A huge part of the work of therapy, a significant proportion, in the beginning, is about getting back in touch with these experiences we have had in life that need to be processed and felt. So much of the experience of loneliness I have worked with is that they are cut off from themselves, or they feel like they are going about their lives cut off from others. Being with others, but left holding experiences they have been through and so desperately wanting to share it with others. The longer they have been holding themselves together, the harder it has been to begin sharing themselves with others. The encouraging thing is that the unconscious never forgets, it’s all still there, and the unconscious knows when to bring it to consciousness when you are most ready to process it and in the presence of a non-threatening and empathetic other waiting to meet us with whatever we bring.
So much of the experience of loneliness can look like depression. “Oh what’s the point,” people say, not willing to risk to go about creating something new for themselves. “This is just what I do, and I’d take so much energy to do something else,” the individual who is unsatisfied and unfulfilled in his work thinks. Viktor Frankl, author of the famous work Mans Search For Meaning, in talking about melancholia, a synonym of depression, though he makes the distinction later, described it as a cerebral insufficiency, and is experienced as a “tension between what the person is and what he ought to be.” (Frankl, The Doctor And The Soul, 1986, p.202) To the degree that an individual feels this melancholia is the extent to which he is falling short of what he ought to be. You could say, that while the individual is feeling this, he is in some way, shaming himself, “I should be …”
At this point of the self-shaming aspect of depression, the psychoanalytic conceptualization of depression and the existential view come together. Depression is an internal state of aggression towards the self, in reaction to his potential which is highlighted within an individual’s relationship to his outside world (Auchincloss & Samberg, 2012). Making it ever so importantly for counselees to examine all aspects of their life and what impact they have on their sad feelings. What is gleaned from ones reflection could be anything, rooted in one’s relationships with others a boss or a friend, why we went into the work that we did, or why it is that we have the values that we do. “Moods can, therefore, give individuals knowledge about themselves and their world.” (Rogers, The Carl Rogers Reader, 1989, P.191) I love what Carl Rogers said, that feelings are selves that we are getting in touch with, needing to be unpacked and connected to that which is bringing it up, in a countertransferential psychoanalytic kind of way.
Binswanger saw depression as having elements of anxiety, describing depression as “a clinging to the guilt-ridden past, a fear of punishment in the future and where the present has no place: everything that is possible has already happened. Life is ruled by the shadow of loss – a loss which is not just anticipated by is already the fact.” (Cohn, Existential Thought & Therapeutic Practice, 1997, P.110) Robin Williams, one of the most cherished actors and personalities for his sense of humor and authenticity epitomized in Good Will Hunting, knew this bit of wisdom all to well and said it eloquently, “that which you fear the most has already happened.”
This points towards this idea that loneliness or depression is in part created from our specific worldview, a departure from the ‘continuous flow’ of being. It is the goal of psychotherapy to bring these individuals ‘down to earth’ and in contact with what is going on inside, beyond the facade.
You may be thinking that you don’t know what authenticity feels like. I beg the differ and believe that you have, in the presence of another. This sense of authenticity that we feel in the presence of someone, the individual being in contact and rhythm with their inner world. The person who sees you for all that you are, the good and the bad, the exciting and the painful. From these moments of interconnection of the self, through the empathy of another who is holding together the multi-dimensions of what is, the pressure of what ought to be, and the mystery and hope of what can be can an individual begin to grow and continue creating themselves from the ground of their being. This meeting is described well for the vantage of the therapists, or merely an embodiment of what it means to meet with another. Rogers (1989) states, “To make an object of a person has been helpful in treating physical ills: it has not been successful in treating psychological ills. We are deeply helpful only when we relate as persons, when we risk ourselves as persons in the relationship, when we experience the other as a person in his own right. Only then is there a meeting at a depth that dissolves the pain of aloneness in both client and therapist.” (P.168)
Something I hope is being conveyed is that you don’t have to be psychologically healthy to begin this journey. I once had a client that just a few days after going to the emergency room two nights in a row for feelings of life being too overwhelming came into my office and stated, “This is so painful, but this is who I am right now, this is what authenticity looks like for me right now, and this is what I am working with.”
This experience of loneliness and in-authenticity is described so well in the case of Ellen West by Binswanger (May, Angel, Ellenberger, Existence, 1994). Ellen wrote in her journal towards the end of her life, “By this fearful illness, I am withdrawing more and more from people. I feel myself excluded from all real life. I am quite isolated. I sit in a glass ball. I see people through a glass wall, their voices come to me muffled. I have an unutterable longing to get to them, I scream, but they do not hear me. I stretch out my arms towards them, but my hands merely bear against the walls of my glass ball.” (Existence, 1994, p.256)
The landscape of this sense of depression or loneliness can be so foreign to us; we may have no sense of what it is at all, only that we have this overwhelming feeling of sadness and isolation. We may say “But I do not know why,” some people say, myself even. Unknowns can feel quite scary, but also a chance to look at the experience, and explore, accept and bring love to it, while also being curious and openness to what will happen and what will release from our unconscious.
Luckily for the women that I mentioned above, she sat down with a friend and courageously put it all out there, wanting someone to know before she killed herself. Today she is living a much more meaning-filled and connected life.
Caleb A. Dodson is a therapist specializing in Depression Counseling in Fremont, Seattle, WA.