The Marginalian
The Marginalian

On Giving Up: Adam Phillips on Knowing What You Want, the Art of Self-Revision, and the Courage to Change Your Mind

On Giving Up: Adam Phillips on Knowing What You Want, the Art of Self-Revision, and the Courage to Change Your Mind

“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote. Nothing is more vital to the capacity for change than the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind — that stubborn refusal to ossify, the courageous willingness to outgrow your views, anneal your values, and keep clarifying your priorities. It is incredibly difficult to achieve because the very notion of the self hinges on our sense psychological continuity and internal consistency; because we live in a culture whose myths of heroism and martyrdom valorize completion at any cost, a culture that contractually binds the present self to the future self in mortgages and marital vows, presuming unchanging desires, forgetting that who we are is shaped by what we want and what we want goes on changing as we go on growing.

Changing — your mind, your life — is also painfully difficult because it is a form of renunciation, a special case of those necessary losses that sculpt our lives; it requires giving something up — a way of seeing, a way of being — in order for something new to come abloom along the vector of the “endless unfolding” that is a life fully lived, something that leaves your new emerging self more fully met.

One of English artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips offers a salve for that perennial difficulty in On Giving Up (public library) — an exploration and celebration of giving up as “a prelude, a precondition for something else to happen, a form of anticipation, a kind of courage,” “an attempt to make a different future” that “get us the life we want, or don’t know that we want.”

He considers how countercultural such reframing is:

We tend to value, and even idealize, the idea of seeing things through, of finishing things rather than abandoning them. Giving up has to be justified in a way that completion does not; giving up doesn’t usually make us proud of ourselves; it is a falling short of our preferred selves… Giving up, in other words, is usually thought of as a failure rather than a way of succeeding at something else. It is worth wondering to whom we believe we have to justify ourselves when we are giving up, or when we are determinedly not giving up.

At the heart of the book is the recognition that renunciation is the fulcrum of change. We give things up, Phillips observes, “when we believe we can no longer go on as we are.” (For many, this is the central crisis of midlife.) It is a kind of sacrifice in the service of a larger, better life — but this presumes knowledge of the life we want, and it is often experiences we didn’t know we wanted that end up magnifying our lives in the profoundest ways. (Nothing illustrates this better than The Vampire Problem.)

Phillips considers the paradox:

The whole notion of sacrifice depends upon our knowing what we want… Giving up, or giving up on, anything or anyone always exposes what it is we take it we want… To give something up is to seek one’s own assumed advantage, one’s apparently preferred pleasure, but in an economy that we mostly can’t comprehend, or, like all economies, predict… We calculate, in so far as we can, the effect of our sacrifice, the future we want from it… to get through to ourselves: to get through to the life we want.

Falling Star by Witold Pruszkowski, 1884. (Available as a print.)

“I did not know that I could only get the most out of life by giving myself up to it,” the psychiatrist and artist Marion Milner wrote a century ago in her clarifying field guide to knowing what you really want — which is, in the end, the hardest thing in life, for our self-knowledge is cratered with blind spots, clouded by conditioning, and perennially incomplete. Phillips — who draws on Milner’s magnificent book, as well as on Kafka and Judith Butler, Henry and William James, Hamlet and Paradise Lost — observes that, in this regard, giving up is a kind of “gift-giving.” He writes:

Not being able to give up is not to be able to allow for loss, for vulnerability; not to be able to allow for the passing of time, and the revisions it brings.

And what would life be without continual acts of self-revision?

It is our ego-ideals — the stories we tell ourselves and the world about who we are and who we ought to be, fantasies of coherence and continuity mooring us to a static idealized self — that feed what Phillips calls the “tyranny of completion.” But human beings are rough drafts that continually mistake themselves for the final story, then gasp as the plot changes on the page of living. We do this largely because we are captives of comfort in our habits of thought and feeling, victims of certainty — that supreme narrowing of the mind — when it comes to our own desires. That we don’t fully know what we want because we are half-opaque to ourselves, that something we didn’t think we wanted may end up enlarging our lives in unimaginable ways, is a kind of uncertainty that unravels us. But if we can bear the frustration of the figuring, we may live into a larger and more authentic life.

Art by Francisco de Holanda, 1550s. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Building upon his excellent earlier writing on why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in love, Phillips writes:

Our frustration is the key to our desire; to want something or someone is to feel their absence; so to register or recognize a lack would seem to be the precondition for any kind of pleasure or satisfaction. Indeed, in this account, frustration, a sense of lack, is the necessary precondition for any kind of satisfaction.


The traditional story about lack and desire describes a closed system; in this story I can never be surprised by what I want, because somewhere in myself I already know what is missing; my frustration is the form my recognition takes, it is a form of remembering.

Wanting is recovery, not discovery… There is a part of oneself that needs to know what it is doing, and a part of oneself that needs not to… a part of oneself that needs to know what one wants and a part of oneself that needs not to.

It is in the continual investigation of our desires, with all the frustration of our polyphonous parts, that we find the recovery and gift-giving which giving up can bring — a way of giving our lives back to ourselves and giving ourselves forward to our lives. Phillips distills the central predicament:

The question is always: what are we going to have to sacrifice in order to develop, in order to get to the next stage of our lives?

Couple On Giving Up with John O’Donohue on beginnings, Allen Wheelis on how people change, and Judith Viorst on the life-shaping art of letting go, then revisit Phillips on why we fall in love, breaking free from the tyranny of self-criticism, and the relationship between “fertile solitude” and self-esteem.

Published May 17, 2024




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