Patrick McCurry Counsellor Eastbourne Canary Wharf

Counselling and Psychotherapy in Eastbourne, East Sussex and Canary Wharf, London and Online.

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In every blessing a curse and in every curse a blessing

 31 March 2024


The phrase above was one that a workshop leader in a men’s group I used to be a part of would use. It resonated with me because it seemed to say something profound about the human experience.

 It’s also a paradox - a contradictory statement that nevertheless contains truth.

What I understand by the phrase is that often, when something good, something we’ve longed for, happens it can contain the seeds of something negative or challenging. Similarly, when something bad or unwanted happens there will often be something positive that comes out of it. 

 There are lots of examples of ‘blessings’ that become curses. It’s a bit like the phrase, ‘Be careful for what you wish for…’. For many of us the pleasure is in the wishing or working towards. When we actually achieve or gain the prize we have longed for we can find all kinds of complications. 

 It’s like the lottery winner who is initially delighted but who finds, a year later, they have split up with their partner, no longer know who their true friends are and has too much leisure time and no purpose. Viv Nicholson famously struggled after her husband won the equivalent of several million pounds in the 1960s. She couldn’t handle the psychological aspects of suddenly having so much money and ended up bankrupt and alcoholic.

 We may find that having money and material possessions, while it removes some problems and can give us pleasure, can also add to anxieties. Such as fear of losing those possessions or losing  that high-paid (but exhausting)  job.



 Similarly, we often don’t see the positives in the things we try our best to avoid experiencing (the curses). In The Art of Possibility authors Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander describe how we are constantly interpreting the events in our lives according to certain assumptions. In a certain way, we end up experiencing what we expect to experience. 

 They argue that much of what we experience is hugely influenced by the story we tell ourselves about it. “Remember….that every story you tell [yourself] is founded on a network of hidden assumptions.”

 Extreme life events can help us re-think these assumptions we bring to the world. I’ve been listening to the audio book Faith, Hope and Carnage, which is an extended interview with musician Nick Cave. His son Arthur, aged 15, died in 2015. In the book Cave describes the long process that he and his wife have been through in grieving his son’s death.

 While Arthur’s death was unimaginably painful for Cave, at the same time it gradually led to a new energy in Cave’s creative work. It also led him to speak about his grief and to make connections with other people who had been through something similar. He described himself,  before the death, as ‘an incomplete or unformed human being’ with a narrow worldview.

 It reminds me of this famous William Blake poem:


Joy and woe are woven fine

A clothing for the soul divine

Under every grief and pine

Runs a joy with silken twice


This can be seen in the way that some people actively seek painful or uncomfortable experiences, partly because such experiences can also generate pleasure-giving hormonal reactions. Think of those people who take ice cold showers or baths every day. Part of the attraction is the contrast they feel when they get out of the freezing bath. It’s the ‘pain’ of the cold that highlights the pleasure of no longer being in the cold. 

 One of the reasons experiencing ‘bad’ things or things we don’t want has hidden benefits is because without having these experiences we have nothing to contrast the pleasant experiences. If we never have to struggle or strive it is difficult to experience the joy and satisfaction of many things in life. For example,  finding a partner after a long period living with loneliness as a single person can make us appreciate that new partner all the more. 


Hedonic adaptation

 Part of the reason why positive or negative events are not always what they seem is hedonic adaptation - this refers to the phenomenon that we experience a temporary lift or depression after certain events but that our emotions tend to settle back into a baseline level of happiness. For example, we get the new car we’ve been longing for but after a few weeks the novelty wears off, we’ve got used to the heated car seats or impressive acceleration, and we revert to our usual level of contentment.

 A similar experience can occur if something bad happens, we have an initial feeling of depression or anger but, over time, we learn to adapt to the change and find ourselves at a similar level of contentment as we’ve experienced historically in our lives. This may even occur in very serious negative changes, such as becoming disabled in some way. 

 There are clearly some chronic negative situations that can be extremely difficult to cope with. Having a disabled child, a chronic health condition or a partner with dementia. All these experiences will almost certainly have a marked impact on someone’s life and a mostly difficult and challenging one. But there is often also another side to the experience. Dealing with these kind of challenges can increase our empathy for others in similar situations, perhaps we may make connections with others and campaign for improvements to services. That kind of activity can bring a greater meaning to our lives.

 The ‘curses’ in our life, although they may be painful, can also bring meaning. They may help us develop our internal resources - patience, determination, self-compassion. 

 If we are dealing with an ongoing challenge we may also learn to appreciate the times when we have a break from the situation or recognise the pleasure in some of the small, simple things in life. Great pleasure can be derived from sitting down and watching a favourite TV programme with a cup of tea - perhaps something that previously would have been taken for granted has now become a conscious pleasure.