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.