Some questions to ponder in our beginning . .
What is life for me?
What is with me today that moves me to come here?
What makes my life…alive?
The Experience of Depression
Depression, like all diagnoses or words in psychology, is a collection of symptoms that we’ve decided to call depression. But these symptoms don’t actually speak to the experience of depression, and they can mean so many things to the people suffering. What is the experience of depression? What is it like? Phenomenologically, many describe it as an inner loss of motion, an emptiness—like a white room with nothing to latch onto. Depression is feeling like there is a lack of meaningful relationships, an absence of content (in life or the self) once we leave our work, a boredom amidst business, a thought that life is quite futile, a loss of one’s ideals, or a disconnect from the ideals of the world.
Like most things, the experience of depression exists on a spectrum. People sometimes talk of feeling dead, distant, detached, dislodged, estranged, isolated, otherworldly, “in a fog,” indifferent to everything, overwhelmed, suffocated, cut off, lost, disconnected, out of sorts, not oneself, out of touch with things or with oneself, out of it, not quite with it, or apart from. These feelings exist on the extreme ends of a wide spectrum. Depression for some could look like not feeling a sense of excitement to go to work. For others, it could be a loss of energy, vitality, or excitement for all things life itself.
Clinically speaking, what we can glean from these experiential descriptions of depression is that it presents as a weakening connection to things within and around in life. In philosophical and clinical terms, it is through our feelings that we get access to ourselves and our experience of the world around us. Depression sometimes means not knowing what moves the self as we go about living.
Depression, What Is It?
Existential Analysis posits that when anxiety arises within an individual, it is a confrontation of the human with the bedrock of their life: “Can I be?” Depression develops on top of this. “Do I like to be? Is this way right for me?” Anxiety speaks to being-in-the-world, depression speaks to the quality of ones being-in-the-world.
As we go about our lives, we are touched or moved by things: a sunset after we leave work, the sound of the rain hitting the roof, a warm cup of aromatic tea or coffee in hand, a pair of leather boots, the shape of someone’s legs walking down the street. We like these experiences.
Living in Seattle, we all know what it’s like when we’re at work in the middle of the day in January and, all of a sudden, the sun pops out and we’re hit with its rays. In that moment, the grey-and-gloom of the winter seems to just melt away as something distant and in the past. Something in us frees itself and we feel touched and filled. We are touched and experience this life that was quite different a moment before. This is a highly metaphysical thing going on and encapsulates many of the elements sought to facilitate.
In that moment of standing in the sun, we like what we are experiencing and we turn towards and take up relationship with the sun. In that turning towards it moves us and we feel a sense of life. The sun is out in space, but we experience it in our body. “I turn towards my experience of the sun that is within me - in my body.” The individual with depression has a diminished relationship to that which could move them.
We need to have a relationship to the things of life to experience the flow.
This movement of feelings within us is closely linked to what we like and also dislike in life - the sun, rain on the roof, physical activity, reading/learning, our career, or a cup of coffee or tea. Liking can only be found in our feelings - right within our body. This is why the question of “What do you feel in your body as you talk about _____” is psychotherapeutically one of the most helpful questions. These activities or preferences are indications of what makes up us - who we are. They point us towards our deeper values and our deeper self. It is our values that pull and direct us in life. What is it about this like that pulls me?
Was there room for like / dislike is your upbringing?
What is the family story of like / dislike?
Can I talk about like / dislike?
What do you hold from this narrative?
Do my preferences matter?
Are they allowed?
However, this movement isn't exclusive to the enjoyable or delightful experiences in life. It can also come from the painful and frustrating ones. Those, too, move us and are a part of life. One dislike, for me personally, is that I don’t like seeing others ostracized or ‘kicked out’. A value behind this for me is the value of inclusion and understanding, and what in me cannot be with this other. Yet, here inlays a complication.
Though we are to turn towards that which we dislike, if it causes us harm and hinders our sense of life, we should seek counsel and consider what this is more deeply. Is this an opportunity towards more freedom or genuine harm of the self? It’s important to note here that not all likes point towards a value that pulls us, but could be a psychodynamic that actually inhibits the flow within us and our own authenticity. It’s important to give space to consider your likes and dislikes.
