I always liked the saying “The illness is the cure”. Why? Because in the area of mental health, it alerts us to something profoundly insightful about the nature of the psychological and emotional problems most people struggle with.
Whether we feel depressed, have panic attacks, or generally feel weak, bad, or inadequate, these kinds of problematic states and ways of suffering are rarely ever simply problems to be removed or eradicated. They are NOT the illness, but like a fever or a cough, a symptom that alerts us to something about our life or our approach to life that is off-kilter, wrong, or in need of change.
Like the red lamps on the dashboard of a car, they alert us to the problem, but are not themselves the problem.
The Fallacy of Treating the Symptom as the Cause:
There is a real fallacy here that many people fall into if they do not realize this nature of their psychological distress.
If they simply think of their anxiety or their depression as the problem, then they might try to medicate the symptom to the exclusion of finding out why the symptom is really there.
In some sense this approach would be tantamount to attempting to solve a car issue by smashing the red light on the dashboard.
However, when you realize that the psyche uses the symptom of depression or anxiety to alert us to the fact that it is ill or that something in our life needs to change, our symptom becomes more of a friend than a foe. It now serves as a calling to resolve an issue which we may have been avoiding or which has stumped us in some way.
As in the saying “the illness is the cure” it serves merely as the first step toward the cure, and as such it is in fact the first step toward a transformation and reorganization that needs to occur for balance and health to be restored.
Way too often, we short-circuit this natural healing process because we get frightened by the calling and can’t see the road ahead. We mistake the symptom for the cause, and the burgeoning cure for the illness itself.
Discovering the Truth of Our Symptoms:
There is a depth of understanding that has gotten lost in our current search for quick fixes and immediate happiness, but was always there in the minds of the founders of the craft we now call psychotherapy.
A psychiatrist like Carl Jung, for example, beautifully wrote about heeding our symptoms as a calling:
“Depression”, he said, “is like a woman in black. If she turns up, don’t shoo her away. Invite her in, offer her a seat, treat her like a guest and listen to what she wants to say.”
Even poets have alerted us to the fact that our distress is merely a signpost toward making necessary changes. As Rainer Marie Rilke writes:
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? … If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”
Sigmund Freud, too, reminded us of the danger of not listening to our symptoms, for as he rightly warns us:
“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways”
The Calling of Symptoms is to “Know Thyself”:
So much gets lost when we don’t heed the advice to listen to our symptoms and pursue them as the first step toward a cure.
Depression, anxiety, badness, and upset, cures itself once its truth is understood and its emotional conflicts disentangled.
The calling of mental illness is to “know thyself”.
The calling is not for a dimming of your awareness through medication, quick fixes, or a rush to premature action, but for an expansion of your consciousness, so you can reap the benefits of your psyche’s own wisdom, and find out more about what is meaningful and central to you at your core.
Illness is not a destination, but a way-station, and those who dare to unlock its message will be amply rewarded and transformed in the process.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people work through their symptoms of anxiety and depression to achieve a transformation to a better, lighter, and more centered self.Visit my website for more information.
In this comprehensive, yet simple and practical, self-help guide, I will give you an overview of fifteen of the most effective techniques psychologists use to help their clients overcome depression.
Let’s go through each technique one at a time:
1. Get Active:
When we become depressed our body often starts to shut down. We become lethargic, don’t want to do anything, and feel like every little task is a hassle. To counteract this tendency, behaviorists have long suggested that one of the best ways to fight depression is to get your body reactivated.
One way to do this is to exercise. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins into the blood stream and this produces a calming effect. You might even consider lifting some weights since the succession of straining your muscles and relaxing your muscles mimics another psychological technique to calm the nervous system called progressive muscle relaxation.
Even if exercising seems like too formidable a task at first, start out by just going for a 30 minute walk, or getting out and about in small ways, even if just to run errands. Any activities you do outside the house will help to make you feel that you are accomplishing something, and will counteract the vicious cycle of shame, guilt and inadequacy that comes from procrastination, sitting around, sleeping, or giving up.
The behavioral approach to fighting depression very much prioritizes doing over thinking and feeling. Even if you don’t feel like doing something or can think of many reasons not to, if you participate in activities, these behaviors will bring rewards and will ultimately change how you feel and think.
Think of it a bit like getting into a new series on TV or reading a novel. You sometimes have to just get started, in order to eventually get interested, and subsequently have an internal motivation to watch another episode or read the next chapter. What matters is taking the first step.
Watch a video on progressive muscle relaxation to try it out now:
Les Greenberg who has studied the change processes in therapy has identified “changing an emotion with an emotion” as one of the key principles of change.
If you are feeling sad, for example, that emotion which alerts you to a loss or absence of something you want, also contains a potential for getting in touch with other emotions, which will change the nature of your sadness.
You may for example access your anger about what you have lost or wish you had. This would mean turning the sadness outward and expressing your indignation at the people who were not there for you and the injustice of things not going your way. The anger that can be healing is righteous anger (or standing up for yourself), not sad angry complaining, but this is something we will come back to later in this guide (See principle #6: Be Assertive).
The sadness you feel can also be transformed through a grieving process which allows you to actively let go of what will never be or what is forever lost. Oftentimes people stay captive in a depressed state because they are not able to accept their reality. They continue to wish that it be different. Grieving allows you to move on and focus on building a new reality (See principle #14: Mourn Childhood Losses).
By going into your emotions, rather than avoiding them, and by accessing another emotion that is contrary to or different from the original emotion, you can transform how you feel.
Marsha Linehan, has made this one of the general principles in her Dialectical Behavior Therapy. She recommends that when you are sad, you watch something funny on TV, or when you are angry, you engage in charity work. She calls this principle “acting opposite your emotion”. Some might consider this “fake” or “inauthentic”, but that would assume that you consider your real self to be static or equal to your current emotional state. Research, however, shows that we have many selves and that different emotions organize and mobilize different versions of ourselves. That is why, an introverted person, can become extroverted in certain environments and at certain times, or why you can feel different about yourself around strangers than around friends.
Here is a tutorial on using the “Opposite Emotion” Skill as one of the ways to fight depression:
3. Challenge Your Negative Beliefs:
When you are depressed, your emotional state often hijacks your thoughts. You feel sluggish and you think to yourself “I am so lazy, so useless, so worthless”. These thoughts then make you feel even more hopeless and depressed. One way to actively battle this self-reinforcing downward spiral is to catch your thoughts and challenge them by using logical evidence to assess their truthfulness.
First you write down the things you tell yourself that make you feel down. Then, when you have become aware of the specific statements that run through your head, you subject your thoughts to what we can call “thought court”.
A thought court is a way for both the prosecutor and the defender to have their evidence heard so that we can better arrive at a true verdict that takes all the evidence into account,
In this case the prosecutor is the self-critical voice that tells you many negative things about yourself. We want to hear the evidence the prosecutor can submit to support the negative claims, and we want you to write it all down.
