In order to talk about depression, we need to first talk about emotions in general. Why do we have emotions? What is their purpose?
Emotions are the signals our body sends us to communicate how we are in relation to the world around us. They enable us to survive, thrive and reproduce.
Emotions can be split into two classes: lower-order and higher-order.
Lower-order are the basic, primal emotions that we share with other animals. These include fear, anger, disgust, joy, and sadness (the ones in Pixar’s Inside Out). Lower-order emotions are involuntary and usually accompanied by physiological changes in the body, such as heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension.
Higher-order emotions are more complex and nuanced. They are the “social emotions” which help keep people connected. These include empathy, guilt, shame, pride, envy, and gratitude. They are highly influenced by other people, cultural norms, and values. A nerdy analogy: if people are the devices on the Internet, emotions are the packets we send and receive to communicate with one another.
In some instances—particularly in my personal experience—depression can be caused by suppressing the expression of emotions. Emotions happen naturally in everyone all the time. But if you are in a social environment that judges some emotions as “bad”, or punishes others for expressing the “wrong” emotions, then you quickly learn not to show these.
Yet “What you resist, persists.” Suppressed emotions are still there. They won’t vanish by simply wishing them away. And it’s exhausting trying to keep a lid on all of these pent-up emotions — so much so that it’s impossible to fully contain them all the time. I had uncontrolled emotional outbursts during my stretches of depression, which then led to embarrassment, guilt, and shame. So I would vow not to let that happen again, double down on managing them (which was actually unhealthy suppression, not healthy regulation), and so the cycle continued.
To get better, I had to do a complete 180°. Instead of pushing away the emotions, I leaned into them. Instead of keeping them hidden, I talked about them with others. But there were two key distinctions that made this possible:
- I had to be willing to take that step into complete vulnerability.
- I had to do so with the right person—someone who could stay present with me through the difficult emotions; who could reflect and validate; who could be compassionate and accepting.
If you are struggling with your emotions and relationships, then it is highly likely the people closest to you are too. Unfortunately, these are not the best people to open up to and work through your backlog of difficult emotions. Partly because they are part of why you have repressed emotions in the first place. But for me, the bigger barrier was thinking that if the people closest to me were not able to talk through difficult emotions, then why would I expect a stranger could or would want to help me?
Ultimately, it was a therapist I finally trusted enough to open up to about this. And then peers in a support group. It had to be people outside of my existing social network. Because the ones around me were struggling in similar ways to me. Or even if they weren’t, they didn’t have the skills to help someone like me work through a lifetime of trauma, unlearn dysfunctional habits, and practice basic social and emotional skills.
There are a lot of things that contribute to keeping my depression in check: time outside in nature, exposure to sunlight, exercise, quality sleep, eating well, minimizing screen time, taking my meds… But the number one thing that helped me was finding a loving, compassionate person who I learned to trust enough to open up and share all of my feelings. All of them. To find what Peter Levine calls “an empathetic witness” to my pain and suffering and—rather than rejecting me as unworthy as my inner critic led me to believe—validated and embraced me for my vulnerability and humanity.
The Harvard Grant longitudinal study has been gathering data on what makes for a good life for nearly a century, and it all boils down to relationships. In fact, they found a single yes/no question predicted happiness, health, and longevity:
Do you have someone you can reach out to at 4am to tell your problems to?
[A related concept from this study is Grant’s Razor: The only thing that truly matters in life are your relationships.]
I did not feel I had such a person in my life before I did the hard work with my therapist. Only then did I have the capacity to not only have 4am friends in my life, but to also be a 4am friend.
To be clear, this took me years of hard work. I did superficial work with nearly a dozen therapists on and off for two decades before I finally dug in and committed to going deep and being thorough.
This will take time. It will be uncomfortable. But there is no other path. The only way to the other side is straight through the middle. The good news is, you don’t have to do it alone. Indeed, there is no other way.
Related post: 🌲🔥 The forest fire analogy for processing emotions 🔥🌲