4. The Pretense of happiness, the existence of despair: The myth of authentic living & the downside of gratitude.

From inside the therapy room.

The idea of authentic living, as opposed to false living, has a long history. The idea of an inner nature than can become corrupted, resulting in multiple difficulties,  is a philosophical concept that has come a long way.  It is an idea that is strong in cultures with at least some individual focus.  From calling for sexual revolutions and an end to traditional family structures, to concepts such as the true self (as opposed to the false self), there is a call that has as aim the liberation of the individual from inauthenticity – a state that is regarded in the Western world as a primary cause of unhappiness.  Yet there is a shadow side to this ‘liberation’ from one’s existing realities, and within it lies the potential of spreading much unhappiness all round. Ironically, searching for ‘the truth’, may result in more false living, exactly as we struggle to rid ourselves of the noxious unhappiness dwelling inside of us. And is inauthentic living really a root cause of unhappiness?

False living, as I know it from inside the therapy room, has to do with not knowing who you are or what you want.

Or knowing whom you are and what you want, but being too afraid to live that.

All of this resulting in much inner unrest and inner turmoil.

Not knowing who you are, nor what you really want is tough. This state of being is normally rooted in a traumatic family history, where your spontaneous responses were nipped in the bud already early on, and had to go underground in the face of attack, whether physical or verbal. Intrusive, critical parenting is a typical example. This is a style of parenting characterised by an adult continuously admonishing you, and finding fault, and directing you, and interfering with your actions.

In worse case scenarios these children, once they become adults, tend to re-traumatise themselves – to do unto others as done unto them, or to choose others who will repeat their history for them.  So that you have a terrified and traumatised person who acts out, as if a threat remains ever present. Such a person may be sexually permissive, self-harming or violent. Self-aggrandisement or self-abasement are common features. The impression that they create to others is of being FAKE. Here we have a highly vulnerable person combined with a very destructive one. Great despair exists, because the real loss that this person is experiencing is the loss of a felt self that is grounded in reality.   With the traumatised person, the advice to “do whatever makes you happy”, can only end up in empty pursuits as they strive to strengthen the defensive mask that they have put on. They can work hard to achieve fame and financial success, to gain adoration from others, or to serve others, and yet an overwhelming emptiness is always waiting on the sidelines.  So that despair is really what they are experiencing at the core of their very being.  Denial plays a huge role. This is why drug abuse, alcoholism, self-harm and partner violence often occurs: The sense of annihilation of the self is combined with deep despair that becomes overwhelming. The depression that they feel can be bipolar, sometimes they are on top of the world (but also this feels fake), and then they drop down into the deepest abyss. But even here they are not at home. So you can understand their despair. Everywhere is fake – not true, not solid ground.

Often well-meaning self–help books advise us to listen to our inner voices and to have positive thoughts. These are good pieces of advice, but they are based on the assumption that we have a clear inner voice, and that the exchange of negativity for positivity must in itself be a force for good. Here’s the thing for traumatised people: They have to be able to think the negative. They have to be able to bring into mind sad, scary, bad things. It is exactly the running away from these thoughts that have brought them into so much trouble. Because they become overwhelmed when they think about the bad, sad, mad things that have happened to them in their lives, and that they have caused, they have spent their lives fleeing into the false positives in order to escape from these realities. But they can’t. None of us can. So here is what happens in such cases- your inner voice (I assume what is meant by this is internal, private thinking), has followed suit. So that the internal thoughts are; “this is way too scary to think about” and “just don’t think about it.”

To be real is to be able to think and speak about the bad things that have happened to you, as well as about the bad things that you have done without becoming ungrounded. This is why you need a therapist or someone who can listen without becoming overwhelmed themselves, or wanting to run into “solving your problem”.  Only once you have named them, will you be able to move forward, and only then when will the good things that you have also done, feel true.  It has to be both.

Sometimes I ask the person coming to see me to make a dual alphabet: One containing the A-Z of all the negatives that have happened to them, another with all the positives. And then the second: Of all the bad things that they have done to others, and only then an A-Z of gratitudes. 


The person who knows what they are not living, but who fear to do so, comes in despite their efforts to pretend that it does not matter (“I do not matter’”). They live with a pervasive grief that they cannot shake off.  These are the people who, generally speaking, have averted their spontaneous responses in the service of another.

