When only the secondary self is offered

I have long been grateful to the poet Ted Hughes.

Grateful for his poetry; but even more grateful for the letter he wrote to his troubled son Nicholas on his 24th birthday, in which he reflects on why life is sometimes so difficult.

In particular, he speaks about what it feels like when people only offer their secondary self for public view; a self which offers no joyful engagement.

Maybe something here rings a bell for you and your relationships; here are the opening paragraphs of his letter.

Over to Ted:

‘It’s something people don’t discuss…it’s something most people are aware of only as a sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle.

But not many people realise that here, in fact, is the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it.

So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’.

But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child.

It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child.

Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs – it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived.

That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced.

Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water, bulging above the brim.

And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them…’

More of the letter is available online, of course.

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