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Finding meaning in depression

 

Depression is, understandably, usually regarded as an extremely negative experience. After all, it is painful to feel and can rob us of our enthusiasm, energy and enjoyment of relationships.

Many people come to counselling and therapy because they feel dissatisfied with life, have unhappy relationships or are stressed in some way. Underneath these symptoms there is often a depression.

In our culture we tend to try and get rid of depression when it appears, using pills or pragmatic advice such as ‘take more exercise’ or ‘count your blessings’. While for some there may be a role for anti-depressants or practical tips, sometimes we need to go a bit deeper and look at what the depression may be trying to say.

Being curious

A therapist working in a soulful way, while acknowledging the pain a depressed client is feeling, does not automatically try to ‘fix’ the client by trying to take the painful feelings away. Instead, he or she is curious about what may underlie the depressed feelings.

For example, in some cases it could be a buried anger that has never been acknowledged by the client but has now been turned inward in the form of depression.  Or it could be related to extremely painful experiences in childhood that have never been truly mourned.

Depression may also be a symptom that we are pushing down – literally ‘depressing’ – a part of ourselves that needs to be heard or honoured. For example, if we are living a life that is really in line with what our parents approvd of rather than what we ourselves longed for, those unmet needs may result in depression.

Suppression of life force

James Hollis, author of Swamplands of the Soul, believes that depression is often a suppression of a person’s life force and that everyone experiences depression at some point. He says: “The psyche uses depression to get our attention, to show that something is profoundly wrong. Once we understand its therapeutic value…then depression can even seem a friend of sorts.”

While it may be possible to understand some of what may be causing a depression, that does not mean it will necessarily lift quickly. A therapist working in a soulful way must be prepared to be with his or her client as they struggle with depressed feelings, resisting the temptation to “rescue” the client with false reassurances.

At times we do not know what is beneath the depression and we simply need to accept and sit with it in a compassionate way, trusting that it is there for a reason. This compassion can help heal, over time, even if our ego is desperate for the pain to disappear more quickly.

 

 

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Couples

What’s your attachment style and how does it affect your relationships?

2165411154_7058f0ae06It may seem strange to believe, but the way we grow up relating to our parents – our ‘attachment style’ – has a big impact on how we get on with romantic partners as adults.

When we realise our particular attachment style, and that of our partner, we can more easily understand the cause of arguments and disharmony

British psychologist John Bowlby pioneered attachment theory, arguing that the bonds formed between infant and mother/caregiver had a lasting impact on a person’s life and relationships.

There are three main attachment styles:

  • Secure – these children develop trust in their caregivers and know that their needs will be met. As adults they are able to form trusting relationships and value intimacy.
  • Anxious/ambivalent – these children get the message that they cannot always rely on their caregiver to meet their needs. As adults they are worried that they cannot trust their partner and they may appear ‘needy’ or obsessed.
  • Avoidant – these children also got the message they could not depend on their caregiver.  In response they become self-reliant and independent. As adults they may devalue the importance of intimate relationships and fear getting too close to their partner.

Often in romantic relationships one finds people with secure attachment styles end up together and are able to form generally harmonious and trusting relationships.

The people that come to couple therapy tend to be from the third of the population that have anxious or avoidant styles. Often someone with an anxious attachment style, frequently but not always female, will get together with an avoidantly attached partner, frequently but not always male.

This is a recipe for unhappiness. The anxiously attached partner will often be possessive or jealous, seeking reassurance and comfort. The avoidantly attached partner, who values their independence and devalues ‘emotionality’, will feel boxed in and under pressure and react by seeking even more emotional distance. This, in turn, leaves the anxiously attached person feeling abandoned.

It is this vicious circle that can be so damaging and the fact that each partner is not aware of their attachment style and how it is affecting the relationship. Part of couple therapy is to bring these unconscious ways of relating to the surface so that they can be acknowledged and worked on.

By talking about attachment styles the therapist can more easily help the individuals look at their behaviour in a non-defensive way and not to see it as necessarily ‘wrong’. The avoidantly attached partner can be encouraged to gradually open up and connect more, while the anxiously attached partner is encouraged to back off a little bit in their demands.

These small changes can free up some valuable space for the couple to look at how they relate to each other. Recognising each other’s attachment style can help them make these changes because they take the other’s behaviour less personally and are more willing to question their own habits of relating.

Photo from Moriza at Flickr creative commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/moriza/

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Discussion

This being human is a guest house

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A  joy, a depression, a meanness, 

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows…

The poetry fragment above is by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, who was a Sufi (Islamic mystic).

What I like about it is the message that all our feelings have a place, not just the ‘positive’ ones like joy or contentment.

Rumi compares the spectrum of our emotions to visitors at a guest house. We never know for sure which feeling will be the next to visit.

In the poem Rumi goes on to urge the reader to treat each ‘guest’ honourably, i.e. to welcome then in and not turn them away. In the same way, can we make a place for our anger, our sadness, our shame?

By making a place for our less comfortable feelings we also free up space for the more pleasant feelings. Often we try and escape uncomfortable feelings by denial, distraction or covering them over with drugs, alcohol, sex or TV.

But this doesn’t really get rid of those feelings, it just pushes them underground, into the unconscious where they continue to have power in less direct ways.

However, it can very difficult to allow the less pleasant feelings simply to ‘be’, without trying to change them or escape them. We live in a quick-fix culture where we are encouraged to immediately try and eradicate pain or discomfort – take a pill, think positive, count your blessings and cheer up.

There is often nothing wrong, of course, with taking medicine, thinking positive or counting our blessings. But when they become a habitual way of trying to deny deeper feelings our emotional ecosystem can become unbalanced. Paradoxically, suppressing ‘negative’ feelings can also make it harder for us to feel joy, excitement and enthusiasm.

One way of handling these feelings is neither to suppress them nor to necessarily express them, but simply to try and feel them without judgment. We may be able to come into a different kind of relationship with these feelings, in which we are not running scared but simply acknowledging to ourselves what we are feeling without getting into a battle with the emotion.

After all, we don’t always know why we are feeling the way we are and what role such a feeling might have in our life at that time.

As Rumi concludes his poem,

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent as a guide

from beyond.