My new clients often have an experience right from our first meeting that feels good, and new, in some way. They remark on the liveliness of the conversation that evolves between us, or on the depth of connection they start to feel with their own feelings. They often feel heard, met, and seen on a level that they find helpful, calming and invigorating all at once. We start with a conversation that leads to a connection. With that connection as our foundation, we can start to explore all kinds of things that maybe have felt hard to put into words before. Sessions with me often contain both laughter and tears. So often, in our first session, the word “hope” comes up. It’s a good feeling, one that’s often been missing for some time. That’s where we start.
Some people don’t understand what utility feelings can have.
For example, a client of mine, years back, said, “I just wish I were a robot. I don’t want to feel. Feelings don’t help anyone. They just make you feel worse. They just make everything go wrong.”
The devastation behind her words was palpable, while she sat across from me, looking at me blankly, wondering why I would respond so emotionally to such a simple question.
Yet, as simple as a question was, and as deserving as it is of explaining, I was struck by the probable history behind such a question.
Most of the people who are looking for help and healing have one major thing in common: They’re longing for a solid sense of connection. Common questions in therapy touch on this:
- How can I hang onto who I am when I feel criticized?
- Why don’t I have better, deeper, richer relationships?
- Do other people experience what I’m talking about? Do I make sense?
- I keep ending up in the same relationship patterns — I keep becoming the caretaker, or getting too needy, or ending relationships or having people fade away: What the heck is going on?
- How do I come to feel worthy of love and connection?
- How do I keep an open heart without being taken advantage of?
- How can I depend on other people when I’ve had to depend on myself my whole life?
- Why do I get so anxious around other people? Will this ever stop?
Group therapy offers you powerful answers to these questions and more, in the form of experiences. In group, people come together on purpose, and they work together to build a sense of connection. In the kind of group I lead, you’re welcome to show up with your struggles, your yearnings, and your fears. The group helps you to put this stuff out there, and to be heard and responded to with genuineness and warmth.
What is apparent competence?
You just got home from work. You’ve put in a full day of bubbly interaction. You have gotten stuff done, and you’ve done it well! You are truly competent at your job, and your skills are real. They matter. And yet, you feel like a fraud. No one has any idea how much you’re struggling. Your despair is just beneath the surface, threatening to overwhelm you.
Your partner says, “How are you?” And you respond, “Ah, just a little stressed.” You put your characteristic smile in place, and you trudge through the evening. Are you in despair? Loads. Do you feel like you’ve asked for help? Maybe. If you said you were stressed, you may have hoped that your partner would pick up on how you felt.
Is your depression trying to tell you something important?
In this post, I’ll list 4 different things your depression may be trying to tell you. Maybe one will resonate. Maybe all of them will!
1. You need more connection.
We all need connection. We need to feel like we’re seen; we’re heard;we belong. When these needs aren’t met, we suffer. When we’re abandoned or betrayed, we can shut down too. (For more detail on this, see my post on abandonment depression.)If these needs don’t get met for a long time and you don’t know how to get them met or if you ever will, you may start to withdraw, to be passive, to quit trying. It’s painful to feel rejected and left out. A person who is suffering with depression may find that it’s simpler to isolate, to quit trying, than it is to keep trying to connect and to feel like it won’t work. But your depression could be signaling you about the importance of connection in your life. It may be telling you that it’s time to reach out for help.
Pete Walker, author of “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving,” has eloquently put into words what many clients with complex trauma feel deeply but can’t always put words to.
Emotional flashbacks to abandonment
Someone I’ve worked with used to call this abandonment depression “psychic death.” She described a place she went inside where no one was there for her. When she reached out for help, it was tinged with hopelessness and a “why even try.” She needed connection. But her body and her mind were already preparing for prolonged shut down. She was in a flashback to early childhood or to babyhood, when care from the people around her was not at all certain.
My transgender clients have often been very articulate as they navigate the ups and downs, the joy and the confusion and the sudden “click” — of putting words to realities that have sometimes been buried somewhere within them for years.
Sometimes, clients come to me well after they’ve begun their transition. They’ve already done mammoth amounts of research. They know who they are, or they’re comfortable with knowing that they don’t entirely know, but they can point out where they feel they identify on a spectrum, or even explain why they find the spectrum itself too confining. They know the language around this stuff, have explored their feelings and thoughts in depth, and will talk readily about it if given an opening.
A client walks into my office. She sits down, hunched over. Her face is pale. Her hands shake.
I say hi, and she says hello robotically almost, a fake smile covering her face. Then she looks down, away. Then stares at me, trying to keep eye contact. She’s heard, after all, that it’s only polite.
Her issues? They vary. People with the “connection survival style,” a phrase coined by Laurence Heller, often talk about a feeling of emptiness, and say, “I want to find out who I am.” Sometimes, they pride themselves on not needing anyone, but they are starting to feel twinges of longing, or they’re starting to develop a close relationship. Their sense of longing is becoming a fear, too, of being too much. Of losing their independence. Often, it’s a fear too old, too primal, to put into words.
You ever had a counselor who echoed whatever you said? You said, “I’ve had a hard week.” And he said, “You had a hard week, huh?”
Or if he was a creative echoer, maybe he changed it up a little from time to time. You’d say, “I had a hard week.” And he’d say, “So your week was difficult.”
Empathic, kind, caring listening can heal. But when a counselor just echoes you, you often can’t really tell if they’re really hearing you. Anyone can echo words back. It’s a game we learn to play as kids to infuriate our siblings, in fact! Remember this?
Social anxiety can be agonizing. It’s awkward! It’s hard to talk about. It makes you feel like you’re forever on the outside. It’s adrenalizing, but with no clear actions to take. And it’s exhausting as well.
- Are you a professional that loves your job, but dreads lunch time or meetings with your coworkers?
- Are you terrified when someone approaches you to talk?
- Do you freeze up in conversations, and only later come up with what you wish you would have said?
- Are you overly agreeable with people, forgetting what you think and feel because your social anxiety takes over and makes you forget your thoughts?
- Do you go to social events, and then spend hours later wondering how you came across, cringing at something awkward you may have said or done?
- Or do you try to nerve yourself up to go to a party or out with friends, but your anxiety won’t let you?
- You know that, in order to have the relationships you want, you need to leave your house sometimes—but you’re scared, or suddenly so tired, or so wired, that it’s just too hard to get out.
- You know that people like you pretty well, most of the time—but your worry gets in the way of you really feeling that.
- You know you’d be happier if you could be around people without being so overwhelmed—but you haven’t found a way to do that.
- You’re stuck in a habit of fear, pain, short-term relief when you avoid social situations—but longing for something more.
- You see statuses of friends of yours on Facebook, and you notice groups of friends together, people out doing adventures you wouldn’t dare dream of—and you feel that old ache. You’re isolated.
Social anxiety does that. It’s isolating. It’s often connected to a feeling of shame — that somehow, there’s something indefinably wrong with you. This shame goes hand in hand with a fear of rejection. It eats away at your real connections. It makes you feel alone. It makes you STAY alone, perpetuating the feeling of aloneness.
Here’s a quick way to ease dissociation, derealization, and anxiety. It’s the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, and I’ll walk you through it step by step: