Depression is as common as the cold. It’s something many of us have experienced. It’s a state I’ve experienced from time to time. My father and his mother struggled with it. You could say it runs in the family. You could say I am a recovering depression-aholic. Like an alcoholic, there are some chemical tendencies, though I believe much of the pattern is learned behavior that becomes a habit. And habits can be hard to break but not impossible. I do know that diet and exercise can help with the chemical tendencies and thus make the process of healing a clearer path. For the purpose of this exploration I am focusing on the repression of feelings as a learned behavior which is a cause of depression. I am not talking about suicidal depression, if you or anyone you know is talking about suicide, get help, call a suicide hot line or your local emergency room. Once you get help these principles will be helpful.
We have learned this behavior from our parents, their parents and the culture at large. I think depression is like a security blanket which can feel traumatic when it’s lost. One has to learn other ways of getting attention and expressing feelings, especially anger. Depression is like a mass of unidentified emotion, painful because of the overwhelming amount of feeling and because one feels so powerless. And yet, depression is “safer” than naming the separate feelings that make up the mass of emotion. Why? Because if we start engaging the feelings, one by one, we might have to change.
Depression is a way to stay the same, secure in the known, homeostasis. And if it was a pattern in your family, as it was in mine then it is even safer because depression was what we were taught as a coping skill, like using TV, work, alcohol, drugs, all the other ways we’re all taught to numb difficult feelings.
My dad would get depressed when he felt angry, sad, anxious, frustrated and I imagine his mother did too. She committed suicide. Her pain, anger and grief were so terrifying to her the only way she could find freedom was to leave her physical body. Though tragic, I am grateful for the lessons she passed on. We can find freedom in this life.
The power of the habit of depression: Notice if you get depressed around your family of origin. I used to. It’s the way I would tell them how angry I am. It’s actually passive aggressive (a “safe” way of expressing anger), because I know how much they want me to be happy. Do you get depressed when angry, sad or afraid or even happy? This is our body and mind’s way of telling us that these feelings are somehow not safe to feel. We’ve been taught this. Most people were not taught that it was okay to express anger, grief, fear or even joy. Feelings give us important information about who we are and what is important to us.
Anger tells us what works, what doesn’t, what we want and don’t, where we might need to set boundaries. We are resistant to feeling the anger, because if we know what we want or don’t want then we might have to say something, like NO. This is hard because we’ve been raised that saying NO or asking for what we want might get us into trouble, sometimes serious trouble. So it is safer (and often it was safer when we were children) to turn the feelings on ourselves which causes negative self talk and depression.
Grief and sadness tell us how deeply we feel about someone or something. This feeling of loss can seem unbearable. And often we saw our parents tuck away their grief, drink instead, or tell us not to cry. We might have seen them get depressed and disappear in their room as if grief were a shameful feeling. Yet if we block these feelings, we never get to appreciate what the past has given us — and it’s often sweet, when we can get past the fear of grief it then can transform into gratitude and love for those that have passed.
Fear – now this is a powerful emotion! It tells us what might not be safe and yet paradoxically it can tell us what might be an enriching and enlightening experience. Avoid what you’re afraid of and you avoid life and learning more about who you are. So, ask yourself, ok, what’s real about this fear? Can I do what I’m afraid of and still bring my fear along? Then I realize that what I am afraid of has very little to do with reality. It’s made up of the stories I tell myself and these stories are fiction. Soap operas actually, oh so dramatic. I have learned that what I am afraid of is full of power. Like the fear I felt about the Cougars and Bears in the mountains where I did my vision quest. The Native Americans believe that animals have power and wisdom for us humans if we choose to listen. That’s what our fears are trying to tell us, they have power and wisdom if we would just listen.
Fear can be a good adviser but not a guide or master. Fear may come along on the walk of life, but it’s the truth, through experience that tells us what’s real. And stuffing one’s feelings keeps us from experiencing and learning from the truth — and eventually can lead to depression. The word depression means “pushing down”. Our feelings, if we let them, can give us a key to unlocking aspects of who we truly are and helps us de-code the soap opera. Many people live and make choices because they believe their personal soap opera. How many of your fears have really come true? How much of your life have you not lived because fear became your Master?
Although it’s a hard-won skill, we all can learn to sit with, walk with and learn from our feelings, whether pleasant or dark, and the important thing to know is they can’t kill us — and eventually they liberate us because we learn to “know thyself” (the key motto from Socrates, the key to wisdom). It’s only by denying the mass of our emotions that they become the great dark unknown and fearful dragon that can overwhelm and threaten to annihilate us.
I am not suggesting you go out and slam people with your newly uncovered feelings, actually that is the opposite of what I am saying. Our feelings are a guide to deeper truths, use them to uncover your desires, dreams and what you love. Throwing them out on others is just another addiction designed to distract you from feeling vulnerable and facing your deeper desires.
The healing from this is gradual, done one step at a time, the way you tend a garden or raise a child or get to know a puppy from the pound who may have been abused and whom you get to know gradually — and win its trust. I was watching the original Star Wars the other night and here is Obi Wan telling Luke, “Go with the Force, Luke, trust your…FEELINGS!!” I was amazed. There it was in scifi folklore. The need to trust our feelings, not run from them. And, of course, it took Luke many episodes to fully learn to trust his feelings and find his “power” (himself) in the Force. The “force” was the force of awareness, honesty and courage learned from his feelings. If we do not honor the force we will fell depressed. But if we listen and honor our depression, sometimes called “the dark night of the soul” we will be guided to the power and wisdom of our unique feelings, yearnings and desires.
–Ann Barton, M.A., counselor/coach, 541-951-9136