“Whatever you do, don’t try and escape from your pain, but be with it.”
– Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
A few years ago I suffered from major depression. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. In no way am I endorsing depression as a pleasant experience here. It is a mental illness that zaps the life energy right out of your bones and makes you feel like you are free-falling into a dark, endless pit of despair and hopelessness. However, as in my case, depression served as a catalyst for me to finally confront the soul wounds I had carried around from a dysfunctional and traumatic childhood into my adult life.
I had to look inside myself and address some painful, repressed emotions and beliefs about myself: Why did I feel unworthy and unlovable? Why did I push myself so hard to prove my worth? Why did I feel responsible for everyone’s happiness at the extent of my own? What was I ashamed of? Why did I feel so alone? Why did I personalize everything? And most important of all, why did I find it so hard to love myself?
It was seeking the answers to these questions in group therapy and in counselling that served as the first stepping stone in a personal transformation where I have emerged emotionally stronger and loving the person I am in this moment.
How can that be so you ask? By tapping in to the emotional undercurrents of my depression, I was able to release myself from its grip towards greater personal empowerment and happiness.
Accept you have depression and let go of shame
When I was first diagnosed with major depression I was in denial. The notion I even had depression was embarrassing because I equated it with weakness when in my mind I was supposed to be strong. My own expectations of how I should perform and operate in the world created a sense of shame in me. This shame compounded a deeper sense of shame and feelings of unworthiness I carried around since childhood.
When we keep depression a secret for fear of stigma and what others will think of us, we feed the fires of shame already growing inside of us. Shame is insidious as it keeps us imprisoned emotionally and in a perpetual state of feeling unworthy and unlovable. Unlike the feeling of guilt which signifies the act of doing something bad, shame signifies the indefinite idea that one is a bad person. Confronting my depression head on without shame, secrecy and embarrassment was the first step towards battling it and gaining some sense of self-control emotionally and over my depression. Shame is like depressions’ best friend. They emotionally work off each other. Releasing the shame of having depression basically comes down to realizing one truth and believing it—depression does not make you a bad or weak person. If anything, overcoming depression takes a huge amount of courage that can be a starting point to recovery.
Feel and process the full range of emotions rooted in your pain
While my depression was precipitated by stress and life events, I know for sure an underlying cause contributing to its intensity was pain from childhood trauma I never dealt with. When you stripped away the situational factors all that truly remained were painful emotions attached to a sense of unworthiness and not feeling valued or loved. Depression has a way of leaving you vulnerable and ‘emotionally naked’. It leaves you with the sense you’ve lost so much already, what else is there possibly left to lose. I instinctively knew if I didn’t deal with the emotional pain and my limiting beliefs disguised under the grey blanket of depression, I risked relapse. Therapy was my only solution.
This is not an easy task because no one wants to relive the pain of their past. It is why so many people fall into addiction; they work so hard to repress and forget the pain they’re feeling. Addiction serves as a way to soothe or numb the pain. It is like putting a band aid on a wound that won’t stop bleeding. My soothing addictions were shopping and wine. Both of these provided a release from my pain. For example, a new outfit made me feel temporarily worthy and seen. A glass or two of wine made me feel less alone and gave me a reprieve from unhappiness.
What we don’t realize is when we don’t confront and feel the true extent of the painful emotions harboured inside our core, they will continue to control us. We will remain a victim to our pain and traumatic circumstances. We must be willing to feel all the hurt, rejection, anger, abandonment, isolation, aloneness, sorrow, resentment and much more to be free of the pain that scars us. Only then will such painful emotions hold no power over us.
