Category Archives: self-esteem

What is the Difference between Sadness and Depression?

It may come as a surprise to some, but sadness and depression are not the same.

It would be easy to mistake the two if we simply listen to how people generally talk about their feelings when they are having a bad day or feeling down for some reason.

Most people tend to use the terms sad and depressed interchangeably, not knowing what the difference really is.

This confusion, however, does a disservice to us since it inadvertently gives sadness a negative reputation, while also minimizing and confusing the issues that are really at stake when someone is truly depressed.

I therefore want to clarify this confusion once and for all and make it clear why depression is not always about being sad.

What is sadness?

We all feel sad sometimes. Sadness is part of the normal human spectrum of emotions, just like anger, happiness, fear, and so on. In fact, the ability to feel sad is a sign of healthy human functioning. Sadness is how we cope with loss and reinvest our energy in something new that takes the place of what we have lost.

We feel sad when we lose a relationship, but also when we lose a job opportunity, or when we reminisce about good moments in childhood which are no longer part of our lives.

Sadness in this sense is the indication that we have lived fully, that we have dared to love, that we have dreamed of things, and that we have enjoyed life. And loss, of course as we all know, is an inevitable part of life since life is ultimately a change process.

What is Depression?

So now that we know what sadness is about, let’s discuss how it is different from being depressed.

Depression, is different from sadness in many important ways.

Unlike sadness, it is not an emotion. Rather, it is a response to not dealing well with one’s emotions.

Studies have shown that depression often relates to a person’s difficulty with accepting, tolerating, or expressing certain emotions.

It short-circuits emotions because something about these emotions seems overwhelming, threatening, or uncomfortable. The result then is a sense of being stuck in certain emotions or a general flattening of emotional experience that leads to lack of vitality and lack of excitement.

Hence a frequent cause of depression is the inability to tolerate loss and the experience of sadness.

Rather than allowing the natural process of grieving to occur, a person who finds it difficult to let themselves be sad, may instead numb themselves to feeling, collapse into helplessness, or let it affect their basic sense of worth.

In these cases sadness is no longer experienced and expressed as part of the natural process of life, but is instead short-circuited and turned into a depressed state.

Depression is in this sense not an emotion, but an anti-emotion. It is a result of life turning against life, or forces from within working against the natural process of living fully.

But isn’t Depression about Feeling Sad?

Research performed by emotion-focused psychologists Leslie Greenberg and Jeanne Watson, has actually found a greater connection between depression and anger, than depression and sadness.

Only in 39% of the cases studied did depression involve themes related to loss or sadness, whereas it involved anger in 66%.

By anger, I of course mean, unexpressed or repressed anger which keeps a person in a powerless or subordinate position, or expressed anger that masks underlying feelings of low self-esteem or unfulfilled needs.

Emotion-Focused Therapy for Depression
Les Greenberg and Jeanne Watson have written an excellent book on the emotions involved in depression.

Book cover for Les Greenberg's book: EFT for DepressionIt has been noted in particular that when men become depressed they are more likely to express outward anger than to feel inwardly sad. This is because men in general feel less comfortable and have been less encouraged by our society to fully embrace sadness as an acceptable emotion.

The relation between depression and emotion is therefore much more complex than we normally think of when we simply conflate feeling sad with being depressed.

What is the Cure for Depression?

Since depression often short-circuits the natural experience and expression of emotion, the cure for depression often consists of helping people experience, express, and cope with their banished or threatening emotions.

This process often involves the following components:

  • Freeing up blocked or inhibited anger or sadness so it can be dealt with and understood
  • Helping a person work through fear, shame, or guilt about acknowledging, embracing and expressing their natural emotional responses
  • Helping a person not feel overwhelmed by their emotions
  • Helping a person discover the cause of the emotional responses that have been blocked or deemed threatening, in particular the underlying unmet need for love, safety, approval, or mastery

Allowing oneself to be sad as a means of coming to terms with some loss or unfulfilled wish is oftentimes part of this process, but the process also often involves resolving other stuck points as they may relate to anger, fear, shame, or guilt.

The ability to feel sad fully without stopping the process prematurely due to discomfort or fear is therefore often part of the antidote to depression and not part of the problem of depression itself.