However, we also want to hear from the defender, who in this case would be the more positive voice that looks for exceptions or evidence to the contrary.
When looking at and comparing both sides, we can then arrive at a more factually and logically accurate verdict, and can write down a new thought which is more balanced and fair.
To get started with the exercise, take a piece of paper and draw separate columns. In one column you write down the evidence for what you are telling yourself (the prosecutor), in another you write down evidence against (the defender).
You have to imagine yourself making a case for and against your judgment of yourself in a courtroom in front of a judge. This means putting forth your strongest evidence for and against, and really trying to prove and disprove your case. Then when you have all the evidence lined up side by side, you have to take both sides into account and formulate a thought or judgment that is more accurate and more fair. When looking at the evidence, your thought “I am so useless”, might change into “sometimes I feel useless, but there have been many times when I have added value and contributions to others”.
The goal of the exercise is to demonstrate how thoughts influence the way we feel, and how we can change how we feel, by thinking in a more fair and balanced way.
You can make a copy of the following thought record to get started, or you can click the link below to download it:
This principle is closely related to the previous, but worth considering in its own right. When emotions take over your thinking, you are prone to base your self-assessment on faulty logic. One of the best ways to fight depression is consequently to examine the faulty logics that are contributing to making you feel bad about yourself.
Cognitive therapists have identified a whole catalogue of faulty logics depressed people use. These include:
All or nothing thinking (losing the ability to assess yourself as falling somewhere on a continuum, rather than belonging definitely to one category or another, F.ex: There is nothing good about me)
Mind-reading (assuming you know what another person thinks, feels, or intends, without checking with that person: F.ex. this person doesn’t like me, I just know)
Mental filter (ignoring any evidence that would dispute your conclusion. F.ex. ignoring the A you got on an exam, and focusing only on the C you got on another)
Jumping to conclusion (drawing premature conclusions and leaving out consideration of other possibilities. F.ex., he did not respond to my text-message, so he does not like me).
Noticing when you engage in such faulty logic, will help you when you challenge your negative beliefs (see principle #3), and will allow you to step back from your emotional conclusions rather than be swept up in them and treat them as if they were truths.
A list of some of the most common logical errors are reviewed below:
Emotions are appraisals of an environment in relation to one’s needs. They tell you whether or not things are going your way or getting in your way. When you get lost in your anger, your loneliness, or your sad complaints (blame), without fully understanding what it is you need, and why it is that your life situation is being given a negative emotional appraisal, you end up getting stuck.
However, every emotion gives you information about what it is you value, want, or need, and if you can get in touch with that, you will have more agency and control over getting what it is you really want. One of the ways to fight depression is therefore to unlock the unfulfilled need contained in your emotional frustrations.
For example: If you are stuck in a kind of grief that doesn’t seem to get better or resolve itself, it may be because you are reluctant to let go of the comfort and safety that comes from holding on to a loved one. You may be afraid of finally letting go, because you are afraid of the pain of feeling abandoned and empty. Your stuckness in grief reveals to you that you have a need to feel loved and held. This awareness might spur you to more actively pursue ways to feel loved and held by other people in your life, which can then free you to finally grieve your loss.
Another person might be stuck in the angry complaints against their romantic partner for being inconsiderate or absent-minded, but the angry complaints at feeling wronged might obscure the sadness and longing that comes from the need to feel close.
Once you realize what it is you want or what it is you are missing, you can more directly ask for it or attempt to achieve it. You can then get unstuck from an emotion that will otherwise linger because it can’t achieve its aim.
6. Express Your Anger and Be Assertive:
An old theory of depression is that it is anger turned inward. Although this is somewhat simplistic, it is often the case that people who feel guilty or fearful of asserting what they want end up feeling passive, sad, and unhappy. Depression can therefore often be a sign to you that you are not standing up for yourself on issues that really matter, or that you are not allowing yourself to set an important boundary. One of the best ways to fight depression is therefore to become more assertive and explicit about your needs and wishes.
It is important for you to realize that anger is an important emotion that helps you realize when your needs are being frustrated. Only if you can allow yourself to feel your anger, can you examine what needs might not be met and take action to correct a bad situation.
Some people are scared of anger because they associate it with being out of control, violent, or destructive, and they may think of it as antithetical to maintaining strong bonds with others. They may fear that if they express their anger, others will leave, get annoyed, not care anymore, and so on.
The truth is, however, that anger comes in many forms, and does not have to be destructive if handled skillfully. There is a difference between angry complaining, and righteous anger, and between aggression and assertiveness. In the one situation the anger blames and destroys, whereas in the other, the anger asserts and conveys confidence. Learning when and when not to trust and express your anger is a necessary skill for you to learn if you don’t want to live a passive life.
Here is a workbook I recommend that will help you find ways to become more assertive in your life:
We often grow up thinking that parts of ourselves are not acceptable or good enough. These kinds of experiences of being flawed or not possessing certain traits, can often lead to a pursuit to become someone we are not.
Many people end up living lives that attempt to make up for a perceived flaw. If you felt different from your peers when you were growing up because your parents lived in a trailer park, you might feel compelled in your life to compensate for this perceived inferiority, by measuring your self-worth against how much money you are making in your career. Your life might become a compulsive pursuit of status and prestige, but inside you are still that wounded child who just doesn’t feel good enough.
Many people pursue some ideal version of who they want to be that simultaneously passes judgment on who they really are. Because they are not accepting themselves, but always have to be better, smarter, richer, and so on, they are destined to live a life of dissatisfaction.
Karen Horney, has written an excellent book about all the ways we attempt to make up for our perceived flaws through what she calls a “pursuit of glory”. I recommend that you read it if you find yourself having impossible standards that you continue to resent yourself for not living up to.
When you are depressed you often don’t feel like getting out of the house or doing anything. You just want to stick your head under the covers and disconnect your phone line. However, there is good evidence that if you fight this urge to withdraw from the world and force yourself to get out and to do things, you will start to feel less depressed.
In behavioral activation therapy depressed clients are coached to schedule at least one activity every day that involves getting out of the house, and doing something active, even if they don’t feel like it.
You can keep the activity small at first, so you don’t feel overwhelmed, but you do have to commit to it and give it a shot.
Start with an activity of 30 minutes that you could possibly imagine would give you some joy. Perhaps go for a walk in the park, go get an ice cream, go to the library to look for a book that might interest you, treat yourself to a café latte in a coffee shop, or take yourself to the movies.
The important point here is that you don’t need to “feel like” doing it, but simply agree to do it anyway and treat it as an experiment.
The experiment is to compare how you felt before you did the activity and how you felt after doing the activity. Be a scientist and rate your depression from 1-10 before going out and do the same after returning. Now see if there is any change in your score. My best bet is that you will feel less depressed after doing the activity, not more.