Practice self-care as an act of self-love
One of the pivotal things I learned about myself in therapy was I was a caretaker. My caretaking role was learned in childhood by having young parents who did not provide adequate emotional nurturing. On some level I believed it was my responsibility to ensure other people were happy, often at the extent of my own happiness. I believed caretaking others could prove my worthiness—essentially that I was a good person therefore deserving of love. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What I really learned is caretaking others serves as a distraction from what pains us most. It is very similar to addiction because it deflects attention away from our pain and problems onto others. It’s easier to contend with other’s pain and problems than our own. The bottom line is we can’t fix other people or heal their pain. This can only be done at an individual level. None of us are responsible for the well-being or happiness of others. We are however completely responsible for our own happiness and well-being.
I had to unlearn this behavior and relearn it was natural and necessary to take care of myself ahead of others. I had to make my happiness a top priority. This even required putting my own well-being first for a time so I could be the stronger, loving and confident mother my son deserved. What this entailed was learning to slow down, exercise, and participate in activities that gave me joy and pleasure. Meditation was also pivotal in helping me calm my anxiety, and the incessant chatter and judgemental voices inside my head. Establishing social connections with people who cared and appreciated me were all essential for my recovery. I also spent a lot of time in nature. Nature soothed my soul and allowed all my worries and fears to dissipate. I was able to find peace and serenity in the present moment.
Give your feelings a voice
Deciding you matter and deserve to be cared for and loved also entails acknowledging your feelings matter and need to be voiced and heard. Don’t fall into the habit of stuffing your feelings down because you are afraid to stir the pot and upset someone else. Learn to communicate openly and calmly using “I statements.” For example, “I feel a sense of rejection when you ignore my concerns.” This allows you to communicate in a way that doesn’t evoke a sense of blame on others or make them wrong. Denying and burying your emotions leads to emotional repression. Emotional repression can lead to illness and depression.
Trust your inner knowing and wisdom
One of biggest learning curves through my depression was to learn to think for myself and trust in my own feelings and inner wisdom. Most of the limited beliefs I gave in to were the result of allowing the opinions of others to define who I was. I gave to much stock to what others thought. I also felt I had to be perfect at all times. This didn’t leave much room for failure. When I messed up or disappointed others by not living up to their standards, I relived feelings of unworthiness and not being good enough left over from my dysfunctional childhood. In essence, I was my own worse critic because I allowed this. To overcome this mentality took hard work. First, I created space in my life to be imperfect, and gave myself freedom to slip up and make mistakes. Secondly, I adopted an outlook that I am more than just a body bound to action. I am spirit, soul, energy and emotions. So are you!
Redefine what success really looks like
Prior to my depression I equated success as having an aspiring career, status and being goal driven. Success was measured by what I could accomplish. At the early stage of my depression, I was working in public relations for a company that didn’t really value me. I was also a single-mother trying to make ends meet. My son was going through some challenges that required my undivided attention and energy. I could no longer balance a full-time, demanding job and motherhood without sacrificing something. I tried balancing the two for a while, trying to live up to my own expectations that I had to be a perfect employee and a perfect mother. It became too emotionally overwhelming. My anxiety led to insomnia which in turn, gradually led to burn out and then depression.
As a result, going through depression radically altered my idea of success. I chose to put being a mother ahead of career and quit my job. I eventually downshifted to a less stressful job in administration, picking up contract work so I could spend more time with my son. My depression had also taken a toll on him and he needed by love and support to work through it as well.
Essentially, I focused on learning how to be happy with less and worked on my personal development and spirituality. I exercised but removed the pressure to be self-competitive and goal driven. Instead, I approached health more holistically and focused on the joy of moving to feel better and as an opportunity to meet new people and socialize.
When I look back, depression gave me a wake-up call and realigned me with what really matters most in life—to be happy, healthy and alive in the present moment. Jobs come and go. Tomorrow is a new day. Things are just things. Relationships, security, safety, love, health and a sense of belonging are everything. What matters most is creating meaningful experiences and memories you can look back on fondly that bring you countless joy. Without our health and happiness, what do we truly have anyway?
What ways has struggling and overcoming depression helped you find balance, happiness, joy and a new found inner peace?