As you can now see sadness and depression are very different entities and should not be confused. Although depression may involve sadness, it often distorts or blocks sadness from its true purpose. Depression is therefore often just a way station on a journey toward fully recuperating one’s emotions, including the ability to experience and express sadness as a natural part of life.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune Moelbak
About Me:
I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston Texas. I specialize in helping people get unstuck from their depression by using a variety of the most effective psychological methods. You can learn more about therapy for depression by visiting my website.

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Learn 15 of the most effective psychological techniques to beating the blues. Continue reading What is the Difference between Sadness and Depression?

Avoiding a Painful Past: To Leave a Place You Must First Arrive

The title of my blog post this week contains one of the essential insights of my work as a psychologist.

Too many people spend their lives leaving places they have never actually arrived at.

A person who had a traumatic childhood might say they would rather just forget about the past and move on, which is their way of leaving without first arriving.

Another person might spend their entire life in a search for meaning on the mountain tops of Nepal or in the pursuits of promotions or recognition at work, which is their way of not addressing the source of an emptiness, but simply displacing it into an ever elusive ambition of becoming someone better or of transcending themselves. They spend their entire life leaving a place without really fully understanding the place they are trying to leave.

Neurosis and Human GrowthAs the now deceased psychoanalyst Karen Horney has written about in her excellent book “Neurosis and Human Growth”, many people lose themselves in the empty pursuit of a never-ending self-improvement, and end up living an entire life trying to become someone other than themselves. They lose their life on what she calls the altar of glory, that is, in the pursuit of a better version of themselves that is really just another way to abandon a confrontation with the hurts of their own past.

The outcome of such a driven pursuit to simply move on without fully understanding that from which one is trying to move on, is a loss of a kind of happiness that comes from feeling rooted in one’s history and grounded within oneself.

The Price We Pay for Trying to Escape from Our Past:

So many people nowadays come to therapy complaining that they don’t really know what they are passionate about, or saying that their lives feel meaningless. Maybe they report feeling like a machine, and not really having access to the flow of emotions that would make them feel alive. Or maybe they report feeling lost and confused, empty inside, and in search of a purpose.

These are the symptoms of leaving without first arriving.

They announce to us that we are not in touch with ourselves, that we have taken leave of ourselves before first accepting the struggles, traumas, memories, or feelings that would allow us to work through our issues without abandoning ourselves. They are signs that we have attempted to leave ourselves by numbing ourselves, tuning out, avoiding, or prematurely conforming. They are signs that we have paid the price of trying to get somewhere safer and better by leaving our “luggage” behind or by leaving painful pieces of ourselves behind in our unprocessed and unresolved past.

But we can’t leave a place simply by avoiding it. We must first “say our goodbyes”.

Leaving Pain Behind Is an Active Process:

Truly leaving a place that feels unpleasant, overwhelming, shaming, or traumatic is an active process of facing and confronting that which haunts us.

To face and confront a belief about oneself, an emotional reality, or a painful memory we must first accept it.

Only when we accept that which we have tried to leave behind can we begin the active process of mourning our losses, shedding our tears, developing compassion for ourselves, or expressing anger at others for what we needed from them but never got. This kind of emotional repair work is only possible when we truly arrive at those places which we wish to leave behind.

Leaving can now become an active emotional process, rather than an avoidance that simply shuts out by shutting ourselves out.

Experiencing Transformation Through Our Emotions:

In the realm of emotions, getting away from something is paradoxically only possible by going into it.

Only by going into that which is unpleasant or overwhelming or distasteful, do we realize that we can come out on the other side with new realizations about ourselves. If we truly enter into our emotions, like one would ride a wave, we will see that emotions have a way to carry us to new shores. They don’t have to become stuck places in our lives, but can be starting points for truly working through sadness, anger, loneliness, and despair.

Rainer Marie Rilke: Austrian Existentialist Poet
Rainer Marie Rilke: Austrian Existentialist Poet

As the poet Rainer Marie Rilke writes:

“Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable, there we also stand already quite near its transformation”

And transformation through going through the motion of our emotion is exactly what is needed in order to leave a place.

Discovering the Joy of Our Aliveness:

By working our emotions through to completion rather than short-circuiting them in an effort to leave them behind, we can let our suffering transform us and in turn transform our suffering.

