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You start dying slowly

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Neruda’s poem reminds us how much fear can hold us back from really living. If we are too focused on safety and remaining comfortable, we lose the experiences that make our short time on this planet so wonderful. In his seminal paper ‘Fear of Breakdown’, Winnicott puts this down to a fear of re experiencing early infantile terror, what he calls ‘primitive agonies’. Breakdown in the early mother infant bond may have meant we were alone with a terrifying experience. The cost may be to spend our lives trying to avoid repeating the pain of this, cut off from a part of ourselves. Thomas Ogden expanded Winnicott’s idea this by writing about the 'unlived life’ that this ‘fear of breakdown’ can result in. Ogden lists five important experiences for his version of well lived life, obviously not exhaustive.


  1. The experience of joy.

  2. The ability to love one or all of our children (or equivalent ?)

  3. The capacity to be generous to the point of giving up something highly important to us.

  4. The capacity to forgive someone (including ourselves) who has done something that has hurt us profoundly.

  5. Simply to feel alive to the world around us.


Neruda’s line about following uncertainty is especially valuable. The message to embrace the unexpected is almost the opposite of a setting a New Year’s resolution with measurable, predictable outcomes, although there is certainly a place for those. The former, however, means you can be sure that something will change. His poem wakes us up.


One life, irrespective of its duration, can encompass so much if we are brave enough. Similarly our therapeutic journey, can take us in unexpected directions. At best, therapy facilitates an opening up to the world that can bring joy as well as the discomfort and pain of changing familiar patterns of the past.




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