Even as we go through hard times we need to ask, “What am I experiencing?” Not everyone responds the same to painful and disturbing life experiences. These could be as simple as breaking a bone, an injury as an athlete, an experience of rejection from a friend, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a pet, failing a course in school; any number of things have the capability to diminish our sense of life and vitality. Yet, they might also be opportunities for us to come a little more home to ourselves. They give us an indication of the solidness or fragility of our self.
Factors That Can Cause Depression
A person suffering from depression feels that life has taken something, often during a person’s childhood. The feeling of loss sticks with a person throughout their life and can trigger the depression from time to time.
What losses are there in my life?
Did I ever have something that I lost—and continue to miss to this day?
What do I still feel the loss of?
The Need to be Accepted
Awareness that we haven’t been liked enough in our life is an important strain that can lead to depression. Childhood relationships within one’s family need to be looked back at in order to understand a person’s depression and the possible causes for their feeling that they have lost access to their self.
How much was I liked in my life?
If I was in a room in my childhood home and I heard footsteps, who would I hope would come in?
Do I feel like I have been liked enough in my life?
Reduced Feeling of Inner Vitality
This factor is a bit harder to pin down and describe. It is often characterized as a diminished energy and the feeling that we are not going with the flow of our life. This feeling takes us to our darkest place, leaving us drained, disheartened, and helpless.
How do I feel about this flow of life, this power of life?
Is it a flow?
Is this feeling just a trigger, or does it change—sometimes feeling more, sometimes less?
The Essence of Depression: A Loss of Connection to Self
Depression—as a weakening of the access to the self and to the life within oneself - can move one in the direction of dependency on others: family or partner, career, body, or really just anyone or anything closest that brings a sense of self or identity. One’s identity becomes the other people because one cannot access oneself. Liking is free, we cant prohibit it. If it gets buried and we don't have access to it, repress it, and they become uncontrollable. This is a loss of self and a loss of differentiation. I’ll talk more about this in February in my next blog. If we aren't connected to ourselves we cant know what we like. In our experience of liking there is strength and movement present. Our job is to be aware, maybe not act. It's the emotion itself we like, not that which moves us.
I’ve personally seen this within marriages and within people’s relationships toward their exercise routines or careers. When one of these things support systems snaps, it can be difficult to maintain a steady handle on their self-identity.
For a person suffering from depression, life is reduced. I’ve had clients tell me, “I have a hard time getting a sense of what moves me.” Life is characterized by a loss of will, a loss of joy, and a sense of helplessness. In the face of this deep sense of loss, people can become incredibly psychologically violent against themselves. Guilt and shame become rampant in suppressing that former sense of life and keep the depressed person from gaining access to core emotions. This point is communicated beautifully in the book It’s Not Always Depression, by Hilary Jacobs-Hendel. Depression tells a person that he or she needs to change something and shows where he or she has lost touch with life. Hilary’s point is that we have core emotions that give us a sense of life back, but they’re blocked by our defenses.
Life with depression becomes tasteless, heavy, empty, and slow when you cannot relate to others, to yourself, or to the flow of life. Depression points one toward estrangement from their relationships and their life. At a certain point, therefore, depression also starts affecting those around them. It may seem like they begin sucking the life out of others. On a personal level, I think that those living with a depressed person find it hard to witness that loss of life within their loved one—to see someone that they love, who used to have such life, be in a fog that it is hard to reach them through. I believe that this is our own empathic opening toward the other. We were meant to move in life—and it is difficult to watch someone we love struggle. This is the topic of May or June.
Next month I’ll be discussing the fundamental and basic activity we must begin to take up within depression or a loss of self - Turning Towards.
If anything said above touched you and you’d like to visit, I’d encourage you to shoot me an email or schedule a time to visit. This is a massive overview of multiple weekends within my training in Existential Analysis through the Existential Analysis Society of Canada. For instance - we spent 8 hours talking about liking - and I’ve only spent a few sentences here.