The Transforming Power of AffectDiana Fosha, for example, has found that clients who truly work through their emotions in therapy, experience a variety of transformational affects, like a sense of mastery, curiosity, confidence, joy, pride, and compassion. People report feeling moved and touched, or experiencing amazement and wonder. They no longer feel weighed down by the pain, or blemished by their past, but instead feel “lighter”, shed tears of joy, and get filled with tenderness toward themselves and others.

These kinds of shifts are signs that we are rediscovering who we really are instead of spending our life running from ourselves. They are signs that we are getting in touch with an aliveness and resilience within, and that growth brings about a joy that avoidance can never obtain.

They are signs that we are finally leaving a place that we have truly arrived at, and that we no longer have to abandon ourselves in order to find peace and comfort with who we are.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., Psychologist in Houston Texas. I help people arrive at their past so they can truly leave it behind instead of spending their life running from themselves.

 

How to Overcome Excessive Guilt Feelings

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.

Neurotic Guilt

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.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout 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.

 

 

Do You Feel Guilty about Your Own Needs?

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.

Karen Horney: Neurosis and Human Growth
Karen Horney has written about the strategy of self-effacement in her best-selling book “Neurosis and Human Growth”

Karen Horney: Neurosis and Human GrowthThe 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.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, TX, who specializes in helping people get to the root of their depression, lack of self-compassion, and low self-esteem. Click here to read more about my treatment for depression.

What Is Your Depression Telling You?

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:

why am I depressed?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:

depressed manIf 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:

depressed womanIf 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:

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout 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. 

The Truth about Pathological Lying

The line between telling the truth and telling a lie has always been the central theme of psychotherapy.

The real self (an acceptance of one’s real feelings and motivations) and the reality principle (a sober assessment of the world as it really is) has always been considered the hallmark of health or good adjustment. 

Various forms of lying, on the other hand, have been the hallmark of what we consider to be pathology or maladjustment.

When we tell a lie, we make reality conform to our ideas rather than adjust our ideas to fit reality. 

In neurosis, for example, the truth gets distorted (minimized or magnified) in the service of maintaining a certain level of psychological safety. We need reality to BE a certain way in order to feel okay with ourselves and comfortable in the world.

In psychosis, on the other hand, our lies become fully-fledged fantasies without any basis in external facts.

Pathological Lying:

Although we all need some modicum of fantasy and untruth in order to make our lives and our view of ourselves more tolerable, for a certain group of people, lying becomes the central mechanism by which they interact with others.

We can call these people pathological or compulsive liars, although in many cases, pathological lying is really more of a symptom than a definition of who I am. 

The compulsivity of pathological liars means that these are not people who choose to lie. Lying here becomes automatic. It is a mechanism for maintaining psychological safety and reducing interpersonal anxiety.

Pathological Lying as Reaction to Trauma:

In my own work with compulsive liars I have generally found that the lying is a reaction to trauma.

One person, for example, was in a physically abusive relationship where he learned that he needed to say or do things more out of a concern for maintaining the other person’s happiness, than out of a need to express his true thoughts and feelings. The truth became associated with danger and became hijacked by the more primordial need for safety. Who I am, in this scenario, becomes who I need to be in order to be liked or accepted by others. Being myself becomes a dangerous proposition, a luxury which I cannot afford. Instead my truth becomes a self-presentation I can adapt to what I think others want from me.

Another person was helped to discover that at the root of her lies was a profound fear of being abandoned if she were to be herself. Vivid examples stood out about not having been picked up after soccer practice, and otherwise being forgotten about or neglected by caregivers in many situations. Now, she had come to think of herself as mostly a burden and as someone who could only count on others to be there for her as long as she provided a benefit to them. Most of this woman’s life thus became a frantic effort to be who others needed her to be so she would not be rejected and plunged into a deep dark hole of feeling worthless and dispensable.

Truth is Only Possible When We Feel Safe:

In both of these examples, the compulsion to lie was driven by a compulsion to stay safe, and a perceived risk involved in being and expressing one’s more genuine self.

Both examples reveal to us that telling the truth is always only possible on the basis of a fundamental sense of safety in one’s relationships with others. The ability to be real with oneself and with others requires validation that one is good enough as is, and certainty that others will be able to tolerate and care for one’s unembellished unadulterated self.

In this sense, pathological lying is really just like any other neurotic defense mechanism. It serves to ward off shame, lack of self worth, and a fear of abandonment and rejection.  

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist who helps people get in touch with their personal truths. If you have been hurt or shaken up by the lies of someone you love, or find it difficult to relate to others without lying to them, psychotherapy can help.

Shame: The Hidden Root of Most Psychological Problems

You won’t find “disorders of shame” as a category in the DSM-5 (the official American catalogue over mental health diagnoses), and yet shame is probably the biggest single cause of most of our psychological problems.

Shame is often the secret engine that get us started on a path of disordered eating, makes us feel bad about our bodies, causes us to be depressed or have social anxiety, makes us engage in pathological lying, leads us to feel lonely and empty in our relationships with others, and makes us escape into addictions of all kinds.

Shame: A Personal Story

When I was first starting out in this business and had to learn to market my private psychology practice, I had a very shameful experience.

I had been invited to a radio show to talk about my views of therapy. Thinking that this would be an excellent opportunity to plug my practice, I spoke at length about how listeners could contact me, and sought to market my website and my blog. After the show was over, the radio host did not realize that he was still on air as he turned to his assistant and bad-mouthed me for being so self-promoting. My initial reaction was one of embarrassment. The radio host had seen me and judged me in a way that was not flattering, and had pronounced it to the world. He had attributed qualities to me that I both recognized as somewhat true and felt were undesirable and incongruent with how I would want to be. In spite of this, the experience was probably most shameful for the radio host who had been caught off guard in a role that put his professionalism into question. He too must have felt ashamed that these private thoughts had now been broadcast to the world and to his radio show guest.

The example illustrates well what shame is really about. It is about being seen by others in a way we do not want to be seen and in a way that make others pass negative judgment on us.

The initial reaction that comes with shame is the urge to hide or run away. We feel as if we would rather cease to exist for a period of time as evidenced by the expression: to “die of shame”. And yet, if all goes well, we learn through these experiences to adjust our behaviors to become more acceptable to others: to be less self-promoting, or be more careful about what we say and when we say it. In short, we learn from our mistakes, and forgive ourselves and forgive others for their faux-passes.

Shame, in this way, is not altogether bad. In fact, without out it, we would not be able to adjust or regulate our behaviors to the socially acceptable norms, and would not be able to coexist with others.

The Benefits of Shame:

Shame makes us inhibit ourselves to preserve and protect social bonds. It is what makes people not just prattle on endlessly about themselves at a party, and it is what makes us “get a hint” when someone politely brushes us off. In this way it makes us able to function in our society without getting shunned or bothering others too much. Some people who have too little shame, may in fact find it very difficult to get along with others and may feel shunned and rejected in their lives, without quite knowing why.

Pathological Shame:

Shame only becomes disordered when it over-functions or over-regulates our behavior. Instead of becoming a learning experience about the particular norms of a situation, it may instead become a permanent mark on our personality or a permanent rejection of some aspect of who we are. Instead of just becoming the occasion of embarrassment, it may turn into a more permanent sense of ourselves as bad, wrong, repugnant, or unlovable.

The wish to hide now gets attached to an aspect of the self, which we can no longer allow others to see because it would be mortifying for that to happen. We may become ashamed of our body, our sexual desire, our need for others, our desire for independence, or any number of other things. When the shame is really deep, we can’t even access these attributes of ourselves without confusing them with our judgment of them. I may for example refer to any consideration for myself and what I need as a sign of “selfishness”, I may think of sex as inherently “bad” or “dirty”, or I may think of a healthy ability to rely on others as “being needy” or “weak”.

The more powerful my experience of shame, the more I have a need to hide those aspects from others, and even from myself. A part of who I am or how I feel must now be disowned, silenced, or hidden at all cost, and I essentially become estranged from a part of myself.

The problem with this desire to push aspects of myself away is that my shame continues to exercise influence even when it is disowned or goes unacknowledged.

Unhealthy Ways of Dealing with Shame:  

Whenever who we want to be begins to diverge from who we inherently are, the result is almost always some form of psychopathology.

Many people with histories of shame develop an obsession with becoming someone other than who they are. Their entire life may now become a flight from self and a desire to merge with an ideal image of themselves. They want to be free from blemishes and embarrassing traits, but can only hope to achieve this by cutting off a part of who they are.