Over time, you can increase the time or frequency of the pleasant activities you put in your schedule, but the important thing is that you stick to your plan even if you don’t feel like it.
Try to follow this advice for one week and schedule one pleasant activity for each day of the week. Then assess how it went and compare how you felt at the beginning of the week and at the end of the week.
Depression often goes together with feeling worthless or ineffective. An anti-dote to this feeling is to do something you feel good at. The sense of accomplishment and mastery that comes from a job well done will help rebuild your confidence and is one of the best ways to fight depression.
Remember to leave your all or nothing thinking at the door: You do not need to be good at everything in order to grant yourself a victory. If you are having a hard time remembering something you do particularly well, think back to earlier times in your life when you felt accomplished, or when somebody said you had a talent or knack for something.
Even if you come up empty, you can still give yourself an experience of success simply by thinking of a small project to complete: Clean your living room, look up a recipe and bake a cake from scratch, take care of some pending issue like getting your driver’s license renewed or following up on an e-mail you have been putting off.
You might not feel like doing it, but do it anyway, and make it manageable enough not to overwhelm yourself.
For starters just do one activity each day, and remember to pad yourself on the back and enjoy the fact that you accomplished it.
Challenge any negative thinking that tries to minimize or undo your accomplishment. At the end of the day, you are better off now than you were before.
10. Express Your Emotions:
Thinking and feeling things on your own is not the same as expressing them to others or even writing them down in a diary.
Something happens when we express ourselves that is very healing. Oftentimes we discover what we feel when we talk. We often don’t know what we think until we see what we say. This is in large part why psychotherapy is so healing. It helps us discover ourselves through talking, which gives us a better sense of ourselves and how we feel.
Of course there are other benefits to expressing yourself as well. If you open up to a trusted person it gives you the opportunity to feel validated, understood, and heard, and this in turn may make you feel more normal. It may help you to get your need for closeness met, and may give you the opportunity to ask for what you need.
If you don’t readily have other people available whom you feel comfortable opening up to, you should consider writing your thoughts and feelings down in a journal, participating in on-line forum, looking for meet-up groups to join, calling a hotline (or chatting online), or finding a therapist to talk to.
You can also get involved in charity work, which will help you take your mind of yourself, while building connections that might turn into lasting friendships. One good place to look for volunteer opportunities is: Volunteermatch
Open Path Psychotherapy Collective is a directory of therapists who offer low cost counseling:
11. Learn to Forgive and Move On:
Many people end up being angry and sad about what they wish were different but can’t really change. Maybe they wanted a different father who was more involved in their life, or maybe they continue to feel they can’t meet the expectations of their mother, whom they wish would love them for who they are and not for their accomplishments.
In many situations such as these, people don’t fully move into the loss, but continue to protest the loss. They become stuck in their sadness and anger (often an undifferentiated mix of the two), and are unable to go through the grieving process of letting go.
Emotion research conducted by Leslie Greenberg shows that the way to facilitate the grieving process is to fully experience and express the anger and sadness you feel so you can more fully understand what you lost and what need was frustrated.
Once you have fully understood this, you then need to move into an understanding of the limitations of the other person who did not provide you with what you needed.
A good way to accomplish this is to try to enter into the other person you are angry with or hurt by, and to view them like you do when you are most angry or most sad. Then you write out what you imagine them thinking and feeling, speaking as if you were them.
Inhabiting the voice of your critical mother, you might for example write: “I did not love you. You were never who I wanted to have as a child”. Continue to write until you get it all out.
Then once you have written out what this critical/ abandoning mother would say, you shift back into your angry/ sad self and express how the critical mother makes you feel. You continue to use a 1st person voice and this time you try to get in touch with what you really needed and did not get from your mother. You might for example say: “You really hurt me when you don’t accept me (sadness)” or “I hate you for never appreciating me” (anger). Again, continue until you have written out everything you are angry or sad about.
Then you switch back to being your mother again, and try to imagine how she would respond to knowing about the pain she caused you. You might for example say: “I never meant to hurt you this way. I was going through a difficult time in my life and I did not know how to show the love you deserved. I tried in my own way to love you, but I realize it wasn’t good enough”. Try to enter fully into the regretful and compassionate voice and perspective that might be evoked in the other person if they truly understood how they impacted you.
Finally, you switch back to being yourself again and write out a response that indicates whether or not you can understand where the other person was coming from and can take in their new message. In this case, you tell your mother whether or not you can hear that she is regretful and feels bad. You also express whether or not you can forgive her and accept that she did in fact love you, even if she did not always know how to show it.
Switching roles between yourself and the other person, and writing out the dialogue using first-person voice, is a version of the empty chair technique used by emotion-focused therapists and gestalt therapists to help clients resolve unfinished business.
Example of the empty chair technique to resolving unfinished business:
12. Examine Your Relationships:
People don’t exist in isolation and how we feel about ourselves often depends on how others treat us. We all have a need to have parts of ourselves we cherish seen, understood, and validated by others. If it is important to me to feel valued for my intellect, then I need to feel like others around me think I am smart. If it is important to me to be seen as helpful, then I need to surround myself with people who view me as kind and considerate.
Oftentimes, we begin to feel depressed or unhappy when the people we interact with don’t view us the way we would like to be viewed. Maybe we are in an intimate relationship with someone who always complains about our shortcomings, or maybe we have friends who take advantage of us or treat us with disrespect.
One of the ways to fight depression is therefore to take an inventory of the people you spend time with and ask yourself: Are these people good for my self-esteem, or do they drain me or make me feel bad about myself?
Then make a decision to either cut people out who bring you negativity, or to talk to them about what you need from them, or what you don’t like about your respective roles.
As with any confrontation, it is much better to keep the focus on your own feelings and needs than on what the other person has done wrong. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Express how you feel, rather than what you think about the other person. Approach the other person in a soft and vulnerable way, rather than in an angry and attacking manner.
13. Practice Self-Compassion:
Many people who are depressed are very unforgiving of their own mistakes, but very compassionate and understanding of those of others. You might have a critical voice inside that tells you that what you do is never good enough and keeps beating you up about past regrets.
One way to challenge this negative self criticism is to deploy technique #3: Challenge Negative Beliefs.
Another is to practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion means adopting a loving and caring attitude toward yourself that is similar to the one you would adopt toward a good friend or someone you love. It is a way to remind yourself that you are human, have frailties, and make mistakes, but that you do the best you can given your circumstances, and deserve to be loved even if you make choices you are not proud of.
The Self-Compassion website by Dr. Kristin Neff contains 8 different exercises to cultivate a kinder and more accepting attitude toward yourself.
If you find yourself not feeling worthy of compassion or feeling too hateful toward yourself to attempt any of these exercises, try to imagine a kind and wise friend who cares about you unconditionally.
