…” – de Botton provided some more examples, such as ‘What I really want is…’ and ‘What’s making my life difficult is…’ 

“These are all prompts that have a childlike simplicity to them, but if you spend time with them – in the bath, or at home in bed – you’ll be amazed at what starts to come up,” de Botton added.

“Most of us do not do our own minds the basic inquiry of checking in with them and seeing what lies behind the veil of day-to-day panic and day-to-day anxiety that keeps us running.

“But if we managed to budget moments where we can just stop, take stock and ask ourselves what is lying behind the panic and sadness, we will often find a worry behind the worry and loss behind the anxiety. And that’s what we need to get to.” 

Images: Bronac McNeill

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