Unfortunately, the solution they are seeking and the problem they are trying to escape, are two sides of the same coin. The more I pursue my aspiration to become other than myself, the more I increase my judgment on who I really am. Shame and the pursuit of overcoming shame are thus often one and the same.

The problem is of course that I cannot run away from my past, nor can I heal the wounds of shame by simple trying to run away from myself. Shame will always follow me as my shadow, unless I attend to it and address its root cause.

No amount of money in the future can ever heal the wounds of childhood of someone who grew up poor and was teased and ostracized by his classmates, and no amount of self-sacrifice can ever heal the shame of someone who adopted the belief that their lack of love for their parents was what led to their parents divorce.

If we want to overcome our shame, the cure does not lie in ridding ourselves of our shameful attributes, but rather in learning to accept who we really are.

The Cure for Shame:

The antidote to shame is love and self-compassion. However, since shame is such an interpersonal experience and is tied to how we view ourselves in relation to others, simply reciting self-affirmations or telling ourselves we love ourselves, will not produce any real results.

Since shame was created through an emotional experience originating in a social encounter, or was internalized from messages we received from others about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, the cure for shame must be “a corrective emotional experience”. Love for oneself has to come from the experience of being lovable or acceptable to others. One has to be able to open up to others, to show oneself as one is, and to experience that others can still love and accept one in one’s most vulnerable and exposed state.

This corrective experience is in large part what therapy is about. Therapy helps create the safety and trust to reveal ever more of who one truly is from underneath the layers of social pretense. Sometimes this means getting in touch with facets of one’s experience, which are even foreign to oneself, since one has spent most of one’s energy repressing them in order to fit in and become what one thinks others want one to be.

Ironically, the greatest change in oneself and how one feels about oneself, doesn’t come from changing who one is, but rather from truly becoming who one is. Too many people are embroiled in battles of self-improvement that are nothing but concealed manifestations of an underlying shame. The distance between who one truly is and who one feels a need to be in order to fit in, be normal, or be acceptable, is often the culprit of many of the psychological problems that people report with in therapy, and is often what needs to be dealt with if a person is going to experience lasting peace and happiness in their life.

> Also Read: Social Anxiety and Shame

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas who helps people get to the root of their psychological problems, so they can experience real change and not just temporary gains. Click to visit my website.

 

A 1001 Depressions: Which One is Yours?

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:

Insecure Attachment:

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 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.

Avoidant lifestyle:

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.

Internal Conflict:

Our Inner Conflicts 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.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston Texas, specializing in the psychodynamic treatment of depression. To learn more about my approach to depression, please visit my website, where you can access additional resources.

Low Self-Esteem and the Flight from Self

Many people in our society live lives that are not fully their own. They try to become their ideal self – an image of who they SHOULD be – rather than to be who they truly are.

Although there is nothing wrong with striving to be better at something, sometimes these strivings secretly function as judgments on ourselves. We want to be better, not as a function of our natural striving for self-actualization, but to make up for our low self-esteem and a lack of ability to accept ourselves for who we are…

The student who always MUST have straight A-s on their report card may for example have an ideal self that dictates that they always be the best at what they do. If they fall short of this unrealistic standard, they may harshly criticize themselves for falling short and being a “loser”.

Underneath our high standards of self-worth, we may thus often find a harsh critical voice that condemns us as chronically deficient.

We may, in other words, be stuck in a chronic cycle of unrealistic expectations that lead to inevitable failure and periods of low self-esteem.

We may have set up what psychoanalyst Karen Horney calls a “Pride System”, where we are either chasing a self that we want to be (our ideal self), or angry with ourselves for not being who we want to be (our actual self).

The Pride System:

Pride denotes a falsely inflated virtue that has sprung up to take the place of a perceived vulnerability. I may, for example, pride myself of being all-loving and selfless in order to make up for a sensitivity I have to being accused of not being a good or morally virtuous person. At the core of my prideful pursuit of my all-loving ideal, thus lies a wound or bruise to my self-esteem that it is intended to cover or make up for.

I know that my values or virtues are really part of my pride system, rather than a sign of healthy self-esteem, if I need relentless confirmation of their veracity from the external world. For example, if I am only worthwhile if I get an A, or lovable if others praise me for my selflessness. Another sign that my pursuits are prideful is that I pursue them compulsively and inflexibly, and that my failure to be a particular kind of self produces a crisis in my self-worth and self-esteem.

