The Head and the Heart: Wisdom from The School of Life
On days where life seems endlessly confusing, we often turn to advice from The School of Life. The School of Life was founded by Alain de Botton, a philosopher and author with a mission to foster emotional intelligence. With a popular video channel and a series of instructional books and games, it addresses such issues as finding fulfilling work, mastering the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm, and how to change the world around us. Its straightforward lessons, playful cartoons, and soothing narration make us feel like we can solve any problem life throws in our way. Here are some vignettes of advice for emotional intelligence concerning relationships.
We often talk about love, but we hardly ever talk about being loved. They are two different things- and the confusion between the two is the leading source of disagreement between couples. If we’re lucky, we grow up as children with infinite access to a parent’s love: somebody who feeds us, comforts us, protects us and loves us, all without ever asking for anything in return. We come to define this as love, and often expect the reciprocal level of admiration from a partner in our adult lives. Needless to say, this one-sided relationship model is destined for disappointment at best, and failure at worst. Not only does this lead to unrealistic expectations for our partners, but also misinterpretations of what it’s like to be loved as an adult with baggage, as opposed to a child with little personal history.
To leave this unhealthy model, it’s important to move away from the child’s position of love and into the parental position: becoming somebody who supports a partner, who shares their lives with them, all while expecting nothing in return. True, mature love is as simple as putting someone else’s needs ahead of ours. Many people can be loving, and many people love being loved, but we are only ready to be in a serious, mature relationship when we are ready to do both.
Nobody has an easy time getting over a breakup, but almost all of us have had one person who is particularly hard to let go of. Heartbreak is, for the most part, completely normal, but a prolonged infatuation with an unrequited love is, in fact, a clever way of ensuring that we won’t suffer the realities of love again. Staying committed to an ex allows us to experience a semblance of love while staying sheltered from any of its more arduous demands.
Letting go of the past is hard because the past is familiar. Even if the relationship was difficult or heartbreaking, thinking about exes can feel quite satisfying. After all, you know what you are getting yourself into and are probably best informed on how to make the best decision for you based on past experience. The scariest road of all, though, is the road that leads into the unknown. The new has no past to inform us, and a completely new partner may even be completely unlike anyone we’ve ever met before. We have no previous information to plan ahead, and no way to protect ourselves should the situation go sour. Faced with this mysterious potential, we often choose to revert to the familiar, because it is the safe option. In order to break free, and truly move on from an ex-partner, we must first let go of our fears of the unknown. Only then will we truly be ready to love someone else, and accept their love in return.
The Fear of Intimacy
Bring up the phrase “fear of intimacy,” and you will find at least a handful of people who have experienced how difficult it can be to have a successful relationship with someone who is afraid of being vulnerable with others. Sometimes our partners can have a hard time showing affection, leading us to think they are cold, aloof, or worse, that they don’t like us at all. We expect our partners to feel automatically comfortable with us, when, in fact, a large part of life is about not being intimate with others.
We are taught from an early age to hide our emotions; to not come off too strong on someone at the risk of scaring them away, or to avoid crying in public. We celebrate independence, can-do attitudes, and productivity, often at the risk of covering up our real emotions. The journey from independence to vulnerability is challenging because it can be a challenge to get close to somebody who might easily hurt us, especially if we lack practice. People with a fear of intimacy are not difficult people, they just have a hard time dealing with a difficult thing. Closeness is a scary thing, but we can replace defense with practice. We are all, in our own way, dealing with the anxieties of trying to get close with others. When we communicate those fears and listen to our partners with patience, we practice intimacy.
In any relationship, the transition from happy beginnings to the first disagreement is surprisingly jarring. When the people we are close to disappoint us, we sulk and lash out instead of talking about it. At the heart of these problems is the belief that our partners should understand us well enough to know what upsets us. We know we could explain our feelings, but to do so would mean admitting that our partner does not understand us- and that’s a hard blow for many relationships. These misunderstandings can plant seeds of self-doubt in the relationship because we inherently believe a true lover should understand us enough to naturally read our intentions. If he or she does not, it may mean they are not the partner we are meant to be with.
We long for a partner who will inherently understand us partly because we yearn for compatibility, but also because it is hard to express ourselves to another person. A clairvoyant partner removes the anxiety of having to communicate with another human being, and in so doing removes the risk of being misunderstood, challenged, or offended. Those moments of instant connection at the beginning of a relationship should not fool us into thinking that our partners are inherently attuned to every single thought in our heads. Instead, it’s likely that they just share some traits that we can connect with- and when they have different thoughts or opinions, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a wrong match.
Verbal indications of our desires and intentions through the cumbersome method of talking are, in the end, the best indicators of our true compatibility with our partner. Everybody has disagreements- true partners are not people who agree on absolutely everything, but rather two people who have the courage to communicate their needs and desires to each other.
The topics covered by the School of Life are as varied as the paths we take in our own lives, but they all have one common message: emotional intelligence can be just as important as intellectual intelligence. Emotional intelligence is often cast by the wayside because it’s hard to measure feelings as exact science, but ultimately, understanding and learning from our emotions is the first step towards an enriching, fulfilling life.
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN