, People who are depressed frequently also battle anxiety because being depressed may make you anxious, and being anxious may make you depressed, so the two conditions can form a downward spiral.
How do you know if you're anxious? Some of the symptoms are tiring quickly, irritability, insomnia, trouble concentrating, experiencing a sense of doom, excessive worry, muscle tension, gastrointestinal problems, social anxiety and phobias. Perfectionism and hoarding can have other causes, but occasionally they, too, are brought on by anxiety.
Often when we feel down, we look for something that will make us feel better quickly. Going shopping, having a drink, eating a dessert, having a smoke or a joint, playing games on the computer, or watching television may indeed make you feel better, but only for a short time! Then you're right back where you started. Unless you're aware of what is going on, it's easy to keep on doing what you were doing. You believe that by doing what you're doing, you're staving off depression. The truth is, you're actually feeding it.
How do behaviors that you enjoy contribute to depression? Doesn't that seem contradictory? The key is not to look at what you're doing, but at how often you're doing it, and what are the unintended consequences?
It's easy to think that if a little bit makes you feel a little better, then a lot will make you feel a lot better, but that's simply not true. A dose of aspirin make make your headache better, but too much aspirin or taking it too frequently often leads to internal bleeding, which certainly won't make you feel good.
So what's really happening? When you do something that makes you feel better, your brain releases a dose of dopamine, a brain chemical that gives you a mild natural "high." As a result, you're inclined to repeat the behavior. Over time, that repetition becomes a habit--it's easier to do it than not to do it--and we all know habits are hard to break. That's because we're continuing to get those doses of dopamine. But there's a downside to that repetition: our bodies gradually become tolerant to dopamine, so we keep increasing the behavior, believing we need more in order to feel good. Another drink, another shopping trip, another ice cream sundae, whatever you believe you need, you think you're relieving your depression when in fact you're feeding it because addictive behavior creates problems which lead to anxiety and deeper depression.
Maybe all that shopping has piled up bills that are getting harder to pay, and the things you bought haven't made you as happy as you thought they would. Maybe the sugary foods have added unwanted pounds, and yet you keep craving more sugar. Maybe that glass of wine in the afternoon has become two or three before dinner and few more afterward and maybe a nightcap, and you've done or said things you now regret. Maybe all the time you spent at the computer or the television has caused you to neglect your responsibilities or your relationships.
What can you do when you find yourself in this downward spiral? Obviously you need to stop the behavior that contributes to it. If there is more than one behavior, tackle one at a time, making sure not to increase the other. Engage a "buddy" or join a group to help you stay on track. Find positive things to do that also "reward" you without negative consequences. Help someone else. Work on one of the things you've been neglecting. Do something physical, like cleaning the yard. Accomplishing something positive will make you feel better. Yes, I know you're tired, but it's time to adopt my mantra: Put one foot in front of the other and keep on going.
There are medications which reduce both depression and anxiety, but not all of them work for everyone, so you may need to be under a doctor's care to find one that works.
If you can't do it yourself, there's always professional help.
It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I finally realized I'd been depressed since I was a small child. I was shocked. When I looked at the things psychologists deemed necessary for the mental health of a child, I saw that my parents provided all of them. In fact, as an adult and as a parent myself, I marveled at the quality of parenting I'd grown up with. How, then, had I become depressed?
As I documented in my book, Exit the Labyrinth, it was only after therapy with two excellent psychiatrists that I was able to remember incidents I'd forgotten for years and I finally understood how my early childhood interpretation of those events distorted my self-image, leading me to believe that I could never be good enough--that if people knew what I was really like, they'd hate me. That belief kept me from loving--or even liking--myself.
Self-image is what you think and feel about yourself. Of course, as children grow up, many factors contribute to their self-image, including how they interpret events around them. A child who has difficulty learning and hears "You're just lazy," or "You're stupid," will take those messages to heart and accept them as truth. Children who're painfully shy and find it hard to approach others will often conclude that others don't like them or even that there is something wrong with themselves.
