“It’s not your fault”. These are the words that people with depression don’t hear often enough. Depression is not an emotion but a fortress that traps a person body, mind, and soul. Well meaning friends and loved ones’ efforts to offer solutions are often futile. Acceptance helps chip away the fortress of depression, and understanding its inner workings can help stop the heartbreaking cycle that causes frustration and despair.
When Janie came to see me, she felt paralyzed to do things she enjoyed, and to develop meaningful relationships. Her friends and family members were patient at first but over the years their sense of helplessness and frustration grew as they watched Janie’s downward spiral. As their patience dwindled, their feelings of frustration leaked out in blameful tones:
“Just get out more…”
“Of course you’re depressed – you spend all your time on the couch.”
“You’re too isolated, you need to reach out more.”
“Don’t be so negative. It’s getting you nowhere.”
Of course loved ones of people with depression want to help them get off the couch, put down that Mcdonald’s hamburger, get to the gym, and break up with the cycle of negative thoughts and beliefs that drive apathy and resignation.
It’s so painful to watch someone you love spiral endlessly downward! The Fixer in us wants to scream: “Just do something and you’ll feel better for heaven’s sake!” The Fixer may be seen as our own mini fortress that guards us against feeling helpless when someone we love is in pain and we can’t help them.
What we don’t realize is that there are good reasons – not logical, but emotional ones – that keep a person in the depression fortress.
If we externalize and personify Depression – make it into a character that is only one of several parts that can influence our destiny – we can begin to be curious about the roots, logic, and role of depression in a person’s life.
In Janie’s case, it was important for her to feel safe with me. I took special care not to add to the chorus of pressure that she already felt within, and outside herself. My role was to be a gentle detective for all the ways that Janie had successfully resisted the influence of Depression in her life.
As we say in AEDP, I “glued the glimmer” when I spotlighted how Janie extricated herself from the jaws of depression when she came to see me. I shared with her that in my eyes she had already taken an important step to disarm Depression. This, as we say in Narrative Therapy, is an “alternative story”, a new neural pathway that can be an antidote to the debilitating story Depression had been telling Janie for so many years.
As we nurtured new neural pathways through the body, senses, beliefs, impulses, metaphors, and in our relationship, Janie slowly started to feel better. But this took time. Defenses shot out of the fortress like canons. These came in the form of unhelpful beliefs which functioned to keep my genuine care, respect, and hope for Janie at a distance. These defenses said things like:
“My sadness and grief is a burden”
“I don’t deserve to be happy”
“Trying is failing, and failing is worse than being depressed”.
“This IS the real me”
“My future is bleak”
I helped Janie to see that these beliefs not only kept my care from reaching her, they also kept the healthy, motivated part of her locked away in the fortress. The fortress developed in Janie’s past when distressing emotions were triggered by painful events. Janie’s core emotions function the same way as they do for all of us: emotions are meaningful signals that help us to connect with our values, needs, and intentions, so we know what to do next.
I wasn’t in her life when the painful events had occurred, and the people who were didn’t have the knowledge or capacity to provide emotional support. Janie could see that while the fortress kept painful emotions locked away, they remained an unseen burden that weighed her down. Janie found herself getting triggered more often, and by situations that seemed out of proportion with her emotional reactions. This is another reason why avoiding our core emotions is unsustainable. Fear breeds avoidance, then avoidance breeds more fear. The more Janie avoided her feelings, the more she feared them, and this fueled distraction, self criticism, isolation, and depression.
Through encouragement, valuing her efforts, respecting her pace, clarifying the origin and role of defenses, and helping her to distinguish between her beliefs and reality, Janie developed the capacity to stay present with emotions, get in touch with her needs, and take action.
Depression is not an emotion. It is a system that functions like a fortress to bury the emotions that were unacceptable or overwhelming in the past. Pressuring people with depression to do healthy things to get better is often experienced as rejection of their pain. When people who are depressed are given directives to feel better, they can become defensive, a tactic to ward off their own sense of failure and inadequacy. Having good tolerance for our own feelings of helplessness that naturally arise when we can’t help our loved one heal, can give us a deeper understanding of what our depressed loved one is going through. Feeling accepted and understood chips away at the fortress of Depression, and helps a person regain hope and self respect.