What Karen Horney rightly points out is that neither the ideal self nor the self I am when I fall short of my ideals, should be confused with my true self. Both the ideal and the failure to embody one’s ideal are two side of the same failed project. In setting up my impossible ideal, I also set up my flawed self. Both go to together like night and day.

The unfortunate thing is that many people live their entire lives within their pride system and never get in touch with who they really are.

Ideals as Defenses Against Low Self-Esteem:

Most of the time, unrealistic ideals emerge early on in life as a form of protection against low self-esteem. They are frequently attempts to ward off feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, or shame.

Karen Horney  talks about a “fundamental anxiety” people can experience when growing up. Fundamental anxiety is an anxiety about being who I am. It is the experience that something about me is flawed or unacceptable.

It may be, for example, that I depended on others but felt let down, or that it was unsafe to assert my needs and express anger in my family. The result of such experiences may have been that I learned to disavow my dependency needs or my healthy assertiveness, and instead decided to dedicate my life to never needing anyone or never expressing dissension.

The ideal self therefore emerges as an alternative self I can strive to be, which would be more acceptable, more admired, and will rise above the frailties and insufficiencies of my more vulnerable self.

The Ideal Selves in American Beauty:

The movie American Beauty is an excellent illustration of the extent to which we will go to flee from fundamental anxiety in an attempt to make up for low self-esteem. While very humorous, the movie is also a tragic commentary on the ways people will bend themselves to obtain praise from others, paying the price of becoming alienated from themselves in return.

Caroline:

… We meet Caroline, the self-contemptuous mother who spends her life making up for her childhood shame of being poor by adopting a workaholic lifestyle and having periodic break-downs when she falls short of meeting her ambitious goals…

Frank:

… We meet Colonel Frank Fitts, a father who spends his life pursuing military structure and discipline to ward off acknowledgement of the impulse to give in to his homosexual desires and the shame he feels about having them…

Angela:

… And we meet Angela, a flamboyant attention-seeking teenager who brags about her sexual experiences to cover up her fundamental shame of feeling boring and uninteresting…

All of these characters illustrate the price many people pay for unacknowledged low self-esteem that is relentlessly hidden underneath the pursuits of a different, better ME.

The Strategies We Use to Ward Off Low Self-Esteem:

In her excellent books on fundamental anxiety and the pride system, Our Inner Conflicts, and Neurosis and Human Growth, Karen Horney describes the various ways in which our energy and growth get diverted from our real self toward our ideal self.

Karen Horney: Our Inner Conflicts
Click image to read about book
Karen Horney: Neurosis and Human Growth
Click on image to read about book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Our Inner Conflicts, she identifies several typical strategies people use to make up for their low self-esteem and secret self-contempt.

In the strategy of moving away, a person disavows any dependency needs or needs for love, to pursue an ideal of independence, self-reliance, and freedom from commitments.

In the strategy of moving towards, a person disavows any self-focus, any assertiveness of one’s needs, and any expression of dissension in order to preserve a self-mage of an all-loving, self-sacrificing, good natured human being.

In the strategy of moving against, life becomes about winning, being better than, and always being on top, but the price one pays is the inability to collaborate, to learn from others, and to be vulnerable.

Each strategy becomes pathological only in so far as it becomes rigid and unbendable. For example: I may end up in an emotionally abusive relationship with a controlling partner and not be able to stand up for myself because I have made a virtue out of always putting others first or being “self-less”, or I may become a world-traveller who idealizes my freedom from constraints, but really live a life to protect myself from my inability to be intimate and close with others.

The challenge for many people who, like the characters in American Beauty, find themselves the victims of impossible ideals, is to come to terms with the initial wounds that made them abandon themselves on the altar of their ideals.

People must realize that their ideal self is a protective device to overcome an underlying shame, anxiety, or vulnerability. They must realize they will never redeem themselves by trying to become different from their real self, but must get to the root of their underlying low self-esteem and learn to accept and embrace who they truly are.

They must embark on the process of finding compassion for themselves, so they can allow themselves to be human again, rather than aspire to live the life of a God.

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas who has helped hundreds of people regain their authentic self and feel more at peace with themselves. Visit my website to learn more about my my approach to anxiety and low self-esteem.