The bottom line is: when you look in the mirror, do you like what you see? How do you think others see you? Do you wish you were different?
If what you see in the mirror makes you unhappy, you may need to evaluate your thinking. The thinking of depressed people is often unrealistic. Studies show that almost half the women of normal weight think they are overweight. That's not surprising when you look at advertising, television and the movies, where every woman seems to have a perfect figure, teeth, complexion and hair--unless she's someone who isn't taken seriously! Men suffer, too. In real life, two-thirds of men have appreciable hair loss by the age of thirty-five. By the ago of fifty, 85% have significantly thinning hair. That is reality. It's normal! Yet how many men feel bad and conclude that they are no longer sexually attractive when their hair visibly thins? Did you know that Patrick Stewart, who is completely bald, was recently named "2019 sexiest actor alive?"
If you believe that you are inadequate in some way--not making enough money, not having enough friends, not talented or skilled enough, not respected or appreciated enough, not attractive enough--you may need to examine what you believe is "enough."
Too often we don't distinguish between "need" and "want." When we believe that we "need" something that isn't a necessity, we're really trying to fill a hole in our heart. That need may be the loss of someone or something that was important to us, or it may be that "empty" feeling that we aren't important enough. Often we turn to showing off our latest possessions or boasting about our accomplishments in order to make ourselves feel better. But those feelings don't last long, and what we've really done is make others feel bad by comparison. In turn, others will either distance themselves, or one-up you, making you feel inadequate again. In this game, there are no winners.
In today's world everyone is trying to convince you that you can have it all, and you can have it now. Advertisements show young, unusually attractive people stylishly dressed, driving new cars, living in beautiful homes that most people can't afford, and partying a lot, giving the impression that that is what everyone--except you--is doing. "But," they imply, "you can live like this, too!" Credit card ads are everywhere, but they don't explain that if you borrow just $3000 at 15% interest and pay only the minimum balance each month, it'll take you 9 years and eight months to get rid of that debt, and you will have paid them $1,798.86 in interest, assuming that you charge nothing more during that 9 years and eight months.
It's important to know how little you really need. When I graduated from college, I had a car that my parents had given me, some clothes, a box of books, and not a of money, but I'd already been taught the difference between wanting and needing, as well as the importance of staying our of debt, and I was confident I could make it on my own. I landed a job that paid monthly, so I had to live on what I had for four and a half weeks. I budgeted my assets to figure out what I could afford. I rented a furnished room in a pre-Civil War house. There was a pay phone and the bathroom was down the hall. I had a lock on my door, so I felt safe. Cheese, salami and rye bread kept well without refrigeration, so I always had something on hand to eat. When I got a raise, I was able to move to a place with my own bathroom and a refrigerator!
That experience taught me how little I really needed and how much control I had over my own life when I wasn't anxious about getting what I "wanted."
Perhaps the most surprising thing was that my depression was minimal during this time. I wasn't trying to compete with anyone else, just trying to do my job well. The work was interesting, my co-workers were friendly enough, and the pride and feeling of confidence for being able to take care of myself raised my self-image immensely.
Growing up in a family with an alcoholic parent is traumatic--some experts say it's just as traumatic as being in military combat. Unfortunately, most children learn to regard whatever conditions they grow up in as "normal," so even as adults they often don't realize they've been traumatized. Yet, because their needs were not met, they are at risk for cognitive and emotional problems as well as addiction to alcohol or drugs.
Children need consistent rules, but life with an alcoholic parent is chaotic and leaves them overwhelmed and confused. What was okay two days ago was not okay yesterday--so how should I behave today? Often they find themselves having to take care of the parent while they themselves are neglected. A parent's anger is frightening to children, and they soon discover that any number of things can trigger that anger, so they learn not to say what they think or feel. And when parents are angry, hurtful words like "stupid," "selfish," or "lazy" are often hurled at them, destroying the child's feelings of self-worth. Shame and embarrassment are constant companions, so the children learn to deny the reality of their lives.
It's harder to make friends. Imagine a child--we'll call him or her Terry--coming home from school, not knowing what to expect. Will Mom be passed out or in a rage, or maybe not even be there? In a healthy home, asking a friend to come over to play is a common way to make friends, but for Terry, it's a risk. And even if that risk is taken, neighborhood parents may be aware of the situation and say "No." Some, in kindness, might invite Terry to come to their house instead, but the message is still clear: "Your home is not a place that you can invite friends to."
Older children may try to avoid having other people witness their parent behaving badly, even if it means missing out on school and neighborhood activities. Some will adopt a passive attitude, hoping to avoid conflict. In the extreme, they can become "people pleasers," thinking that if they keep their parent (or parents) happy, things will get better. Not surprisingly, this often involves the children swallowing their own anger, which can cause further problems.
What happens when these children become adults? It's not unusual for them to be depressed and not realize it because they've buried their feelings for so long. They think life is just crappy because it's always been that way. They may not recognize their own needs because their needs have been unmet all along.
Adult relationships may suffer for several reasons:
Because they've been emotionally rejected by their parent(s), they may fear further abandonment, and fear of
abandonment can poison relationships, either by becoming too possessive or by becoming emotionally distant.
(I'll abandon you before you can abandon me.)
In the same vein, a child who's been unable to trust parents can find it hard to trust a partner, but the lack of
trust makes intimacy difficult, or even drives the partner away.
As a result of having lived with so much chaos, they may try to take control of their lives, but because they've
grown up without reasonable boundaries, they can easily become overcontrolling, which is also destructive to
relationships because it makes the partner feel marginalized. (Everything has to be done your way--you don't
see me as an equal.)
Conversely, some children of alcoholics may only feel comfortable with chaos. After all, that's what they're used
to, and sometimes the devil you know is less frightening than the devil you don't know, and this is why children
of alcoholics sometimes become alcoholics or even marry one.
Because they're unable to recognize their own feelings and express or explain them, their partners may see
them as cold, unfeeling and uncommunicative.
The end result is that children of alcoholics often feel alone, believing that no one really understands them. If any of this is your experience, realize that the effects of your childhood do not have to color the rest of your life.
How do you change things? Therapy, of course, is a simple answer, but if that isn't feasible, Al-Anon is very helpful. It's a mutual support group consisting of others who have been affected by an alcoholic family member. The groups are almost everywhere, and there are no dues or fees to join. Members are asked to donate to meet the local group's expenses, but it isn't obligatory.
Here's a chance to meet others who have experienced what you've gone through--people who'll understand you and show you how to improve your life. You're not alone!
Why not try it? What do you have to lose?
Holidays mean different things to different people. For some it's a time to get together and enjoy the company of family and friends. For others, it's a lonely time when everyone else seems to be busy and happy. For yet others, it's a stressful time, trying to fulfill the expectations--often unrealistic--of self and others.
And once the holidays are over, we still go different ways. Some look forward to things slowing down and to getting back into a familiar daily routine. For others, life suddenly feels empty, with nothing to look forward to except the daily grind and regret about overindulging or overspending. Some are left with a bad taste because getting together with family and friends was disappointing or frustrating.
In any case, it's helpful to look back at what happened over the holidays and why.
1. If you're one of those who feel let down after the holidays because it seems there's nothing to look forward to now, can you schedule an activity here and there that you enjoy? Going for a walk, listening to music, having lunch with a friend--anything to interrupt the routine that seems so empty can possibly help. When I was really depressed, I discovered that even small things that interrupted my routine helped. Taking a shower in the morning rather than in the evening, driving to work by a different route, even trying different foods or changing my bedtime or wakeup time by even half an hour often jolted me out of the depths of depression.
2. If the holidays were disappointing, if you went through a lot of trouble to make the holidays "perfect," and others didn't seem to appreciate your efforts, if your holiday dinner turned into an argument, if someone wasn't as pleased with your gift as you'd hoped, if you're now faced with bills for gifts you felt obliged to buy but really couldn't afford, realize that you need begin taking more control of your life. Ask yourself: Are you a people pleaser? Do you feel you must do what somebody else wants? What do you fear will happen if you don't?
I'll hurt their feelings. It's good to consider the feelings of others, but plenty of people use "hurt feelings" to control others, so it's important to distinguish between justified and unjustified hurt feelings. How do you do this? Consider: Are their expectations reasonable? Are they asking you to do something that is necessary or is it simply something they just want? How often do they make such requests? Are they playing helpless? Is this a one-way relationship? A healthy relationship means the other person respects your right to limit favors and even to say "No." If someone doesn't recognize your rights, you must say "No." And don't look back! It's the only way out of this trap. If you need help to do this, get help!
But they'll punish me if I say "No." If you're in this situation, you're experiencing the worst form of emotional blackmail, and it requires you to take a drastic step. Some people might stop talking and interacting with you if you don't do what they want. I know several people who haven't spoken to each other for years. Interestingly, when asked what caused the rift, some of them couldn't even remember, but they were determined to hold onto their grudge! I know people who aren't able to see their own grandchildren because they said "No" to an unreasonable request. I know a man who spent his whole adult life at the beck and call of a wealthy parent who threatened to disinherit him if he didn't do what the parent wanted. By the way, the parent lived to be over one hundred years old! If you're trapped in a situation like this and feel unable to stand up for yourself, please get professional help.
3. If you find yourself paying the price for overindulging or overspending in order to escape dealing with grief, realize that occasions of loss and anniversaries of loss can trigger depression. Grief is a process, and it isn't the same for everyone, but overindulging in an attempt to avoid grief only prolongs the process. If you've been caught in the pattern of overindulging to avoid grieving, and it's gone on for more than a year, you need to get help. What has happened is the past. You can't change it, but you--and only you--get to decide whether your future is to be more of the same.
By this time, you may be saying, "Oh, all this woman is doing is telling me to get help."
I know that it's hard to admit you need help and to ask for it, but consider this: If your car breaks down and you can't fix it, do you choose to live without a car, or do you go to someone who knows how to fix it?
If you're really unhappy with your life, and you don't know what to do or how to fix things, do you choose to go on being miserable, or do you find someone who knows how to make things better?
If you've ever experienced a relationship with someone who's dysfunctional, you know how hard it is to feel good around that person. If you are a child and that person is your parent, that relationship can color your whole life. It affects the way your brain develops, the way you perceive events, and the way you think and feel about yourself.
Today I want to talk about a dysfunction that's often not diagnosed--Borderline Personality Disorder, BPD.
I have a friend who has BPD but was not diagnosed for a long time, simply because she didn't think there was anything wrong with her. She continually called me, asking me to help her with problems she was having, but no matter what I did or advised her to do, she wouldn't listen to me. I began to notice that she would tell me one thing one day and contradict herself at a later date. It took me a while to realize that she wasn't forgetful, but that things looked different to her from one day to the next, depending on her emotional state, and she was extremely emotional. When I tried to get her to look at a situation logically, she'd object, "But that's not how I feel." After visiting with her or even just talking on the phone, I'd experience a headache and a sense of bewilderment. Eventually I realized I couldn't help her, and for my own well-being, I had to distance myself from her. When she was finally diagnosed and I learned about BPD, I began to understand her behavior, but sadly, I still had to keep my distance.
A child who has a parent with BPD has a lot to cope with and can't distance herself when the parent reacts with intense emotions inappropriate to circumstances. A small annoyance may be met with rage. To make matters worse, the parent isn't predictable and at times may function well and appear to be very competent and reasonable. At other times he or she will be demanding, critical, even physically, verbally or mentally abusive. Life in this house is like walking on eggshells. Small children can't escape, but teenagers often spend as little time as possible at home, which can anger the parent even more, since BPD's fear abandonment above all.
Because of the BPD's behaviors, there is often conflict with the other parent. The BPD may react by setting the other parent as "the enemy" and demand that the children take sides.
The BPD parent is incapable of understanding a child's emotional needs, seeing the child only as someone who is supposed meet the parent's needs. Consequently the child may experience:
1. Neglect. No appropriate food in the house. No clean clothing available. Parent "forgets" to provide lunch money or needed school supplies, etc. Parent can't or won't help children with homework or daily problems.
2. Parent may be overcontrolling, deciding what the child must wear, what food the child must or can't eat, which friends and activities are "acceptable" to the point where the child feels unable to make any choices on his own.
3. The child is blamed for the parent's unhappiness or anger. Child may be labeled "ungrateful," "lazy," "naughty," or "stupid," etc. for normal child behavior or mistakes.
4. The child may be labeled "the good child" or "the bad child." In a home where there is more than one child, the other children may be pitted against "the bad child."
5. In extreme cases, the BPD parent may threaten or even attempt suicide, making the child feel responsible for preventing future attempts. The child may experience anxiety when away from home, fearing what might happen when no one is there to "protect" the parent.
Because none of the above behavior is consistent, home becomes a crazy-making place. Not surprisingly, the child who is trying to make sense of the world and understand what is expected of him or her is continuously bewildered.
If you suspect that one of your parents suffered from borderline personality, what can you do?
First of all realize that your parent didn't choose to be this way. At this point, experts look to genetics, abuse in childhood, loss or separation from a caregiver at an early age, or inborn brain abnormalities as possible causes of BPD.
You have to let go of any anger you feel toward that parent. Anger only eats at you, destroying your ability to experience happiness.
Next, you have to become aware of any distorted thinking you've developed because of growing up in a crazy-making atmosphere. Some of the effects of having a BPD parent are:
1. Being unable to trust others or feel close to them.
2. Experiencing constant guilt or uncertainty that you are doing the right thing.
3. Feeling responsible for the unhappiness or anger of others, leading you to be a people pleaser.
4. Feeling worthless, as if your life has been a waste.
5. Being unable to make decisions because you fear that whatever you do will turn out badly.
6. Always feeling guilty.
You may need to get professional help to undo the damage that has been done to you, but simply understanding what happened is a big first step.
Over the years I've heard a number of people speak about their parents with sadness and parents speak about their children with disappointment. The children frequently said their parents didn't understand them, and the parents said they didn't understand where they went wrong. In both groups there were some who suffered from depression.
Even seemingly normal families can breed depression. Here are some of the ways:
1. A personality or temperamental misfit. People come in different flavors: introvert or extrovert, active or passive, intellectual or hands-on, those who crave order and routine, and those who thrive on spontaneity. An introverted parent who wants and needs peace and quiet may feel that an extroverted child "is driving me crazy." Likewise, an extroverted and active father may feel (and show) disappointment when his child would rather read a book instead of going for a bike ride or tossing a ball around in the backyard. Other temperament mismatches lead to disappointments and misunderstandings in both children and parents.
Depression arises from the assumption that the other person is deliberately choosing their temperament and personality. It's important and healthy for parent and child to understand that is not the case.
2. Parental expectations. Often parents have specific ideas about their children's futures. They may imagine their children following in their professional footsteps, fulfilling their own (unfulfilled) dreams or even continuing to have the same (sometimes rigid) ideas. They may even believe that their adult child must still do as the parents say. The extreme form of the last attitude is still found in cultures that arrange marriages for their offspring, but lesser forms are found everywhere when parents threaten to disown or stop speaking to their children unless they do what the parents want. This is nothing less than emotional blackmail.
Depression arises either from the feeling that you have disappointed your parents by choosing your own path or from the feeling that you weren't able to choose your own path.
3. Conflict between parents. Given that two adults are not always going to agree, parents will inevitably demonstrate to their children either healthy or unhealthy ways to deal with conflict. Children need to feel that home is a safe place, but when parents yell, scream, call names, or resort to physical hostilities, children don't feel safe. At the same time, in extreme cases, they may be reluctant to leave the home--even to attend school--for terrible things may happen while they're gone. One parent speaking badly of the other can cause children to feel they have to choose between their parents, causing stress, anxiety and guilt. They can't develop a healthy relationship with either parent, and may feel emotionally abandoned.
In cases of divorce, there may be a long period of conflict before, during and after the settlement in which the a child is likely to experience various emotions:
Worry and anxiety that if their parents can divorce each other, they may "divorce" the child as well. Very young children are likely to feel this way.
Worry that the divorce is somehow their fault, giving rise to guilt.
Anger over all the changes that have to be dealt with. This especially likely with teens.
Stress caused by moving, changing schools, losing contact with friends, and going back and forth between parents.
I recently had a conversation with a teacher who told me about a girl who was having problems getting her work done and handing it in on time. When he took her aside to ask what was going on, she replied, "I go to my mother's house one day, my stepfather's house the next, then my grandmother's house, and finally my father's house. It's hard." Can you imagine the stress of packing everything up and moving from one house to another that often? She must feel she doesn't have a home. Moreover, she faces the additional stress of dealing with a step-parent and possible step-siblings. It's easy to see how homework might not get done on time. No doubt the judge who decided on this arrangement was seeking to please all the adults while forgetting the needs of the child.
And then there are families where things are definitely not normal. Children of a parent who is an alcoholic, schizophrenic, bipolar or has other psychological or emotional disturbances have to deal with multiple challenges, particularly if the parent has not been diagnosed and/or is not in treatment. The biggest problem comes when the family is not aware of, or does not acknowledge, the dysfunction. Thus, to the child, dysfunction seems normal. Unless these children have friends or relatives who display what normal healthy family relationships are like, the children may grow up and enter dysfunctional relationships. As illogical as that seems, what is familiar often feels safer than situations they're not used to. And the dysfunction continues, even into the next generation.
By this time you ought to be able to see that if you went through any of these experiences, there are various situations that can trigger or deepen depression. The important thing is to identify your triggers and work to realize that the emotions you are presently experiencing were generated in the past and are simply echoes of the real trauma.
In a previous blog, I mentioned how childhood traumas may impair emotional development. If you suspect you are in this situation, don't hesitate to find help. It's out there!
Have you ever noticed that some people attach importance to things that others would overlook?
When I was in college, a young lady from my dorm went out with her boyfriend to celebrate her birthday. When she returned later that evening, she was in tears. Several of us asked her what had happened. She replied that her boyfriend had taken her to a nice restaurant for dinner, given her a lovely sweater as a gift, and taken her dancing afterward. So why was she crying? He hadn't given her a card! For some reason, she believed that her birthday wasn't truly acknowledged unless she got a birthday card. I don't know how this belief began, but all of us have some beliefs that disrupt lives and damage healthy relationships.
My sister-in-law told me that when she cleaned out her parents' home, she found a book on child care that her parents had obviously taken to heart. It was John Watson's Psychological Care of the Infant and Child, which was a best-seller at the time her parents were married. Watson advised parents, "Never hug or kiss them or let them sit on your lap. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary (sic) good
job of a difficult task."
That revelation was an eye-opener for my sister-in-law. It explained why her parents were unaffectionate and seemingly cold. She had always felt they didn't love her. In truth, her parents were just as victimized as she was. John Watson was an internationally known psychologist. His book was a best-seller. How many thousands of parents bought it in hopes of raising their children perfectly? How many children grew up feeling unloved and consequently became depressed?
Babies don't come with instruction books. Many parents raise their children the way they were raised, because that is all they know. Some parents who didn't like the way they were raised go to the opposite extreme, and often the opposite extreme isn't good, either.
Children of the Depression often grew up without toys to play with, and they had to start working at a young age to help support the family. Some of them grew up believing that it wasn't necessary for children to play. Others mourned the fact that they "didn't have fun" as children and decided that their children would experience a "wonderful childhood with every material pleasure, and without chores or responsibilities. In both cases the children suffer deprivation. The first group are driven to achieve and never feel good enough; the second group have little ambition, and their parents wonder why their thirty-something offspring are still living at home.
And it wasn't just one or two generations that were influenced by tragic beliefs. In 1994, Michael Pearl, a Tennessee
preacher, co-authored a book with his wife titled To Train Up a Child. Parents following Pearl's advise are instructed to think of their children as "stubborn mules" and to beat the "selfish compulsions" out of them with wooden spoons or "flexible tubing."
The bottom line is: if you see yourself in any of this, realize that your parents weren't necessarily "bad." They might have been acting unaware of the consequences, actually believing they were doing the right thing.
Your personal pain will be lessened if you understand this and work on forgiving them.
Studies have shown that keeping secrets can alter your perceptions, making your outlook more negative. The bigger the secret, and the more you think about it, the greater the effect. And if you learn the secret at a time of transition in your life--parents divorcing, adolescence, leaving home, marriage, the birth of a child, a death in the family--the more you are burdened with it. Your ability to assert your independence, to form healthy relationships, or to trust others can be affected.
Secrets are kept for a number of reasons: shame, guilt, and embarrassment among them. Consider what people hide: abuse, a drinking problem, a drug problem, an affair, a pregnancy resulting from an affair, a relative with mental illness or a criminal record, family financial problems, a suicide in the family, among others.
What are the consequences of secret keeping? Consider, for example, a teenager who finds out that one parent is having an affair. The teen will distance himself or herself from that parent because that parent is now seen as someone the teen doesn't really know and who can't be trusted. There is also the fear that the other parent will find out and the family will break up. The teen is distanced from both parents at a time when he or she is beginning to deal with their own sexuality and really needs input from parents. What a burden for a young person to carry! If there is no one in whom the teen can safely confide, emotional growth may actually be stopped at this point.
What happens when emotional growth stops? That teenager eventually becomes an adult with adolescent emotions.
Normal adult responsibilities are too much to handle. Commitments seem overwhelming and are avoided. It may be hard to leave home, to manage money, to foresee the consequences of behaviors, to stop being self-centered and consider the needs and feelings of other people. If this person tries to enter a long-term relationship or becomes a parent without the emotional maturity those stages in life require, both the relationship and the child begin with severe handicaps and will suffer. Thus the secret-keeping has consequences on another generation.
Some secrets are kept by the whole family. "Don't tell anyone. It's no one else's business!" "Don't air our dirty laundry!"
Such attitudes create a sense of shame, and shame lowers self-esteem, making it more difficult to relate to others or feel close to them. Children burdened by secrecy may be unable to concentrate in school, but can't explain to anyone what is distressing them. Often they're classified as poor students or troublemakers.
What do you do when you're burdened with secrets? You have to find a safe way to relieve the stress. One thing you should NOT do is confide in a friend. All you are doing then is burdening that person, who may eventually decide to relieve it by confiding in someone else. You need to go to a professional who is trained to keep confidences. There is a reason why psychologists and psychiatrists can't have a personal relationship with their patients. Priests, ministers and rabbis are also trained to deal with secrets they are bound to keep. The act of safely telling another person what you have had to keep hidden for so long can relieve a lot of pressure.
If the secret-keeping has stunted your emotional growth, being able to confide in someone else safely may allow growth to begin again. It won't happen instantly, and you'll have to do some work, but it will be worth it.
Think of all the emotions you've ever experienced: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, surprise, shame, sadness, guilt, or blame. Can you name what you're feeing right now? Many depressed people can't.
Many years ago, our son and one of his friends, along with three other young men, were kidnapped by an escaped convict who had previously murdered three people. The five were held hostage for a couple of hours before the killer started shooting. Our son and his friend were both shot in the head, and two of the other young men were killed instantly.