What would this friend tell you when you begin to slide into shame and start attacking yourself? Can you remind yourself that all of us have regrets, fears, and struggles? Can you step back from the flow of your thoughts and emotions to recognize that your suffering connects you to the rest of humanity, knowing that all human beings feel pain, guilt, and regret?
One way to get more comfortable with having loving and kind feelings toward yourself is to engage in meditative practices, such as the Self-Compassion meditation illustrated in the video below:
Some psychologists think of depression as the lack of acceptance of the full scope of all your feelings. According to psychologist and psychoanalyst Alice Miller, for example, depression is what happens when we attempt to escape from the childhood pain of not being acceptable in some way by trying to become what others want us to be.
Maybe we learned that our laughter was too loud, that our needs were too great, or that our anger was too destructive, and the implicit message we got was that our parents would not love us if we didn’t get rid of these impulses or feelings.
The fear of losing affection therefore started to overwrite our natural need for self-expression and we became more concerned with emotional adaptation than with fully being ourselves.
The problem is, however, that many of us keep on living our life as if we could redeem ourselves and gain the approval we were missing in childhood simply by being different. We still try to win our parents approval, even though the approval we are seeking is an approval we needed in the past. The loss of love we were seeking has already happened, and no effort can change this fact. Instead of chasing a way to redeem ourselves or repair an old wound, we are therefore better off grieving the loss and letting go.
This might sound depressing, but it really isn’t. Only when we can allow ourselves to truly mourn our losses can we get unstuck from the dynamic of trying to gain approval by being someone other than who we really are.
The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, which means the freedom to experience all of life’s emotions and urges, including those which we previously wanted to push away.
Being able to experience envy, jealousy, rage, disgust, greed, loneliness, sadness, and despair, means being whole, and being whole means living life fully and being fully human.
As one psychotherapy patient tells it to her psychoanalyst:
It was not the beautiful or pleasant feelings that gave me new insight but the ones against which I had fought most strongly: feelings that made me experience myself as shabby, petty, mean, helpless, humiliated, demanding, resentful, or confused; and above all, sad and lonely. It was precisely through these experiences, which I had shunned for so long, that I became certain that I now understand something about my life, stemming from the core of my being, something that I could not have learned from any book!
(Quote from: The Drama of The Gifted Child)
If you would like to read more about grieving your childhood losses so you can be free to be yourself, I recommend the following highly acclaimed book by Alice Miller:
15. Face Your Fears:
One of the ways depression can look is as a pervasive sense of indifference, lack of interests, and lack of zest for life. Some people feel empty, don’t know where they are going, have few or no opinions about matters around them, or avoid close encounters. They are emotionally shut down, alienated from themselves and others, and say they feel numb or that life feels like they are just going through the motions.
Oftentimes this anhedonic type of depression is fear-based. People shrink from life or shut down their emotions because they encountered situations in their life that were too emotionally overwhelming, and too frightening to deal with at the time. This could either be due to a specific traumatic event, such as violence or abuse, or due to a silent suffering such as emotional neglect or abandonment.
Whatever may have happened, the person learned to survive by getting rid of emotions that were too unpleasant, by lowering their expectations of life, or by not risking the rejection and disappointment that comes from getting excited or caring about something.
Sometimes working through traumatic events requires:
#2 Changing an Emotion with an Emotion
I have described how this works in the case of a trauma, in the following article:
At other times you may confront irrational or unfounded fears head on using something called exposure therapy:
Exposure therapy helps you take small calculated risks to confront your fears in a way that feels gradual and manageable.
If you are fearful of rejection, for example, you could go and ask out the most attractive person you know. But this would likely terrify you, so you have set yourself too big of a goal. On your exposure hierarchy asking someone attractive out for a date, might be the biggest challenge for you, and should be saved for last.
Smaller more manageable experiments would be to call up a friend you haven’t talked to for a while, or ask a colleague out for coffee. It might even be to say “hi” to a stranger or make eye contact for at least 2 seconds. It all depends on how big your fears are.
The goal of exposure therapy is to construct a hierarchy of activities according to perceived risk and difficulty that gradually helps you confront your fear of rejection.
Exposure therapy works because fear is just an emotion and emotions tend to decrease in intensity over time. By facing your fears, instead of avoiding things that make you afraid, you will gradually experience that you have “nothing to fear but fear itself” and that the actual situation is not that scary after all.
To learn how to construct an exposure hierarchy, click to download this handy guide by psychologist Danny Gagnon:
Congratulations! You now know 15 of the most effective psychological ways to fight depression. Pick one skill to practice or learn about at a time, and you will soon improve your confidence, self-esteem, and overall well-being…
Now that you know what to do, why not take a moment to help a friend by pinning the infographic or sharing this blog post on social media or in a personal e-mail? (see options below)
Many people feel marred by guilt feelings that are preventing them from fully enjoying their lives.
Sometimes, of course, guilt is a useful signal to ourselves that we have done something we can’t really be proud of or have done something we shouldn’t have. It allows us to to seek forgiveness and correct a wrong. Without this kind of experience, we would not be able to become remorseful, and would end up not caring about other people’s needs, thoughts, and feelings.
When Does Guilt Become Excessive?
Many times, however, guilt becomes attached to a wide variety of healthy feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, and starts to work against us rather than for us.
We may for example feel like we have done something wrong after having sex, or we may feel like we made a transgression by standing up for ourselves when we really needed to.
Because the feeling of being guilty of a wrong is so unpleasant, it is likely that we end up avoiding situations that would make us feel this way, or that we become apologetic and remorseful in situations where we should really stand our ground.
In this way, our guilt feelings can begin to control us, and can make us cut off pieces of ourselves and live restricted lives.
The Woman Who Was Consumed by Guilt:
One woman, for example, had the propensity to feel guilty about asking for what she needed in her marriage. She would not be able to enjoy a movie if her husband didn’t pick it, and would not be able to tell him “no”, if he asked her to take on responsibilities, which severely encroached on her other commitments and plans. On her birthday when she chose a restaurant for her birthday celebration, she could not enjoy the dinner because she was too worried about others not liking the restaurant she picked. In situation after situation, she would therefore avoid making a decision, or avoid telling others no.
At the end of the day she paid for her guilt-ridden existence by feeling “trapped” in her obligations and responsibilities. Her conscience had turned against her. Rather than being a source of good, it had become a cross to bear. She was living a life of repentance of sins she had never committed and had become imprisoned by the prohibition against making any demands or stating any wishes. Being herself had become guilt-inducing.
In this situation the woman’s guilt had become “neurotic”.
Neurotic guilt is guilt that has stopped serving as a useful moral compass, and has started to become aggression turned against oneself.
