The British Psychological Society (BPS) has a Research Digest blog, and it has published responses from twenty-three of “the world’s leading psychologists” who were invited to reveal:
I think the responses can be divided roughly into four groups.
In one group, the nine responses seem to be largely self-advertisement, describing research interests or promoting the latest books. These people ignored the word ‘nagging’ in the question. Something nagging is something that is not the focus of your attention. It’s always in the background, completely unlike a research interest or the subject of a book.
Some in this group also ignored the phrase ‘about yourself’, describing things that could apply to anyone, and that probably do apply to many people.
The least tedious of these, I think, is by Paul Rozin, who wrote about failing to learn from experience:
Every night, I bring home a pile of work to do in the evening and early morning. I have been doing this for over 50 years. I always think I will actually get through all or most of it, and I almost never get even half done. But I keep expecting to accomplish it all. What a fool I am.
Failing to be superhuman
In another group, the ten responses seem to be about failing to be superhuman — failing to understand the nature of consciousness, how best to live life, what it means to be a parent, what beauty is, and so forth. Such questions might indeed nag, but again they ignore the words ‘about yourself’ because they are things that have nagged thinking people since people began to think.
The most interesting of them, I think, is by Sue Gardner, president of the BPS, who wrote:
I have a dark place inside which at various stages of my life has been occupied by ghosts, daleks and negative emotions. Somehow I need this place though, to connect me to others…
Perhaps it’s time she read Jung.
Answering the question
Only a few of the responses seemed to me to answer the question.
Elizabeth Loftus wrote about her nightmares:
I don’t understand why I have nightmares almost every night. Nightmares of frustration. Obstacles in my way that keep me from catching an airplane trip on time. Obstacles that keep me from getting where I’m supposed to be. I wake up almost every morning with a sense of relief – “Thank goodness it was just a dream.”
But there’s a twist in her tale, a twist that you’ll have to read the whole thing to discover.
David Lavallee wrote about his superstitious rituals while playing golf:
While I appreciate that carrying the same amount of tees in my pocket during a round will not help me play better, or the action of always marking my golf ball on the green with a coin placed “heads-up” will not influence the outcome (making the putt), I will probably continue to resort to such behaviours as if I was one of Skinner’s pigeons.
Mike Posner alluded to his own learning difficulties (only barely escaping the research interests group):
Why have I had such a hard time learning to change a light bulb, fix a car and cook dinner, while for others it seems such a breeze?
Martin Seligman questioned the concept of self-control:
I have weighed 95 kg for the last twenty years, and I have dieted a dozen times only to return to 95 kg each time, usually after losing about 5 kg. No self-control? Hardly. Eighteen months ago I took up walking, …I am well on track to my goal.
And that leaves…
If you’ve been adding up, that’s all of the twenty-three responses accounted for. The fourth group is the group who did not respond at all, whose nagging questions are private ones and who do not pretend otherwise.
Everyone probably does have some nagging thing that they do not understand about themselves. Psychologists are no exception. But publishing the thing changes its nature, because a nagging question is essentially private. Making it public means it is no longer nagging, even if it was nagging for a time.
My own nagging questions are like that — private ones. A little like Sue Gardner, I think that relating in a deep way to other people requires an awareness of your own unfathomable depths. Unlike her, I do not think of those depths as dark, and I do not imagine any journey towards understanding myself fully. The trick about being, it seems to me, is that you can trust in your inner self without understanding it.