If you had asked me what I was feeling as I drove to the hospital, I probably would have said, "worried." I was worried that our son might not live, or that he would be a paraplegic or severely brain-damaged for the rest of his life. I had already experienced forty years of depression, and although I had only a year earlier finally discovered the root of my depression, I hadn't yet learned to identify my feelings, so as I drove to the hospital, I didn't know that I was angry and scared. I had developed the habit of coping by becoming numb. I hadn't been able to cry for years, but soon I realized I needed to cry. The following day I asked my psychiatrist for an emergency appointment so she could help me to release my tears.
Both my son and his friend survived, but not without some nerve damage and some psychological damage.
Over the years since then, I've learned to identify my emotions and analyze them to see if they are helping me or hurting me.
When I took writing classes the teacher would point deficiencies in our stories, and it hurt to be told that the piece you'd worked so hard to create wasn't as wonderful as you thought. I saw there were two kinds of students: those who accepted criticism quietly and came back next time with improved versions of their stories, and those who became defensive, even angry, insisting that the teacher didn't understand! Occasionally, one of them would leave the class and never come back. It didn't take long for me to figure out who was handling emotions successfully.
I realized that if I wanted to become a good writer, I had to accept the feelings of embarrassment, even humiliation, of having my shortcomings pointed out. I learned to replace those feelings with ones of gratitude for the help I was receiving.
Interestingly, as my writing improved and I began to get published, my self-esteem rose, too.
Last time we talked about how anger is relate to depression, and that there are two ways the depressed people deal with anger. One way is to become a walking timebomb, using anger to gain a sense of control. In this case, anger is often directed at people who are handy, rather than those who are the source of the problem.
The other method depressed people use to cope is to suppress the anger, leading to all sorts of symptoms that resist explanation, as mentioned in the previous blog. People who suppress anger may not even realize they are angry. If you asked them what they're feeling, they'd say things like "sad," disappointed," "misunderstood," "alone," "unappreciated," or "like a failure." They are telling the truth. What they don't understand is that those feelings are psychologically painful, and pain automatically arouses anger, which is a physiological response. That response may include raised blood pressure, muscle tension, and increased respiration, but the angry person is so used to these feelings that they don't recognize them as byproducts of anger.
Neither of these strategies solve the problem, so the anger continues.
Once you realize you have a lot of anger, what can you do?
1. Think before you speak (or shout!). Words spoken in anger cause a lot of damage, and they are not easily forgotten.
I once heard a mother call her teenage daughter a terrible name. I asked her how she could say such a thing to her daughter, and she shrugged. "Oh, she knows I don't mean it." What that mother didn't appreciate is that words spoken in anger are more deeply impressed on the other person's brain, along with the emotions those words aroused. It's one thing to say, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it," but these words cannot erase the impressions already formed in the brain. Too many people feel that, "I'm sorry," are the magic words that erase the effects of damage. They don't! It takes time and work by both parties to repair the effect of angry words.
2. Take time to figure out exactly what it is that you are angry about. Realize that often we misdirect our anger to a "safe" person when we feel we can't show anger toward the person who is causing our distress. It's safer to yell at your spouse or your children than at your boss.
3. Calmly state what is bothering you. Avoid terms like "always" and "never."
4. Allow the other person to explain his or her point of view and be sure to listen. Too often when we're angry, we don't really hear the other person. Consider what is true about the other person's statement. Can you understand how that person feels? Anger prevents you from empathizing. That's why it's easier to hurt people when you're angry, and to minimize in your own mind the hurt you've caused. Are you able to reframe the situation?
5. Don't hold grudges. If you tend to hold grudges, you of all people should understand how much pain is caused by angry words and thoughtless deeds. If you can't let go, how can you expect others to let you off the hook?
6. Learn to discuss problems without eye rolls, insults and name calling. They are counterproductive.
7. Learn to recognize defensiveness in yourself and in others.
Other things you can do:
Exercise. It relieves the physical and mental tension that anger arouses.
Think about possible solutions to problems beforehand.
Practice relaxation skills.
Realize that if you are a chronically angry person, whether you recognize your anger or not, it will take time and practice to change, but learning to manage your anger in a healthy way will change your life!
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.