The voices of adults we internalized when growing up, and which helped shape us into a moral human being with empathy and consideration for others, has in these instances begun to over-function.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is in its essence the experience of remorse for having done harm to others by our actions, feelings, or thoughts.
In a supportive environment, we learn that even though we hit our little sister, we can seek forgiveness and can repair the situation. But if for some reason, the repair was not an option, or if others seemed to be excessively hurt by our expression of a thought, or our display of a particular emotion, the experience of guilt can find no release, and instead become traumatic.
One woman expressed how her father during a time of depression, had told her that the reason why he became suicidal is that he thought she did not love him. The woman internalized this message as a perpetual guilt about her actions and omissions. She started to feel that there was something destructive about expressing her needs or feelings, and that she had the power to destroy the people she loved, by the mere expression of her thoughts.
Other situations that can lead to excessive guilt are early messages that you will go to hell, or that mommy and daddy won’t love you anymore, or any other message that communicates the lack of possibility of redemption, or the withdrawal of needed love and affection. The guilt in these situations can become overwhelming, and so aversive that life itself, with its spontaneous desires and wishes, has to be inhibited.
The Cure for Excessive Guilt:
In the examples stated above, guilt in its natural state has really been corrupted by the experience of intense anxiety and fear, or by excessive pain, or even self-loathing.
To remove the excessive guilt is therefore to come to terms with these feelings or fears. In many situations, guilt or the anxiety associated with asserting one’s needs or wishes, are really rooted in a fear of one’s own aggression and the erroneous belief that there is something destructive about one’s needs and feelings.
Only when a person gets in touch with these underlying realizations and learns to undo the false impressions of their needs and feelings, can these feelings be transformed. A person can then be released from the chains of their excessive guilt and find peace and comfort in being who they are.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people undo negative learning from their past that has led to excessive guilt, shame, or anxiety. Visit my website to learn more.
One frequent problem people present with in therapy is: not knowing how to care for themselves emotionally. Many people make their lives all about caring for others, and not enough about caring for themselves.
They might make statements such as:
“My husband doesn’t like Chinese food, so we never go”
“I would never spend the money on a spa treatment for myself, I just don’t feel like I’m worth it”
“I did not feel proud when I got my promotion, I don’t want to be seen as egotistical”
Problems with Ignoring Own Needs:
This kind of attitude toward life whereby you shun your own needs, desires, and healthy pride due to feelings of guilt and shame can in the long run lead to problems.
First of all, when you shut down your natural desires and wants because you feel selfish for having them, you end up feeling more empty inside and more alien from yourself.
Second of all, when other people’s needs always take priority, you will end up feeling increasingly resentful of others and drained by other people’s company.
Is Your Focus on Others Self-Effacing?
Psychoanalyst Karen Horney refers to this lifestyle of minimizing your own needs and focusing always on what others want as a defensive strategy of self-effacement.
The person who lives their life this way cannot spend money on themselves, cannot openly demand anything, and cannot celebrate their own successes. They always live in the shadows of others and shun any feelings related to being proud of themselves or entitled to having their needs met.
Although a certain amount of humility and perspective-taking is certainly both healthy and appropriate, it is not healthy when we cannot proudly own our accomplishments, assert our needs, and take interest in ourselves.
When We Lose Touch with Who We Are:
Sometimes the ability to feel inside ourselves for answers to what we want may become muted to such an extent that we feel rather empty inside and lose touch with who we really are. At this point we are likely to become depressed.
Therapy with such people will often uncover that the reason why they have become so alienated from their desires is that they experience intense guilt feelings, shame, or anxiety whenever the focus is on them.
Unless these feelings are resolved, they are going to continue to shun any feeling that hint of pride, confidence, self-interest, and making themselves a priority.
These positive feelings about the self which are vital for a fulfilling life, are then going to continue to be judged as “selfish”, “self-indulgent”, “egotistical” and will therefore continue to be rejected and disowned.
Indeed some people might even go the extra mile and idealize their lack of self-care as a sign of their good-hearted, self-sacrificing, and saintly nature, erecting an even more formidable barrier to regaining healthy self-esteem.
When Self-Sacrifice Becomes Sign of Low Self-Esteem:
The reason why the ban against caring for oneself is so problematic is that instead of being a genuine virtue it often covers up shame, lack of self-love, low self-esteem, and a sense of unworthiness. Were we to really get to the bottom of things, we would often discover that the primary motor for shunning one’s assertiveness is not really a commitment to a more ethical and virtuous life style, but doubts about being liked, needed, wanted, or loved.
Questions that often underlie a compulsive need to please or a fear-driven avoidance of assertiveness, include questions such as:
Would my partner still love me and be with me if I made more demands?
Would I really discover that I am a horribly selfish person if I indulge my impulses?
Am I really worth enough to myself or to anyone to deserve to have my needs met?
These are not the questions of a virtuous person, but the questions of someone who doesn’t love themselves deep down.
What is the Solution?
The solution to the problem of lack of self-love is not to become more virtuous, self-sacrificing, and caring of others, but to learn how to care better for oneself. One must get to the bottom of why it is that vital feelings of pride, self-respect, and self-interest became shameful and needed to be shunned.
As so often happens when people engage in the therapeutic work of truly identifying the causes of their defenses and distress, what they will likely find is a history of losses, absences, and neglects that will need to be properly mourned and confronted.
Once the person goes through this process and reworks the meanings and implications of these past events, they will no longer need to disown parts themselves because they deem them to be unworthy or shameful. Instead they will develop greater self-compassion. Instead of shunning parts of themselves in order to protect themselves from unbearable bruises or erroneous conclusions from the past, they will then once again feel entitled to own all of themselves. They can then get in touch with the natural sense of pride and self-esteem that is the hallmark of a life worth living.
In my many years of experience as a psychologist and a psychotherapist, I have seen exceptionally few clients for whom depression was simply a disorder of the brain.
In the vast majority of cases, once a person begins to examine their feelings and their life more closely, they discover that their depression has a meaning and a message.
Depression, in other words, is not just a medical illness, but is what happens when a person is stuck in some aspect of their life without knowing exactly why.
Depression Hides its Own Cause:
Depression often conceals its own reason for being there. It is not unusual for a person to be depressed without being able to pinpoint some definite event that explains why they are depressed.
This absence of a cause often makes it feel like depression has no meaning and is simply the sign of a brain in disarray.
Perhaps this is why the vast majority of people end up treating their depression with anti-depressants, encouraged, no doubt, by commercials on TV.
However, if you go down this route you will largely miss the point of your depression, and will not grow in the way your depression is challenging you to grow.
Your Depression has a Message:
The reason why you are depressed is often not apparent. This itself is one of the hallmarks of depression. Depression tells us: you are stuck in some way, unable to deal with some emotion, haunted by the aftereffects of some experience, or dragged down by the reoccurrence of some pattern of behavior.
