The disconnected hand

As a kid, my handwriting was quite pleasant to the eye. Childish, with big rounded letters, but easy to read and fluent.

At some point during puberty or pre-adolescence, this changed. My writing became uneven and nervous, I had problems connecting some of the letters, and the lines were never really parallel. It was the handwriting of somebody going through an emotional storm.

When I was agitated or nervous, it was almost impossible to write anything legibly. I usually had to restart several times. Even so, the end result looked like crap.

Although I was worried about what I perceived as an acquired inability to use and control my hand properly, I didn’t speak to anyone about it. My way of dealing with it was to avoid handwriting as much as I could. By then, avoidance and self-blame were already deeply-rooted mechanisms that intervened almost everywhere in my life.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that the transformation of my handwriting had nothing to do with my hand, my writing skills, or the lack of any particular ability. It was a symptom of problems of attachment and self-esteem that went way back into early childhood. Writing was just one of the ways in which the problem manifested itself, demanding my attention, telling me not to look away.

But I did look away. I was not prepared to look beyond my trembling, nervous hand. In front of others, I made fun of my “doctor’s handwriting” as a way of explaining myself.

Sometimes, the frustration with my inability to write legibly was so big that I was caught in a compulsive loop of writing a few words, getting annoyed at the slightest slip of my hand in drawing a letter and restarting with a new sheet of paper. Over and over again. As my frustration grew, the chances of actually getting those words on paper were diminishing. My hand felt like an enemy, simply refusing to cooperate or turning against me when I expected it the least.

I was blocked in my own perceived failure. That perception worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the probability of error and reinforcing the idea that I’m unable to do it. I could not accept failure. I could not accept the situation. I could not accept myself.

Not being able to perceive or accept things as they are here and now is the core of dysfunctional self-narratives – the stories we keep on tell ourselves, although they paint a distorted picture of our current situation and thus undermine our attempts to build healthy coping mechanisms.

For me, the problem was not that my handwriting was ugly or hardly legible. The problem was that I felt unable to just let it be and keep on writing. I was unable to accept that part of me that manifested itself through this tortured writing. I resented it and wanted to keep on suppressing it. My handwriting was a symptom of disconnection from my own body and emotions.

I never managed to “solve” the problem in the sense of having nice handwriting. But some things changed over time. These things reframed and transformed the problem to the point where I am hardly bothered by it anymore.

As I grew older, handwriting was less and less required in situations such as exams or writing formal letters. This diminished the probability of getting caught in that obsessive-compulsive loop of rewriting. It took away the stress. With no pressure to perform, my handwriting became more relaxed, fluent, and legible.

But the most important thing that changed was acceptance. My writing was not meant to conform to my idea of what nice handwriting is. It was what it was – a manifestation of my whole being. I needed to take it as such.

Acceptance is not a purely intellectual act. It is an integration of reason and emotions. You may be well aware of how you should feel or act but still feel differently. My inability to accept my “ugly” writing had little to do with handwriting. What I resented was that part of myself that cried for attention and expressed itself through my writing. It was a part of me I had constantly suppressed.

Only when there was enough acceptance and detachment, my handwriting slowly started to manifest this change. Only when I started owning my writing, along with that part of me that I resented, the problem began to transform. I felt more able to act upon it. It felt more manageable and, somehow, less important.

Some problems are unsolvable if we get stuck in them. Sometimes, solving a problem means reframing it. Becoming aware of what is behind it and how it is connected to other things that matter to us. Then acting upon them.


Imagining ways

Coping and healing have a lot to do with imagination. Getting through hard times depends on our ability to imagine that things can be different.

I say imagination, but I don’t mean a purely intellectual exercise of making up stuff. I’m talking about what you feel when you immerse yourself completely in a book or a movie, and then you come back to the reality of your present moment and your room. For a moment, everything you’ve come back to seems unfamiliar because you’ve been living in a different place.

The imagination I’m talking about is our capacity to realize the richness of what could be and to feel ourselves connected to those possibilities.

This capacity is the basis of hope, especially when things seem unbearable. Imagination and hope make it possible to take distance from the things we keep on telling ourselves, and eventually to challenge and change them.

This point is especially true of self-narratives – those things we tell ourselves about who we are. Dysfunctional self-narratives – stories of guilt, shame, inadequacy and helplessness – are widespread. They all involve, in some form or another, a narrowing of our sense of possibility, of our ability to take distance from our own story and regard it as a story.

These stories have a history and exist for a reason. They were once normal reactions to difficult circumstances. They provided a way of coping. Even though those circumstances are long gone, we may still react as if we were facing the same threats or constraints. As if we were still a helpless child looking for care and stability, or a teenager looking for affection and validation.

What makes dysfunctional self-narratives so damaging is the fact that they become part of our perceived identity. They undermine our capacity to realize and feel that things can be otherwise, that there are paths opening in front of us. We may tell ourselves that this too shall pass, but on some deep visceral-emotional level our bodies won’t feel it.

