By definition, depression is about the loss of power. Somehow power has seeped out of your veins. Which is why you just want to lie down. Go to sleep. Give up. Die. It is all too much. You no longer have the energy or the will to take it on. It is psychological defeat. You are the vanquished. What is this battle that you have lost?
I dare say that it is the battle for your own power, your own will, your own efficacy to have life flow with your deepest desires.
A strange paralysis of feeling, or a deep insecurity that can lead almost to a sense of nullity, may sometimes be the result of an unconscious opinion. In the depths of our being, the voice whispers: “You are hopeless. What’s the use of trying? There is no point in doing anything. Life will never change for the better.
Adapted from C.G. Jung. Man and his Symbols. 1964.
How did this happen?
When he enters my room, he is wearing a white t-shirt with a print of black skulls and bones. The mood of the t-shirt is reflected in his posture as he slides onto the armchair, only barely managing to remain seated. I have a sense that he could easily slide off the chair, and land on the floor in a slumped heap, where he would stay. This young man, in his final year of school, has thoughts of death, including the magical idea that he could kill others with his thoughts.
His story is marked by disempowerment. He remembers being bullied in primary school, and his hippy pacifist parents advising him to “do nothing”. He also remembers wanting to call his parents “mom” and “dad”, but them insisting that he calls them by their names. And that when he started taking drugs at age 13 they, knowingly, did nothing. A child who had the double-whammy of not experiencing parental power on his behalf (it is not a long way for the mind to go from “do nothing” to “I am nothing”), and being powerless to have his pressing needs met (for advocacy in the face of adversity, for the need for parents to be parents, not buddies – so much can be in a name, or the denial thereof). The young man had not only lost the link between I desire and therefore I am able to achieve what I deeply desire, it had become distorted into a negative impossible (“I can kill people with my thoughts”). In my final paper in this series, I write about how we have to engage with imagery to heal. I will then write more extensively about how this young man was rescued.
Circumstances do not need to be this extreme for the loss of power to occur. On a personal note: Both my parents lived active, interesting lives – out there. We, four kids, somehow made do. We spent our teenage years in boarding schools. Our school achievements, whether in academics or sport, received scant attention. It was logical for us to come to the conclusion that what we did or how we felt about it, was not of particular relevance. We still tend to feel like that to this day. A friend once asked me, “How come you never feel that you are entitled to anything?” This came as a surprise. It struck me that she was right, and that I had better change my attitude!
For a child to feel power, it has to be challenged (no, not pushed) to achieve according to its potential. We four kids were bright enough, but were never challenged to aim higher, nor admonished when we fell below par. Thus we were robbed of the real pleasure that striving for achievement according to your potential brings.
Disempowerment thrives when you do not harness your potential. Self-discipline & perseverance, the strongest driving forces behind motivation (and our best allies in times of stress and distress), are undermined when we are not adequately supported and encouraged to extend ourselves.
Under-achievement is also, ironically, one of the main drivers of the pervasive guilt that marks depression. I am not sure how the corrolation works, but somehow, once you begin to work on your own unmet goals, the guilt recedes.
On a more ‘simple’ level, depression can occur when an individual, for one reason or another (from plain laziness or out of insecurity or false beliefs), denies a real talent its expression. This blocks the pathway for renewed energy to flow. A sense of ennui, of life as ok but somehow purposeless, occurs. When someone tells me, “I do not know what is wrong with me; I have everything I need, and yet I am unhappy”, there is a some aspect of life that has been pushed aside, and that needs to be addressed before the sadness will shift. Not un-seldom, the person has been living a life that has denied something essential to their being. Interestingly, a religious aspect has also often been a missing link.
On depression and anxiety
A woman comes to see me. She comes because of high anxiety that is threatening her daily existence. No longer able to make even the simplest choice, e.g. what to make for supper, her anxiety about her own anxiety is now putting a stop to any attempts to live a ‘normal’ life. I have previously written that anxiety and depression are twins. Here we see the connection clearly: The father was physically and verbally abusive. An unstable man, who could not be predicted. Unpredictability in a parent causes high levels of anxiety in children. It results in a set point of hypervigilance. Such a child is always on the lookout for telltale signs of a potential threat. Children of alcoholic parents have this same hypervigilance. Going home from school, they are already tense. What is it that they will find? Or when a parent comes home from work: How will it be today? Such children often go into fawning, to appeasing the other. Natural reactions go underground, perceived to be too dangerous an option. In time they may no longer ‘know’ what their natural reactions in a situation would be. Such a child grows up compromising their own needs, and when faced with adversity, will either overcompensate in favour of the other, or at times ‘lose it’, and react like the feared parent.
Depression is inevitable under such cases. The connections to their own natural reactions and a positive form of assertiveness have to be learnt anew.
In my blog on suicide, I wrote about the successful man who came to see me because he was gay and could not come out. A man who was loved and revered, both by his family and his colleagues, so it was not as if he could rebel against negativity. Coming out would mean such hurt to his wife and children as well as his parents, that he could not do it. His family was deeply religious, and believed that homosexuality was against God’s will, his wife was a good woman who loved him dearly. His children looked up to him, he was his parents’ pride and joy. The impossibility of it all led to deep despair. Here we have a person who had to deny a deep longing in himself. Depression always has this component.
Depression at heart, I believe, is the dampening down of early spontaneity, whether through cultural or familial factors, especially with regards to our liveliness, our power, our identity, and our natural drive for exploration. The loss of spontaneity of being and of power to affect our own lives, is a substantial loss. If the inherent human responses to threat are flight, fight, freeze and submission, depression has them all. Siblings, peers and romantic partners play a scandalously underestimated role. They can prevent us from being ‘ourselves’ as much as parents can do. Siblings can block your natural path, even before you take your first steps out into this world.
Peers can deny connection, or demand such a high a price of falsification, that it mocks your very being.
Romantic partners can stifle your very being by insisting on a way of life and a ‘truth’ that is inherently against your natural inclination.
The dampening down of spontaneity, whether through cultural or familial factors, are the precursors of the shutdown in spontaneity that marks depression.
A compromised lifestyle, where you tend to settle for second and third best, cannot be soothed by denial.
Becoming proactive in line with your deepest desires, even in the smallest of things, are the stepping stones out of despair.
It is so: being respectful of your deepest longing, will bring you out of the grips of your great despair.