If you simply knew which emotion, experience, or behavior made you stuck, then perhaps you would not need to become depressed. Then you would have a pathway out: you would know what to do, or what to change.
The fact that you are depressed, however, tells you: it is not that easy.
Perhaps you have a need to be more assertive in life in order to not be walked all over, but this in turn triggers a fear that other people will reject you or that you will be abandoned by others.
Or perhaps, you have a vague hunch that you are not happy in your marriage, but this realization would have such disastrous consequences for life as you know it, and so instead you suppress it with the consequence that you are now depressed.
In both of these examples, depression simply communicates that you have hit some stumbling block to the authentic acceptance and expression of yourself.
It tells you: you need help to find a different path out of your current dilemma, and that your current solution of ignoring or suppressing isn’t working.
How to Get Unstuck from Your Depression:
What we discover when we take the challenge posed to us by our depression, is that we are almost always depressed for good reasons, even if it does not look like it from where we stand.
The trick of getting out of your depression is to get help to expand your awareness of what it is that is keeping you stuck. Once the full picture of what is keeping you depressed is brought to light, you will no longer feel stuck, and therefore no longer be depressed.
This was the case for both the person who could not be assertive, and the woman who could not allow herself to embrace her discontent with her marriage…
The Man Who Could not Be Assertive:
If the person who is unable to be assertive begins to examine some of the fears that keep him stuck in unfulfilling relationships, he may begin to gain access to more of his frustrations with other people, which he now no longer needs to block from his awareness.
As he allows himself to more fully embrace his anger, he may realize that he is tired of always trying to please people, and may begin to express more dissatisfaction when people let him down. As his anger becomes accessible again, he may also be able to feel entitled to his sadness that people have not really been there for him, and to challenge his negative view of himself as someone who is not deserving of respect. As he gets to the root of where his negative belief of himself comes from, and begins to access more compassion for himself, he may be able to shift his view of himself and feel more entitled to have his needs met.
His depression, which was simply telling him that he was stuck in the dimness of a narrow awareness, would now give way to insight and new possibilities of being himself. As he would then no longer be stuck, he also would no longer be depressed. His depression would have served its purpose, and he would have heeded its message.
The Woman Who Was Unhappy in Her Marriage:
If the person who is unhappy with her marriage begins to more fully allow herself to feel her discontent, and if she examines what the fears are about that hold her back from accepting her discontent, the dilemma in which she is stuck may begin to shift. She may be able to more fully discover what she needs in order to be happy in her marriage and may begin to realize that she has some options to more actively fulfill these needs that do not involve getting a divorce. The fear of realizing that she and her husband may in reality be incompatible, may then lessen, and may cease to serve as a barrier to more fully embracing her needs and wants.
As the unconscious dilemma in which she was stuck begins to become known, and she begins to become more fully aware of the reason for her fears and her unhappiness, she is then able to unlock the message of her depression and use it to become unstuck.
What is Your Depression Telling You?
In the majority of the cases of depression I have seen in my many years as a psychotherapist, there was a message to be unlocked in the person’s depression. Once the person began to fully access and examine the full extent of their feelings and experiences, they were able to see what their depression was telling them, and were able to feel unstuck again.
The reasons for one’s depression, cannot be found by looking at the bottom of a pill bottle, but must be discovered through a process of self-examination that is best facilitated by the process of psychotherapy. Only then will you address the real issue which your depression is telling you to look at, and only then will you be able to set your life on a different path.
If you want to understand your depression better, watch my video in which I explain some frequent causes of depression:
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in helping people unlock the message of their depression. Please visit my website for more information about the treatment of depression.
When we generally think of depression, we think of it as the same phenomenon. People sometimes call it clinical depression, and professionals often call it major depressive disorder. However, depression is not really ONE thing, and there are as many variations of being depressed as there are people who are depressed.
Why is that? Because, in the majority of cases, depression is the individualized expression of a life struggle. It is simply like a fever that tells us there is something we need to look at or something about the way we live our life we need to resolve.
Sure, we cannot exclude the possibility that depression is once in a while the symptom of a brain in disarray, but this type of more biologically based depression is only a small subset of a much more diverse landscape of causes.
There are indeed a 1001 different depressions…
A 1001 Varieties of Depression:
One of the more common forms of depression is rooted in what we now have come to know as insecure attachments in childhood. Growing up with uncertainty about the availability and dependability of key people in one’s life robs a person of a secure core of knowing they will always exist and will always matter to others around them. As a result, this kind of person is perpetually fighting a sense of frightening loneliness, which they are always trying to distract themselves from. The frightening loneliness is the same kind of fear a child has who gets lost in the grocery store and isn’t sure if she will ever find her parents again. It rears its head when important relationships are severed or when the person feels abandoned. At such times this person may become severely depressed and lose any kind of hope for the future. They get lost in their sense of not mattering to anyone and find it hard to carry on when they feel their life has lost its meaning.
Loss of Self:
Revolutionary Road is an excellent illustration of how a person can get caught in an empty life and get lost to oneself in the process[/caption]
Another kind of depression happens as a result of the emptiness that follows from a loss of clearly defined self. People with this kind of depression have become so accustomed to adapt to their circumstances, that they have lost touch with what they really need or want. For far too long, their agenda has been to keep others happy or avoid upsetting anyone, and now they feel empty and hollow because they have completely lost touch with their needs, wants, and passions. Their life starts to feel like it is just a performance. Many people lose themselves this way in their marriages or at work, where it feels like they are just filling a role, and not really living their life. You can find a good illustration of this kind of depression in the movie: Revolutionary Road.
Then there is the avoidant kind of depression, brought about by living a fear-drive life. This kind of person cuts off too many areas of their life to avoid failure or anxiety. Maybe they avoid risking altogether, and therefore also do not get the rewards of those who conquer their fears and face their challenges. This leads to a dull life robbed of excitement and thrills that come with being fully alive. This kind of person may shy away from the risk of rejection and therefore never experience romantic intimacy with another person. Or, they may avoid truly pursuing their career dreams because they are afraid of failing. The end result is an impoverished life and chronic sense of dysthymia.
Shame about Self:
Then of course we have the people who are too ashamed of themselves to fully let themselves be known and seen by another person. These people have mistaken unkind acts by others as a sign that they deserved mistreatment and are blemished, broken, damaged, or bad. Histories of sexual or physical abuse can often lead this kind of damaged view of oneself and the price of this view is depression. Such people end up not really relating to others fully. They may be afraid that others will reject them if they truly know them, or may ward off love from others, which they discredit or believe to be disingenuous. They cannot be nurtured by love because they cannot love themselves, and the result, of course, is a chronic sense of dissatisfaction with life and with oneself.