As a result, we don’t react to the present moment but to things that somehow keep us captive in the past. It’s the mechanism of trauma. Gabor Maté calls these coping mechanisms “the stupid friend”: they were once helping us cope in a specific context, but they cannot realize that we’re no longer in that context and that what once helped is hurting now.

We can reject and despise these mechanisms for making us miserable. Or we can take a look at what they did for us and why they appeared in the first place. We may even thank them for their help, no matter how toxic that help feels now. We cannot really let go unless we understand what exactly we leave behind – and why.


We have always needed places of refuge and protection from others and from ourselves. Without them, our individual and social wellbeing is threatened.

The Abbey of Villers-la-Ville is a 40-minutes drive from Brussels, Belgium. Built in the 12th century, the abbey was abandoned in 1796 and fell into ruin. At the height of its power, it was said to host 100 monks and another 300 men who were not formally bound by the vows of the Cistercian order. Like many other places of its kind, the abbey functioned not only as a place of worship but also as a sanctuary.

Terminologically, sanctuary refers to a sacred place or a container of a sacred object. Its meaning has evolved to refer to places that offer protection to those who need it: heretics, political opponents, all sorts of persons persecuted for their beliefs or practices.

Sanctuaries were usually designated areas within or around churches and abbeys. Under certain conditions, people could take refuge within their walls. They were hosted and fed until the danger passed. They were protected until they could return home or continue on their way.

For most of our history, the idea that persons have individual rights that need to be publicly protected was a weird notion. Rights were a result of status or function, and compliance with rights was subject to the whims of local or central power. In fact, long after individual rights have been recognized by law, we’re still a long way from ensuring that they are actually respected.

The idea of sanctuary derives from a basic need for understanding and empathy. Its premise is that we can all be subject to persecution or oppression. We may not fully understand the others’ ordeal, but we realize that they need protection. We also realize that we could be in their place. That is why we need places of refuge that can accommodate different individual circumstances.

Sanctuaries are complex institutions. They may have moral authority, but they often do not have the legal and political power to enforce compliance. Even when they have some degree of political power, as in the case of US cities that disregarded Trump’s sociopathic immigration policy, they need to confront a higher political power.

Nevertheless, sanctuaries work. They rely on acts of courage and kindness that build upon one another and become examples for others.

But oppression is not always external. We also need to take a break from ourselves – from our relentless self-criticism and blaming. We need shelter and protection from our demons. We need a space of acceptance and non-judgment where we can rest and recharge.

Inner sanctuaries are difficult to create and maintain. For some of us, childhood offers good premises for emotional self-regulation and a solid sense of self-worth and agency. For others, these premises are shaky. They struggle with trauma, depression, and low self-esteem. Reinforcing these premises is the work of a lifetime.

Most forms of therapy and self-care rely on the creation or restoration of this inner sanctuary. Before we can do something about our problems, we need to stop identifying with them. Before we can act, we need to restore a sense of autonomy and agency.

As our circumstances change, our sanctuaries may need to change too. They may need to be reinvented. But our need for spaces of refuge and protection – whether from outside persecution or the ghosts of our mind – is here to stay.

How to be completely miserable in five easy steps

Unless you’re living in a cave, it is impossible to avoid the assault of online self-improvement advice. It’s all over and it covers everything from stress management to changing habits. Pearls of wisdom are overflowing from all corners of the internet.

Couple on holiday (Lisbon, 2019)

I don’t know about you, but for me this continuous flow of (mostly) unrequested advice makes me want to break something. I mean, I can live with the fact that so many people feel entitled to give advice. But often the advice is just generic stuff regurgitated from other sources. You can immediately tell when you stumble upon pompous bullshit.

Instead of breaking stuff, I will offer my own advice on how to be utterly and completely miserable.

I am well aware that many of us manage extremely well to be miserable without any external help. However, I feel that additional structure and reasoning can only improve the quality of one’s misery.

I. Follow all the possible advice on how you can improve yourself. This will offer a unique opportunity to feel inadequate, as it’s simply impossible to assemble it in a coherent whole that actually benefits you. To add insult to injury, you will also feel like a total loser for not staying the course. For not mastering self-control in five weeks, like this random guy that offers you a discount on his course on self-control.

II. Get into arguments on social media. Everybody knows that this is how people change their opinions – by being lectured or insulted online by strangers.

III. Publish everything you create (be it writing, photography, drawing, music, anything really). Then agonize over the lack of sufficient validation in the form of likes, comments, shares, or anything else you tend to consider a sign of interest or appreciation.

IV. Be harsh on yourself over every little perceived failure. Tell yourself that you are simply unable to get it right. Don’t let it slide. Squeeze all possible self-loathing out of it.

V. Don’t be satisfied with current failures. Dwell on the past and replay mentally your moments of low and embarrassment. This will ensure that, rather than going through the normal process of gaining perspective and healing, you have the chance of keeping these wounds open.

There it goes. Actionable advice for both amateur and professional self-saboteurs. My modest contribution, based on personal experience, to the underrepresented field of self-undermining therapy.