Here are two different examples:

A young student comes to see me. She was adopted as an infant by a single mother. Her mother, who comes from a close-knit family who lives in the same town, has never had a serious boyfriend.  Her mother has worked for the same corporation ever since she left university, and since her daughter’s adoption, they have stayed in the same house in the same town where the daughter now goes to the same university that her mother attended.  This young girl is her mother’s best friend, her companion to the theatre and to family dinners.

Two things were clear for her from an early age: a) that she had to be grateful for the life that she had. Every evening she and her mother would say what they were grateful for on that day. “Thank you for our house”, “Thank you that we have each other”.  Being grateful became a strong counter-measure to the unspoken ‘being ungrateful’ (you could have ended up being aborted or in in an orphanage, for example).  b) The young woman understood that she provided the central meaning in her mother’s life. She was a talented young woman, sociable and musical, so that it was easy to feel welcomed within the extensive family and to be her “mother’s pride and joy.”

It is not difficult to understand why she became depressed, and why her mother became so acutely distressed by the depression. The mother, by the way, looked herself very depressed to me.

This is why one cannot pretend to be happy. And when no amount of gratitude statements can make you happy. Neither can good manners, and not wanting to hurt the other.

This is not to say that the young woman had to reject her mother. But she had submitted herself to serving her mother’s needs; to love and be loved by another, to be submerged in another. She was too afraid of hurting her mother, who was already depressed (read sad), to say no to her, never mind challenging her.

I have often seen that families get into trouble when they are unable to take the next necessary developmental step. In family therapy it is well known that in families where the psychological needs of one member dominates, depression is a predictable outcome. 

This young woman knew that she was much more adventurous than their lifestyle allowed for. She also knew that she wanted to be free of her mother’s cloying need for her. She knew what she needed. What she did not know how to do, was how to set her mother free too.

A retired man comes to see me. He was a successful professional man and a dedicated family man, who suffered from periodic bouts of depression, but he always got himself out of them, sometimes with the help of medication. He has been in and out of hospitals lately, he is on heavy medication, and tells me pleadingly, “All I want is to be able to feel joy again.”

Over time it becomes clear that the marriage has been a huge compromise. He soon realised that he had made a mistake. He was more intelligent than his wife, and longed for more intellectual conversation. He found her conversation boring, and petty. But she was more practical than him, and in times when he felt depressed, his wife took over the practical arrangements of their life, to his great relief. Now that he was retired, he felt her presence smothering, her interests bored him, and waking up next to her every morning was “depressing”. Here is a man who had for all his married life pretended to be happy in his marriage for the sake of his good wife. He could escape into work, except occasionally when it somehow caught up with him, this grief for what was untrue. In a way his depression served them both as it kept him from moving out, and gave her the role of supporter and the provider of vitality in times of need.

In such a case, listening to an inner voice, and following one’s dreams make sense.

Authentic living, as we can see from the examples above, have to do with being honest about one’s own life. The good, the bad and the ugly.  The realities that we have denied as well as the longings that have been suppressed.  

Some hard truths

  1. Often the deepest longing that we have is to have been adored and cherished by a parent. It is surprising how long this can survive. This is not an unreasonable desire, all children have this need. It is a natural, instinctive desire of babies and children. If you have/had a parent who could not give this to you (who probably inherited this incapacity from their parents), that is really unlucky, but you have to let it go.  To keep on pining for this impossibility is plain stubbornness combined with fantasy. To put it harshly: it is part of the refusal to grow up and accept responsibility for your life. I have a really hard argument with any therapeutic process that overemphasizes this loss. For it is a real loss, and should always be part of your therapy, and never be denied. At the same time, it should never become the primary focus of your therapy, for to do that, is to keep yourself trapped in infancy.
  2. A deep, deep longing does not go away. Best is to accommodate it. This rarely means divorce or emigration (we tend to place the responsibility on external realities), more often we can find a way from where we are.  With depression comes that old-fashioned ally laziness. Very un-psychological term! But yes!

So that authentic living simply means to take your deepest desires seriously, and to put in the required efforts to get as close to them as possible. I would like to argue that depression is more about the unlived life than it is about fate.

Aristotle may have been be right:

 First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.

Man is a goal seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals.                                        

Author: elzanfrank

I am a psychologist searching for more natural and enlivening ways to help. After thirty years in the profession, it is time to move on, time to search for new ground, time to venture out.

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