Karen Horney’s book “Our Inner Conflicts” is an excellent resource for people wanting to know more about potential conflicts that can lead to depression[/caption]
Another common variety of depression is the one caused by an internal conflict that leads a person to become stuck in an unresolvable dilemma. A person may for example feel guilty or fearful of choosing a career not condoned by their parents, but may also feel lack of motivation and lack of passion if they pursue the path laid out for them. Oftentimes these conflicts that lead to action paralysis or a sense being damned if I do and damned if I don’t, are entirely unconscious. A person may simply show up to their therapist and complain of feeling depressed without knowing why. Depression can in other words take the place of fully dealing with an uncomfortable dilemma that may involve making others unhappy, or may threaten a person’s established sense of self.
996 Other Depressions:
Add to this catalogue, hundreds of other varieties of depression and you will get the point that depression is not ONE illness, nor is it reducible to a simple catchall diagnosis that must be dealt with the exact same way. In fact, for different people, different life events can trigger a depression. If your life is built around security needs, the ending of a relationship may be the trigger. If you gain your self-esteem from being the life of the party, losing favor with certain friends may be the trigger. If your life is about achievement, getting fired might do the trick. It is therefore important to not get lost in the diagnosis, but to see what the diagnosis reveals about the person beneath the diagnosis.
Heeding the Message of Depression:
Depression is not simply a problem to be treated with anti-depressants. It is a starting point for self-examination. It tells us we are “stuck” in some area of life, cut-off from our true feelings and needs, or unable move on from traumatic experiences of our past. It tells us we must get our life back, and reclaim it from whatever forces are keeping us back.
In the short term we may be able to medicate the problem away, but rest assured, the depression will return until its message has been received. No one in the history of mankind has ever been able to run away from themselves.
One of the most frequent objections I hear as a therapist, is the objection by clients who don’t see what the point is of re-experiencing unpleasant memories and emotions from the past.
“How is feeling sad going to help me?” they ask.
Or: “How is getting angry at people in my life who mistreated me really going to serve me?”
Here is my answer to their concerns…
The Desire to Be Rid of Negative Emotions:
Anger, sadness, loneliness, emptiness, despair, grief; these are all emotions that many people don’t know what to do with, and would most of all like to dump in a dumpster or bury deep underground.
And so they typically do…
They try to quarantine pockets of unpleasant experiences from the rest of their life, and spend much of their time trying to actively repress, ignore, rationalize, or minimize how they really feel.
Why Emotions Should Not Be Pushed Away
Of course emotions don’t go anywhere just because we don’t want to feel them. The more we fight them, the more havoc they generally wreck on our lives:
You don’t want to be overcome by grief at the passing of your beloved mother, so you push your grief away. Now the grief instead becomes a depression and the loss, which can never be mourned, a perpetual companion rather than a passageway to a better place.
You don’t want to feel angry at your parents for the mistreatment you felt as a child, so you tell yourself it really wasn’t that bad. Now instead your unexpressed anger interferes with your ability to have a REAL relationship with your parents, or gets pushed down so far that when it finally erupts, it erupts as rage.
You don’t want to get in touch with the loneliness and emptiness that haunts your marriage, so you try to distract yourself by going on expensive trips, redecorating your house, or having another child. Now instead the emptiness becomes a perpetual hollowness, and the lack of satisfaction in your marriage the cause of a manic frenzy of activity that never quite fills the underlying void.
The Price We Pay for Ignoring Our Emotions:
As a general rule the more we fight our emotions, the bigger and “badder” they become. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel them and to hear what they have to tell us, they will keep haunting us until we finally get their message. Fighting them is a losing battle and we always pay a price for denying their reality.
As long as we are not at peace with ourselves, but must deny aspects of our emotional reality in order to feel good, a sense of genuine happiness, calmness, and self-acceptance can never take root.
By getting rid of the “bad”, we also ironically get rid of the “good”.
Why? Because we divert our energy from a path of genuinely accepting ourselves, and replace it with a perpetual fight to deny the realness of our own experiences, which means denying the reality of who we are. Happiness constructed on such as a deceitful basis is not real happiness, but a flight from ourselves that can only lead to perpetual unrest.
The Benefits of Our Negative Emotions:
Contrary to what many people think, all emotions are adaptive and purposeful when experienced accurately and expressed appropriately.
Anger, which to many people can feel scary and unsafe to express, is a signal to us that our boundaries have been violated or that we feel mistreated in some way. If we allow ourselves to experience our anger, examine what boundaries might have been crossed, assess the accuracy of our evaluation of the situation, and express our concerns in a calm and constructive manner, our anger will have served its purpose. Our needs can now become known to others, disagreements can be resolved, relationships can be repaired, and we can command respect even when relationships need to be severed.
Sadness also serves a purpose. It tells us what matters to us, or alerts us to what we are missing. If we can allow ourselves to feel it, we will become wiser about our needs and longings, or the things we missed when growing up. Sadness can lead to self-examination, and can lead to greater acceptance of that which we cannot change. It can also lead to greater clarity about what we really value in life and how we should move ahead. When expressed to others in an appropriate way it can bring others closer to us, invite comfort and caring, and make us feel that we are less alone.
Emotions are Really Movements not States:
The myth about unpleasant emotions is that they are rather static experiences that simply take us over, dominate us, and keep us stuck. However, emotion is really more accurately described as a process or a movement. It is derived from the Latin verb “movere” which means “to move”.
Emotions help move us or motivate us, they give us direction, help us to clarify our thoughts and priorities, and serve as vehicles for making changes to our life. Only when we do not allow ourselves to move with them, do they become static road blocks: obstacles rather than passageways.
So to those clients who wonder, “why should I feel my unpleasant emotions?”, my answer is, “to let them move you to a different place”.
By moving into them, you move through them, and by moving through them, they move you to a different place.
By not fighting your negative emotions, you will be transported to the other side, where they no longer bother you, because they have now served their purpose and set you free.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a psychologist in Houston, TX who believes good therapy involves a transformation through your emotions. To read more about the process of therapy, visit my website.
Although there are some psychological disorders that have a clear biological or genetic component, many if not most are responses to life’s adversities and quite treatable through therapy.
What is a Psychological Disorder?
A psychological disorder is often not really an illness such as one would define diabetes or multiple sclerosis. Instead it is simply a name given to a collection of distressing symptoms that frequently go together and thus would appear to refer to the same underlying phenomenon.
Major Depressive Disorder, for example, is the name we give to the symptom of persistent low mood or lack of excitement that is accompanied by a minimum of 5 other symptoms such as: hopelessness, low self-esteem, changes in sleep and appetite, low energy, low motivation, decreased concentration, and possibly suicidal thoughts.
Unlike an illness, however, most psychological disorders have no singular defining cause and therefore do not refer to an underlying disease process. What we call psychological disorders are therefore simply descriptions of surface-level similarities in how psychological problems can manifest themselves.
To truly understand why a person is depressed, or what causes the depression, we must move beyond the symptoms to the origin of the symptoms. When we do this we often find that your depression and my depression are not really the same. They are not defined by the same underlying cause, but are simply like the fever or the cough that can hide over widely divergent underlying issues.
The Causes of Psychological Disorders:
When we look at the internal functioning of most people, we often find that psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety are the result of ways of protecting ourselves from painful or unpleasant emotions.
Somewhere, at some point, we developed negative emotional responses to our primary emotions and longings: Those healthy and natural feelings that a child expresses spontaneously without guilt or shame.
For example, we may have developed guilt about our sexual desire, shame about needing other people, anxiety about expressing our anger, or unbearable pain associated with the experience of loss or rejection.
These secondary aversive reactions to our primary emotions taint these natural emotions and needs, and lead us to shut them out, inhibit them, or engage in all kinds of self-protective behaviors intended to keep us safe from our own unpleasant experiences.
To protect ourselves from guilt about sexual feelings, we may for example develop a life strategy of never really dating.
To avoid feeling shame about our longing for closeness, we may live a life of always helping others and not being able to receive help from others.
To not feel anxious about our anger, we may become a people pleaser, ignore our own needs, and not be able to assert ourselves.
To not feel overwhelmed with pain associated with losses, we may bury ourselves in work and live a life of always being on the go and always distracting ourselves.
In each case we may become depressed or anxious as a result of cutting ourselves off from a natural source of vitality and living a life that is at odds with itself or impoverished in some way.
Depression and anxiety are here not referring to a cause. Instead they are the symptoms that have resulted from conflicted experiences and our failed strategies of dealing with these experiences.
Psychological Disorders as Defenses:
Other psychological disorders can be explained in a similar way…
Intrusive obsessions about one’s own destructive impulses (OCD), can in some cases be a way to protect oneself from dealing with guilt about the rightful expression of assertive needs, which one fears would destroy others or be too much to handle.
Social anxiety and the avoidance of social interaction can in some cases find an explanation in the attempt to avoid feeling the shame of rejection, which has been magnified to mean the destruction of one’s self-worth.
In this way, most of what we call psychological disorders can be unraveled and explained as symptoms of underlying conflicts that are specific to each person’s life experiences.
Resolving Psychological Disorders:
A psychological disorder usually makes perfect sense once we understand the full picture of the person’s psychological reality.
The goal of therapy is therefore to locate within a person’s life, the experiences or moments that have led to secondary reactions of guilt, shame, pain, or anxiety to normal, human, healthy emotions, needs, or expectations.
People must unlearn the fear, shame, or guilt that has become associated with being fully themselves. They must be able to fully get in touch with yearnings and feelings that have been considered too dangerous and have therefore been shut out. By thus regaining access to hidden parts of themselves, they can stop being at war with themselves and can become free to respond in more life-affirming ways to life’s many challenges.
Simply slapping a label on someone and classifying someone as having a particular disorder, tells us nothing about the journey each person has to go through in order to undo their disordered ways of dealing with life’s dilemmas.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston Texas. I help people get to the root of their problems so they can experience real change rather than temporary gains.
We live in a society that tells us a story of what depression really is; that wants us to believe that depression is an illness and that it is the result of a broken brain.
In a series of articles, which I have called “the causes of depression” I want to tell a different story. This story is the story of most therapists who get to know the person beneath the depression, and get a very clear understanding that depression is not an illness, but a symptom. A symptom of what? you ask. Well, it is the answer to this question that the therapy aims to discover.
In my last article, I focused on attachment traumas as one of the keys sources of depression. In this article I want to focus on emotional inhibition as a response to painful or shameful early life experiences.
The Root Cause of Emotional Inhibition:
When people don’t feel that they can be themselves, and can embrace every aspect of their own experience, they start to shrink from life. Like the lizard who loses its tail, to save its life, we humans also lose parts of ourselves when we feel threatened by other people’s judgments.
Depression is often an indication that we are no longer allowing ourselves to embrace vital aspects of the human experience; that we have become numb, stilted, inhibited, or cut off.
In the book “Meeting the Shadow”, poet Robert Bly speaks of life as a process of hiding ever more things in a bag we drag behind us. Over time the bag grows larger and larger. From having an initial 360-degree personality, we gradually discover that not all aspects of ourselves invite positive reactions. To keep our sense of being loved and liked, we therefore start stuffing our bag with all the parts that aren’t acceptable. Sadly, after we have gone through our childhood and adolescence, we end up with only a slice of ourselves out in the open.
As Bly states, “We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put in the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again”
Why We Lose Touch with Our Emotions:
My own desire to understand this process of “bag-stuffing” or emotional inhibition, brought me to the writings of Diana Fosha, an emotion-focused therapist in New York City.
In her book “The Transforming Power of Affect”she gives a good overview of some the events that can happen in a person’s life to make them lose touch with the full scope of their emotions.
Generally speaking, our comfort with our own emotions stem from others being able to handle them. If others either fail to acknowledge our emotions, disapprove of them, or jump in to provide solutions prematurely, our emotions can become scary.
Without the support of another who can help us express and process our emotions, our emotions can feel unwieldy and overwhelming. They can also be felt as shameful or as weak. In either case our “bag” of unwanted emotions begins to grow.
A mother who is overly anxious about our desire to explore the world, can unwittingly convey the message that exploration is dangerous.
A father who becomes sullen when we express criticism, can convey the message that criticism is hurtful and should be avoided at all cost.
A peer who laughs at us for confiding in them, can make us feel weak or ashamed about sharing our vulnerabilities.
Over time, these events can take their toll, and we end up as only a shadow of our former self.
Depression as Symptom of Self-Protection:
In the novel, “A Farewell to Arms”, Ernest Hemingway at one point writes, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places” (Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms).
In real life, the broken parts do lead a person to become stronger, but not in a way that serves them well. To protect oneself from unbearable pain, loneliness, shame, or rejection, people develop defenses. Defenses are security measures that keep us away from unpleasant experiences, but at the price of shrinking from life, and becoming a lesser self.
We may develop a self-reliance so strong that we will never get hurt again by anyone, but may find ourselves lonely and unfulfilled.
We may disown our rightful indignation and anger and allow ourselves to be abused or mistreated.
We may rid ourselves of our ability to become excited because our fear of loss outweighs our courage to risk.
Each time we shrink from life or disavow a basic human emotion, we act against ourselves. The result of cutting off access to part of who we are will often lead to depression.
The solution to this depressed state does lie at the end of a pill bottle, but instead lies in a journey of once again becoming whole. We must remove our emotional inhibitions so we can reclaim our healthy life-affirming self.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas. I believe depression is a natural response to the adversities of life. If you would like to read more about the psychological treatment of depression, please visit my website.